I used to read almost exclusively nonfiction. I wanted to be educated, but I was also looking for ways that I — as only one person with relatively little power — could help make a positive difference in all the problems I saw around me. I’ve since revised my thinking that any single individual can solve society’s problems. Not only is that impossible but it reinforces the idea that we are all equally responsible for the mess humanity is in, which we are not. Instead, I wanted a way to contribute to turning some of our biggest troubles around. What I’d begun to find in one nonfiction book after another, though, was a couple hundred pages of eloquent exposition on this or that specific problem, complete with statistics, graphs, data and an epilogue, at most 12 pages, outlining vague platitudes the author had mistaken for solutions. I had gotten to the end of well-researched warnings about how dark and unlivable our future is going to be if we don’t “come together” and “turn things around” within a “very small but bright window” of opportunity and all I’d acquired was more fear with very little helpful direction. I was all freaked out with nowhere to go.
So I picked up Andrew Keen’s “How To Fix The Future” hoping that this would be a different experience, giving book-length nonfiction one last shot at redemption. After all, a “how-to” guide to fixing something rather than a detailed tour of the grisly gloom just around the corner for us all was just what I was looking for. And, if I were the wealthy owner of one of the big tech companies of the world today, or a tech entrepreneur or a regulator or lawmaker, an educator or a child, I might have found it. But I’m not any of those things, so I didn’t. In fact, until the very end, I’d never read a nonfiction book that had made me (someone who struggles to work well with computers, who never did well in any stem field and whose big dream in life is to be a novelist) feel so useless and irrelevant to the future.
Many of the suggestions for how others could fix the future — others whom I had not even sixth-degree contact with and thus couldn’t influence in any way — struck me as ineffective. Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t the intended audience for Keen’s work. I learned some very interesting tidbits of information — such as, “Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, discouraged his kids from using an iPad or iPhone” — and now I have more direction on how to pressure my political representatives.
I think that Keen’s failure to challenge capitalism as a sustainable economic model renders his thinking fundamentally inadequate to the challenges our world faces. Just a couple examples: Keen asserts that there is no innovation with regulation and he’s probably right about that, but only because we have an otherwise winner-take-(or-steal-or-plunder-or-claim-legally-or-otherwise)-all system built to pursue short-term profit at every possible cost. Keen presents universal basic income as an urgent fix to the coming mass unemployment due to automation; he doesn’t adequately address where this money will come from. “The government” may not even be a clear enough answer for countries with benevolent, stable ones, but that doesn’t currently include ours. Why isn’t he, or any other proponent of universal basic income, challenging capitalism’s lethal link between money and life?
The one consolation I took from Keen’s work is that he didn’t leave creatives wondering where they’d fit in the future: One of his interviewees, one of America’s most respected writers on the human cost of the digital revolution, basically said that the people who will have jobs in the future are people who can do things machines won’t be able to do — which won’t be things like coding or data analysis. Not only that, but if, as Keen argues, technology is pushing the question of “What are humans good for?” to the existential forefront, then there really are no better people to answer than painters and poets and potters.
Megan Wildhood is a contributing writer for Real Change, advocate in the mental health community, published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
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