Mar 27, 2020

A futurist on navigating change forced by the pandemic: fight the fear

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And while we wait for a COVID-19 vaccine, let's figure out how to make more face masks, she says.

In this particular moment, in the midst of a worldwide shutdown due to the novel coronavirus, it is a little bit hard to imagine the future. It’s a natural instinct — we’re worried and scared and trying to get by day by day. That’s OK, but there are people out there whose job it is to imagine how this crisis will shape our future. This may be a pivot point for societies and businesses and technology. 

In this second part of my conversation with futurist Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute, I started by asking how technology development might suddenly change. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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Amy Webb. (Rich Polk/Getty Images for Xandr)

Amy Webb: Let’s acknowledge the disruption and accept the fact that the future is going to be on a path that was different than we previously envisioned. We’re going to see a ton of investment in artificial intelligence in the area of speeding scientific discovery and mining huge amounts of crowd-based data. We’re going to see huge shifts in investment in areas like genomics and synthetic biology. If you work at all with supply chain robotics, 5G, we’re going to see inflections there, as well. You’re going to be OK on the other side of this. It’s everybody who digs their heels into the ground and says, “I want things to be the way that they were before.”

Molly Wood: What does it take to get that type of thinking to win versus the fear response?

Webb: I think I have an answer for that question. That is, it takes an intervention that only each individual person can do on their own. We’ve all suffered at one time or another from some kind of anxiety or panic, everybody’s gone through that. The analogy that I like to use is driving a car in a slippery road. Anybody who’s ever driven in slippery conditions knows that if you start to slide, if you slam on the brakes, you’re going to spin out of control. That’s the thing that you don’t do. Even though, in that situation, that’s the No. 1 thing your body wants you to do. Think about why — it’s because we think that we can control the impact and every single thing that happens next. If I slam on the brakes, my car will stop, right? But this is one of those times when you are no longer in control, none of us are — of every single thing that’s happening. There are too many externalities. If we try to slam on the brakes, we’re not going to help the problem. What we are taught to do in a situation like that is to steer into the slide as it’s happening. That feels weird, but what it allows us to do is to slow time down a little bit so that we can make incremental decisions. Right now, we are all dealing with a soul-crushing amount of uncertainty. What everybody wants is to know exactly what’s going to happen next. I cannot tell you exactly what’s going to happen next. I can tell you that if we continue to allow our limbic systems to take hold of us, and we are allowing fear to take hold, and our limbic systems keep firing the way that they are, that’s basically the equivalent to slamming on the brakes. We’re going to make bad decisions after bad decisions, [but] the better thing to do is to try to somehow slow ourselves down and to change the expectations. The way that we would do that, as futurists, is simply by using frameworks to think through this differently. A futurist would lean into uncertainty, even though it’s scary, and try to think through what the implications of this could be, and to imagine the unimaginable. Imagining the unimaginable is both a way of thinking through existential risk, but also incredible opportunity.

Wood: One example of that, you had this great thread, where you basically demanded that the tech industry figure out how to make better masks faster.

Webb: That’s right. A vaccine is a solution — and we obviously should continue to put resources to that. But as we are doing that, couldn’t we put the full might of human ingenuity to alleviating some of the situation that we’re in right now? It seems to me like while we are waiting for a vaccine, couldn’t we design systems to help us get through this? For God’s sake, we put people on the moon. I absolutely refuse to believe that somebody out there can’t figure out some kind of mask that would allow us to resume some parts of our everyday life. If only we allowed ourselves to think bolder and bigger, what could we be doing to help solve this problem?

Wood: What are we going to stop worrying so much about in the tech world, specifically?

Webb: I have an answer, but it’s not one that you’re going to like. I think privacy goes away. I completely understand the need to access our location data to try to get ahead of where the next community outbreak and spread is going to be. That being said, we don’t have a plan in place for what it means to give a significant amount of access to our personal data, not just to tech companies, but to third parties, to the federal government, to others. I think we are staring at the end of privacy in the face.

Jonathan Cano, a volunteer member of Coronavirus Makers, uses a 3D printer to make a face shield at his home in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain. It’s part of the fight against the spread of coronavirus. (Desiree Martin/AFP via Getty Images)

Also watching

On the topic of the fast-approaching end of privacy, Slovakia is the latest country to pass a law letting it use cell phone location data to track people who have the novel coronavirus and make sure they are following quarantine rules. Citizens flipped out over it, and the government swears it’ll be very limited data collection. 

Europe, in general, is trying to figure out what line to walk in terms of privacy and health tracking. Here in the U.S., a company called Unacast just helpfully went ahead and put out a map using location data to show which states have locked down movement the most and gave everyone a grade. It’s an F for privacy, that’s for sure. The data was collected using something called an advertiser ID, which is literally baked into every smartphone and turned on by default. 

Finally, a bit of weird circular economic e-commerce news. I told you earlier this week how Amazon is prioritizing delivering essential supplies in the U.S. and Europe, and that’s really hurting its smaller third-party sellers because many of them rely on Amazon for almost all their business. Well, Amazon is also in the financial services game and has actually given many of those small sellers loans, ranging from $1,000 to $750,000.

Yesterday, Amazon said it will pause repayment of those loans and won’t charge any interest between now and April 30. I know Amazon is huge, but maybe, as part of the great reset, companies that rely on Amazon to fund their businesses — and also be the sole distribution outlet for their businesses — may consider a little diversification after this.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer