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The Year Ahead: The Future, It's Complicated!

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, January 9 2012

We're closing out this symposium on The Year Ahead with an array of contributors who took our question and pushed back. Asked "If 2011 was a year of tumult fueled, in part, by our growing ability to network, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the year ahead--and why?" this group refused to be bottled in.

As you will see from reading what Dominic Campbell, Peter Corbett, Susan Crawford, Dan Gillmor, Gideon Lichfield, Eli Pariser, Mark Pesce, Marko Rakar, Douglas Rushkoff, and Daniel Sieradski had to say, life in the mix of ups and downs that was 2011 strongly colors how they see the future. They are telling us, "Yes, networking is fueling a massive wave of protest and change, but look who is still in charge. Why aren't smarter, more net-savvy people? How do we focus on what is most important and avoid the distractions of the shiny new baubles our peers keep producing and playing with?"

Their answers, along with those of the "optimists" and "pessimists" who we featured earlier, are well worth pondering. And once you have, please chime with your own thoughts in the comments thread below.


Dominic Campbell, Founder, FutureGov
I'm optimistic and pessimistic and confused about where democracy is at and how I can fix it - and here's my thoughts on the what and why, which I posted on my personal blog in December and am resharing here.

(This is my brain on a page so don’t expect neat answers. You should know as well as I do by now that’s not how things go. So take it in the spirit it’s intended.)

I’m struggling. And frustratingly why I’m struggling are matters way out of my control. It’s them lot that are doing my head in right now. You know, the people sent here to Represent us. Them, the political class. They are really and truly getting on my tits and worst of all I have no way of making a difference. Influencing them. Letting them know. No way of changing things. No way of asking them, politely, if they would please stop fucking with my country. A country, or in fact more a collection of peoples, I never realised quite how much I cared for until that lot starting messing with us (I guess that’s a silver lining though right?).

I’m not sure if it is with the end of the year approaching, this madness with Europe, or what exactly, but I appear to have reached my final straw. What I do know is that I’m deeply sad and struggling to deal right now.
Ridiculous huh? Why waste my time and energy thinking about such things you say. Why not just ignore them and let them go to hell while we get on and try and keep our lives on the road. Focus on what you can control. Laugh at their idiocy. And I know you’re right. But...

Perhaps I lack the coping strategies needed to survive this madness. My whole life has been defined by relative stability. Stable (wonderful) family. Stable education. Stable jobs. All set to a backdrop of *relatively* stable politics who took running the country seriously and understood the need not to fuck over its people too much for fear of revolt (NB yes I bear a major grudge against Blair and his wars and others with their issues before him, but equally I am grateful for growing up in relatively sane times).
But these are not sane times. And for reasons far beyond the control of any single politician in all fairness I know.

But more and more I’m starting to feel like I’m living a perpetual One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest/Groundhog Day (to mix my movie metaphors). Moments where you're not sure who precisely is mad - is it me or is it these people. These people who claim to be looking after us, looking after our best interests. Our national interests. But who are these people? Where do they come from? I don’t know people like these in real life, these people sent to “represent” us. And I happen to know a lot of people and this is not my country. These are not our people. Yet how are they somehow in charge of decisions that, everyday, are irreparably fucking with the future of our country.

And this isn’t a party political point. I am clearer now than ever that my beliefs are not represented in this polarised big P political space right now.

And what are those beliefs you ask? (it’s ok if you don’t care less) I guess I’m what would be sometimes be typecast as a liberal lefty. But that doesn’t do me justice. These labels are far too one dimensional and don’t truly capture what’s in our hearts. I’m sure I’m not *that* unusual in thinking this. That I don’t belong, don’t need to belong, to a tribe.

What I do know is that I believe in a role for the state, a state that has a moral obligation to use our taxes as efficiently and effectively as possible to support us to provide for ourselves and above all provide for those that need our collective support. A state that also protects our civil liberties and freedoms of expression.

So what does that make me? A lefty Tory? A liberal Labour type? A Lib Dem?? None of these things mean anything to me.

Sure I helped out on the last Labour campaign as the party most closely aligned to my beliefs (well I say that, but probably the party I’ve grown up closest to in my family but in all honesty they mostly no better represent me than any other, or at best marginally so). But even then I only joined the party the day after the 2010 election as a protest membership and now, just over a year on, I am trying to break those ties as I have lost faith in them as I have any other party politics.

(now if I could only get a reply from the Labour Party on how I unsubscribe, but no-one is replying to the bloody email I sent them the other day. All help appreciated on that one...)

What I see more clearly than ever is that the system is broken. These people don't represent us. More than that, they don't reflect us. They are not in our image, and therefore not able to speak on our behalf. They are only capable of spewing whatever first comes out of their power addled brains distorted by corrupting compromises and relationships with economic elites.

I mean, would a man keen to represent the people he serves, a man who lost his child to a disability, be capable of halving support to thousands of families facing the same plight while signing off on policy after policy that support millionaires to continue to thrive unaffected by the crisis many of them were in no small part a contributing factor in?

Would a party keen to represent the interests of the squeezed middle continue without policies waiting for the opposition to fall on its own sword, without proposing its own line on how it would act differently to protect the people it claims to represent?

Would a party keen to represent its supporters’ views compromise time and time again on its key values and policies with little in return, a party more concerned with how they are represented on nightly news than delivering on their promises? Is that all we’ve got? Is that how our futures are being determined now at this time of madness?

Rest assured, we are not the mad ones. We're not. I'm sure of that now. I think. I mean I am confused. About how we got here. About where we go from here. About who what when where and why. About how we fix this.

Shit. I knew I’d reach the end of this without having anything meaningful to say.

So here I am shouting in the dark....

Peter Corbett, CEO of iStrategyLabs
Perhaps this is a simple question but in order to answer correctly there are really three answers - a gauge of my optimism or pessimism on a Personal, National (US) and International level.

As far as Personal: this year will be better than last. My company will continue to grow (we hired 10 people last year) and we will likely employ an additional 10 people by the end of 2012 bringing us to 25 full time. The more I become a ‘job creator’ the more I wonder why politicians think they are. While I support Obama, almost nothing the administration has done has positively or negatively affected my business. The only exception is this year I’ll get some tax breaks as a result of the healthcare law, as well as for being able to write off capital expenditures faster. Those tax breaks are a drop in the bucket. With the amount of tax I paid in 2010 I could have hired 5 human beings in 2011. If you want to stimulate the economy, let me keep more of my money so I can invest it in people to grow my business.

From a National point of view: I think things are looking up for the economy. I think we’ll see a solid 3% annual GDP growth this year - with a potential surprise up to 4%. There’s a real chance unemployment will dip below 8% by November - if that happens Obama might be a shoe-in for reelection. I do think he’ll be reelected - but I’m not confident in Congress’s ability to do anything worthwhile. I’m a bit more pessimistic about the long term prospects of America due to our declining quality of education, ineffective immigration policies, ineffective political leadership and ridiculous foreign escapades that leave our treasury drained, and our soft powered nullified. Perhaps Obama’s second term can be full of incredibly bold action that we all been waiting for. In 2011 I visited a dozen countries including Egypt, India and Tanzania - I’m reminded that I’m lucky to be an American and won’t forget it this year as the rest of the world faces headwinds and infrastructure issues we don’t have.

Lastly, my International outlook: Things are bad and getting worse. Egypt is descending into chaos an Greece will fail - again. Italy is safe for now, but not that safe. Spain and Portugal are two debt filled shoes waiting to drop. What about Pakistan? Pakistan alone is a nightmare - we’re allied with a country that hates us and is killing our soldiers every day through terrorist proxies. And Afghanistan? Can we just leave now please? What a waste of blood and treasure. There’s no way to win. There’s nothing but more carnage. Iraq? Forget it - Iraq is going to be a civil war torn country for the next 10 years until someone installs a new dictator - and/or Iran decides to just take over and run the place. China and India are slowing down and are about to experience significant internal social upheaval as their economic miracles wind down from near 10% GDP grown to less than 5% - India is already down to 7.5% GDP growth which is considered sluggish for them and would be a windfall for the US or the EU. Throw in a bunch of natural disasters and a few unanticipated terrorist attacks and 2012 starts looking pretty dicey around the world.

What of our social technology strides that have aided so much change this past year? It’s likely to continue helping to breakdown institutions and vestiges of longstanding power structures. The question in 2012 is, can social technology help build the civilization we’ll live in in the future, or is it only useful for breaking down the present? We’ll just have to wait and see how much creation comes out of this destruction.

Susan Crawford, Visiting professor, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School (2012)
I'm optimistic by nature, and 2012 finds me feeling that the energy and chaos of last year will continue. In a good way.

I'm particularly interested in what's happening in Russia; if young people there are fed up with Mr. Putin, that has to be the focus of interesting developments this coming year.

At the same time, I'm concerned that all of the tumult is too little, too unfocused, too late, too ineffective. The levers of power - of the allocation of resources - are in the hands of people and industries that have short-term perspectives.

I sound a little crazy to myself saying that, but I am increasingly worried that we are - all of us - the subjects of intense and effective attention-diversion: While we're paying attention to the latest outdoor political rally, icebergs are melting into the sea and the health impacts of global warming are soaring. Human dignity is being sapped, even in nations (like our own) that might have been committed to baseline conditions that helped human flourishing. It takes time and a long-term, historical view to understand why these slowly-moving events are so destructive to humankind.

This attention-diversion isn't necessarily the focus of a particular person or group, but it's in the interests of a lot of persons and groups that it occur So: I'd be even more optimistic if I believed that people were capable of looking away from bright, shiny objects.

Dan Gillmor,
I'm deeply pessimistic in the short term, but cautiously optimistic in the long term.

All of my work in the past decade (and more) has been about tapping the power of networks -- the tools of communication and collaboration that have helped transform so much of our lives. The possibilities have never been greater.

But despite the impressive moves toward democratic self-rule in some parts of the world, powerful forces in our societies are working harder than ever to bring these networks firmly under their control, to create a series of choke points that will force the rest of us to get their permission to communicate and innovate. I'm sorry to say that they are winning, at least for now.

Yes, some dictators have fallen, in part due to smart use of communications technology. The remaining ones, as well as elected officials in the rest of the world, are learning how to use these technologies to control, or at least spy on, their populations. And, collaborating with wealthy interests, they are passing laws designed to curb our ability to get the most from these tools.

Legislation like the odious "Stop Online Piracy Act" is just one example. This bill, or something like it, seems destined to be enacted in 2012, because the Copyright Cartel and its allies essentially own Congress. This attack on free speech and innovation -- and on fundamental Internet infrastructure -- is not going to stop, because the attackers are determined to destroy what makes the Internet useful if they can't control it.

Congress, meanwhile, goes along with more and more sweeping assertions of executive authority -- to the point of enacting laws that essentially codify a president's right to imprison and even execute anyone, including Americans, without due process. Democrats who pretended to believe in civil liberties when George W. Bush was president are supportive or silent when Obama does even worse damage. Under recent presidents and Congresses, the Bill of Rights (apart from the 2nd Amendment) is becoming a mirage.

My optimism stems from the possibilities of technology to provide countermeasures to control, and from people's better instincts. Successful countermeasures will not be easy to achieve, as we've already seen in places like China. There will be countless victims of unjust laws in coming years as people work to reassert their own freedoms to speak and act.

But the forces of free speech and liberty will prevail, I believe, in part because people who have not focused on these issues will discover at some point what we all are losing. The power of a politically aroused public is, in the end, the closest thing to an irresistible force that humanity has seen.

Gideon Lichfield, The Economist
At the very least, 2012 will feel less exciting than 2011. We've had a year full of unprecedented events, which can be unprecedented only once. Only the most fragile regimes in the Middle East have toppled; in the rest, repression will continue, often brutal. In America, Occupy will lose steam as a national movement; in Europe, the unemployment protests may revive as the euro crisis bites, but people may also be too busy just coping. The demonstrations in Russia are exciting, but still look far too weak to achieve real change. Whatever your view of the Wikileaks data dump, there is unlikely to be another on that scale. And everywhere, governments caught with their pants down in 2011 have learned lessons and will be applying them to dampen protest, tighten secrecy and broaden surveillance. I see 2011 as the 1968 of this generation -- and as we all know, there wasn't a 1969.

So there will be some quiescence and regrouping. But I'm cautiously optimistic about it. The movements that this year only just discovered the raw power that networking can put in their hands will be learning better ways to tame and channel it. Where some - the original Tahrir protestors, for instance - may find they have lost direction or momentum, others will pick up and learn; likewise, where Wikileaks overreached, other leak platforms will be smarter. Activists will always be in an organisational, strategic and tactical arms race with governments; but there is a lot that other activists and right-thinking businesses can do to help them stay one step ahead.

My main reason for optimism, though, is this: I think the great strength of networked movements is that the network is bigger than the movements. The movements come and go, but the network remains, growing stronger and wider each time. Because of the network, the movements can learn from each other's successes and failures, in a way that their non-networked predecessors never could.

Eli Pariser, author, The Filter Bubble; New Mysterious Venture
I'm really not much of a Gramsci-quoter, but this one has always stuck with me: "Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will."

In the US, anyway, lot of the indicators point in a negative direction in 2012 -- both for our society and for our ability to network itself (see, e.g., SOPA.)

And yet... if the networking of the world has done anything, it's increased the speed and volatility of change. Which means that things that currently seem impossible (both bad and good) are more possible than they appear. In my heart, I'm rooting for the upside.

(There's an irony here: even as data-driven prediction becomes a big piece of how we think about and see the world, the world itself becomes harder to predict.)

Short version: I predict unpredictability, and hope for the best.

Mark Pesce, Honorary Associate, Digital Cultures Program, University of Sydney
“Gunfire in Tahrir Square.”

Someone gets hit, bleeds to death quietly amidst onlookers. Half a world away, in a nation whose biggest complaint is the distinctly un-summery weather, I sip a decaf soy latte, pop in my earbuds, spin up some tunes, and read all about it.

The human voice, even when typed furtively into a mobile, possesses a clarity and authenticity that transcends the excitable monotones of Al Jazeera, the wry ennui of The Guardian, even the stern pronouncements of the Foreign Minister.

“People are dying on my timeline.”

Caught between the embodied moment in this cafe, and the scene playing out for real in Egypt, how do I respond? Do I light myself on fire, storm a consulate, or just hit the refresh button?

The cynics of 2011 poke at this gap between observation and action and pronounce all of it meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Utopians claim observation is all that matters: when the whole world is watching something must change.

“I don't know if he is dead. But he lost a lot of blood.”

Both sides of this argument meet in a single image, perhaps the defining photograph in a year that seemed to offer another all-new Grand Guignol every day, bodies and debris piled high enough to desensitize anyone. Yet, when a campus police officer calmly and methodically sprayed a group of utterly non-violent students at the University of California, Davis with military-grade capsicum, all of the cynicism of observation evaporated.

In the few moments it took that image to make its way around the world, passed from electronic hand to electronic hand, propelled by its absolute clarity, we discovered something solid within ourselves -- briefly. Before the arguments, pro and con, on the pepper-spraying of children, bifurcated endlessly into background noise.

The mad freakshow of 2011 has shown us every aspect of human nature: captured, shared, appropriated, remixed, amplified and broadcast. The first fruit of a hyperconnected civilization is a rising tide of chaos.

“Mohammad Mostafa el-Sayyed Hassan, the name of the guy who was shot.”

Seven billion people. Six billion mobiles. This is what a planetary mind - a noosphere - looks like. Bad news travel fast. Gunshots move at the speed of light, bullets striking bodies, energy hitting minds throughout the world, producing a chain reaction. Fukushima wasn’t the only meltdown in 2011, just the most obvious.

“The field hospital is crazy. Everybody’s tensed up.”

Anyone in power - everyone in power - possessed by a fully-justified paranoia, waits for the next body blow, another revelation amplifying systemic instabilities, stands frozen in place, praying it will all just come to a quiet end.

Put that thought aside: we’ve only barely begun.

This was the year of learning. Each moment, captured and shared, an element within a picture building to an overall whole: Who we are. How we got here. Tying actions to consequences. Tying consequences to actions.

All the world’s a giant laboratory, with six billion simultaneous experiments in the plasticity of culture. How far can we push things before they break? Press this button and watch the result: pepper spray, tear gas, water cannon, bullets. Flip that lever: governments collapse, institutions implode, one percenters tremble.

“Everybody here wants an armed insurrection.”

Having run our collective fingers along the outer boundaries of our civilisation, we know the shape of things, and have a fair idea of our place within the world system. We are dissatisfied. The next twelve months must inevitably see that dissatisfaction take form, as everything learned becomes the foundation for a practiced, methodical dismantling of the only culture we have ever known.

“A lot of people were shot in the back trying to run and avoid getting shot.”

All of this seems so distant from my Sydney cafe, literally worlds away. Yet we are the ‘smartphone nation’, well-connected and fully informed. Everything that looks calm today can change, in just a few minutes’ time, into something very different. We have not reached that moment which moves us into action. We’ve been too lucky -- but luck should never be confused with contentment. We lack only a target -- but we are looking for a target.

“They are shooting again. Lots of automatic gunfire.”

Marko Rakar,
If the 2011 was the year of change (fueled by the Internet), then 2012 could be a year of consequences! We all knew from the very beginning that the (nternet is a powerful thing (whatever it truly is), that it will change rapidly and our understanding of what it is will change rapidly in the years to come. It became painfully obvious that Internet will change the way we perceive the world and how we connect and interact with each other.

The Internet's capacity to change our lives is far from over but with 2011 we are able to see real consequences on our societies and governments. So in the 2012 we are going to start facing the consequences.

I believe that governments are slowly realizing potential of internet not only for social change, but also as a disrupting or organizing tool of and for the masses. In the months and years ahead we will see attempts in trying to regulate or control the Internet much more then we have seen in the past.

What we desperately need to do is to recruit and send as many "internet generation" people into the ranks of politicians and elected officials so they are able to translate and explain what all this change means for our world, countries, our political elite. They need to explain what the new world order will look like and how our leaders can take advantage of the Internet in order to build a better and more fair world for all.

Douglas Rushkoff, author and media theorist
I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the year ahead. It's way too small a time period for me to look at as more than a little blip one way or the other. I am trying to stay in the moment.

We are, indeed, witnessing many great networking things happening around the globe. Some of them will work, some of them won't. The thing that is so different is that they are local and regional in essence; these are not global movements, but many local ones, each defined by their own cultures and situations.

Depending on how and where you zoom in, you get a hopeful or depressing picture. I'm not hopeful about Darfur. I am hopeful about Syria. I get hopeful about Egypt, and then less so. And all the ups and downs and back and forths then end up having too much influence on me and my mood and my effectiveness.

So I try to keep my head down and keep fighting the good fight - or if not fighting, exactly, promoting the ways up and out. We may not see things get better in our time, and can't let moments when things are seeming to get worse disparage us.

Daniel Sieradski, Occupy Judaism
I'm optipessimistic, which is to say, I'm a bit of both.

I'm pessimistic because our government is continuing to pursue and implement regressive laws like the indefinite detention clause of the NDAA and the censorious and creativity-stifling SOPA. I'm pessimistic that our government will not do anything at all to stem the tide of climate change, which will be our undoing as a species, and that it will instead bend over backwards to enable even more environmental devastation while preparing FEMA camps for climate refugees. I'm pessimistic about the income equality gap and this second Gilded Age in which we are now living, as I see no abatement of the widening of this gulf in sight and instead see us stratifying into a neo-serf society. And I'm pessimistic that, because he is a miserable failure as a leader and wholly morally compromised, that Barack Obama can't possibly mobilize the progressive vote and in the end we will wind up with yet another by-and-for-the-one-percent GOPer in the Oval Office who will make all of the above even worse.

On the other hand, I am optimistic that the worse things get, the greater the potential for pushback. I am optimistic that the world's youth are rising up and figuring out strategic nonviolence. I am optimistic that Occupy Wall Street and similar movements will continue to arise to challenge the dystopian now and will continue to reiterate themselves into more tactically effective forms until they break through to the mainstream. I am optimistic that alternative models – diets, lifestyles, communities, currencies and energies – are emerging and gaining traction. I am optimistic that the human spirit is unbreakable. And I am optimistic that when the world starts looking like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, as I fear it will, that the Ron Paul-voting white militias won't be the only ones to survive.