What happens next?

November 26, 2010
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In a world not short of bad news, I try to focus on the good. In doing so, I’ve become alert to a tendency that we all share: we expect the future to unfold as a magnified or extrapolated copy of the present. We expect that the next big thing will be a bigger version of the last big thing. What we don’t expect, yet what is most likely, is that the next big thing won’t look important to us at all—until it’s so important that we can’t ignore it.

The film The Social Network features an unusual hero: a nerdy code-writer possibly on the autistic spectrum who invents a communication tool which, within a half decade, is being used by almost 10 per cent of the earth’s population. Perhaps those of us who imagine revolutions were waiting for the next Che Guevara or Gandhi, but we got Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Are online social networks really a revolution? When 600m people use them, yes.

I was talking to the writer Paul Morley recently about the music form called Dubstep. “At last,” he said, “I’ve heard a form of music I really don’t understand. I don’t understand who makes it, why they’re doing it, and who’s listening to it. That’s what I’ve been waiting for.”

The revolutions of the future will appear in forms we don’t even recognise—in a language we can’t read. We will be looking out for twists on the old themes but not noticing that there are whole new conversations taking place. Just imagine if all the things about which we now get so heated meant nothing to those who follow us—as mysteriously irrelevant as the nuanced distinctions between anarcho-syndicalism and communist anarchism. At least we can hope for that. As the cybernetician Stafford Beer once said to me: “If we can understand our children, we’re all screwed.” So revel in your mystification and read it as a sign of a healthy future. Whatever happens next, it won’t be what you expected. If it is what you expected, it isn’t what’s happening next.