The Interview: Mal Fletcher on these Fascinating Times

Mal Fletcher is a social futurist and commentator who heads London-based international think tank 2020Plus. A regular commentator for Sight magazine, he speaks with DAVID ADAMS about his latest book - a collection of essays called Fascinating Times...


DA: Firstly, can you tell us a little about why you decided to publish the essays as an e-book?

MF: 2020Plus decided to publish Fascinating Times as an e-book firstly because I’m privileged to have readers in various corners of the world. The e-book format – and the Kindle platform in particular – allows for a fairly global reach. It’s also accessible on a wide variety of digital gadgets; you don’t need to own an e-reader to download it. We offer free software via our website so that people can read the book on almost all digital devices – phones, tablets, PCs, Macs, e-readers and more. E-books are also cost effective for the reader and they’re environmentally friendly.

There’s also the immediacy of the content to consider. With social commentary, immediacy is vital. At its best, I think, social commentary does two things. It holds up a mirror for society, reflecting its values, based on current events. And it presents a worldview, a construct of thought and values, which helps people to respond to current events. Social commentary loses its edge when it’s divorced from immediate events – it becomes history rather than social commentary. Although good e-books go through much the same editorial and polishing process as any other book – this one certainly did – they allow for a faster turn-around. So the reader has an up-to-date commentary, with editorials written close to the events they describe. I think this adds value in terms of answering the question: ‘What comes next – and how might we deal with that?’

DA: Many of the essays in your latest book are concerned with questions which have been raised thanks to the advent of new and emerging technologies. Are we seeing new ethical dilemmas created as a result of technology or are these essentially the same questions mankind has always struggled with?

MF: The study of ethics is primarily concerned with two questions: What is the right thing to do? How do I apply that in any given situation? Our ethical positions are very closely tied to our sense of morality – both individually and collectively, as a society. In a sense, ethics is applied morality.

 Arguably the really big tenets of human morality have remained much the same across differences in time and culture. In that sense, the ethical questions we face today are similar to those shared by people thousands of years ago. In fact, when we discuss ethics we still often call up the ideas of people like Plato and Aristotle.

In some ways, though, today’s technologies – and, more specifically, the rate at which they’re emerging – throw up some unprecedented challenges. Technology is amoral; it is neither good nor evil in and of itself. Debates about morality and ethics only arise when we start deciding how we’re going to use a certain technology. Today, debates about the ethical use of one technology hardly have time to get off the ground before a new technique arises.

We’re constantly in danger of falling for what I call in the book ‘ultra-pragmatism’, which basically says, ‘If you can do something, you should do it.’ That’s particularly challenging when you’re dealing with powerful technologies that impact on the very nature of the human being itself – as with certain genetic applications.

The bottom line is that the basic rules about ethics probably don’t change all that much. But the opportunity to think through how they’re applied is shrinking as technological development speeds up. Obviously, this means we need to have a clearer focus on basic ethical tenets than ever before (which is unfortunate, given that we arguably live in an age of political correctness and fuzzy morality).

DA: One of the issues governments face in dealing with questions raised by new technology is that often these questions don't emerge until some time after its introduction. Do you think governments need to get better at assessing the impact of new technologies in a pro-active, rather than a reactive, sense?

MF: First, I need to mention something I emphasise in Fascinating Times: governments can’t solve every problem. Not all solutions to social problems will be political ones. Expecting governments to solve every problem is tantamount to giving them much more power than they ought to have.

How technologies should be used is a question for all of society to answer. Science alone can’t answer the ethical questions – and a great many top-level scientists agree.

We will need to find ways of getting constant input from all of the major spheres of influence in society. Science, education, the courts, politics and religion will all need to be consulted. (The media aren’t included here simply because they would likely be the means through which some of the debate happens.) When it comes to how we use any powerful new technology, we don’t need just one debate, but an ongoing discussion about the merits of taking one approach over another.

Governments should play a key role, though, in facilitating the kind of environment in which people can debate, in a reasonable way. I was watching George Clooney’s film Goodbye and Good Luck again the other day. It’s about the famed TV newsman Edward R Murrow and his stand against McCarthyism in the 1950s. McCarthy’s tactic was simple. He and his followers would first label people they didn’t like with pejoratives (‘red’, ‘pinko’ etc). This would then gradually morph into outright persecution, removing people’s livelihoods and their place in the community.

The same tactic is often on show in ethical debates today – particularly among political lobby groups. When it comes to new technologies, governments must not make laws before there’s been adequate debate and they should provide an environment in which debates are both wide-ranging and respectful. Politics is often about pragmatism, but ethics revolve around much more than this.

DA: There is no doubt the world is now more connected in a technological sense than ever before. Do you think this will help or hinder interpersonal connections?

At the risk of sounding equivocal, I would say both. There’s no doubt that digital communication tools are helping us to stay connected with people we care about. For example, texting, instant-messaging, photo-sharing and Skype video calls, all help us to maintain friendships and work relationships over long distances. My son currently lives in Australia and Skype is invaluable for staying in touch.

Some would argue that social networking platforms also help us to build scores – even thousands – of new friendships. I think the jury’s still out on that one: a ‘Facebook friend’ is clearly something altogether different from a real friend.

The technology is great, but there are limits to what it can provide. Years ago, author John Naisbitt argued that in an age of growing dependency on high tech there is a corresponding need for high-touch.  He was right.

In Fascinating Times I talk about a European study that looked into how email is utilised in the business environment. The study found that most of the emails sent by workers within large corporations were addressed to people working in the same building, on the same floor, or even in the same studio office space. Email, it seems, is most effective when it’s used to augment more physical, face-to-face relationships.

Keeping our relationships at arms length, via digital gadgets, may impact on how we develop the subtle skills of conversation. When two people talk face-to-face, each unconsciously sends thousands of non-verbal messages, most of which are received and ‘decoded’ by the other party. This is part of what makes human conversation so enriching.

The question is this: what might happen to the areas of our brains responsible for all this complex activity if we turn to communicating primarily via gadgets? I’m a social futurist, so I’m not taking a Luddite approach here. (Who would seriously want to turn back the technological clock even if we could?) The point is, though, that we need to ensure we don’t compromise what we already have in terms of conversation and relational skills; that we use technology to augment those skills, rather than replacing them.

DA: One of the other themes addressed in some of your articles is celebrity. Have people become too obsessed with celebrity and, if so, what sort of effect, longer-term, can we expect this to have on society?

MF: Mozart, Beethoven and Bach were all celebrities in their time, as were Michelangelo and da Vinci. These were people that society celebrated for an unusual talent or achievement, usually honed or attained over a long period of time.

The difference today is that we have an entire culture – or, more accurately, an industry – which tries to mass-produce celebrities. It offers people – at younger and younger ages – the tantalising possibility of overnight success, with very little application of effort (and sometimes with little discernable talent).

It also limits the field from which their heroes are taken. Young people are, by nature, experimenting with their sense of self – they’re looking for models to help them explore what they might become. Celebrity culture offers heroes mainly from the narrow worlds of entertainment and sport. I think that robs young people of the opportunity to explore what success might mean in the worlds of science, exploration, education, politics, philosophy and much more.

Although it’s not be any means a major theme in the book, I do explore a number of ways in which celebrity culture might not be such a positive thing – hopefully without sounding too much like a ‘grumpy old man’. (Actually, I’ve met a lot of young people who agree with me!)

DA: You also tackle issues faced by differing generations. What are some of the key challenges facing the 'Noughties' generation?

MF: In Fascinating Times, I address the impact of generational change on many areas of society. There are a few essays that talk mainly about Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials. I’m particularly interested in the latter. Their name derives from the fact that they started to come of age around the turning of the Millennium. They’re now aged (in both Britain and Australia) between their late teens and very early thirties. I’m going to assume that these are the people you’re calling the ‘Noughties’ generation.

One of the major challenges they will face is the onset of what I call Digital Dementia. This is well covered in the book. It basically refers to the idea that as we increasingly rely on digital tools, in processing thought and expressing ourselves, we may find that areas of our brains become under-used.

If and when that happens, we may find that the things we currently associate with the onset of dementia – including short-term memory loss and feelings of confusion and isolation – will one day become normal cognitive functions.

Already, there’s good scientific evidence that our reliance on digital equipment is increasing the incidence of Absent Presence – where people are physically but not mentally present because they’re engaged in cyberspace. This is especially – though not exclusively – a problem among Millennials, who use technology to multi-task and flit quickly from one online experience to another.

There are challenges with Constant Partial Attention, too, which means that people are less able to follow a line of thought from beginning to end, particularly over a long period of time. This is another result of digital multi-tasking.

I’m not pessimistic about the future of the Millennials – in fact, I’m the opposite. But they will face some real challenges when it comes to their interface with technology."

DA: How do you see them shaping the world of the future?

MF: The Millennials are the first generation born into a digitised environment. They’re digital natives; the rest of us are digital immigrants, who came to the digital experience from an analogue one.

As digitals, Millennials don’t just use digital gadgets, they think digitally. In many ways, their thinking is binary; it is made up of ones and zeroes, of switches between on and off. Many people who work closely with Millennials will tell you that because of their shortening attention spans, they’re either completely with you, or they’re not with you at all. They’re either on or off: there’s no in-between. This means that, if they jump on board, they tend to do it boots-and-all – though you may have to work in very creative ways to keep them interested.

Millennials are also, generically speaking, an optimistic generation and very civic minded. Studies repeatedly show that, when it comes to the future, they tend to be more optimistic than their forebears. They want to apply this optimism in their dealings with the civic environment – using technologies, for example, to create a better future.

They’re also more collaborative than Boomers or Gen-Xers. They see technology as an engine for change, rather than a ‘wow factor’ in and of itself; it is a way of promoting collaborative effort. Generally speaking, they don’t simply want to connect for friendship’s sake; but in order to produce change.

In the book, I have a lot more to say about the Millennials and how they will likely interact with the future.

DA: As a futurist, what do you see as the single greatest challenge for the Western world in the coming century?

MF: This is a difficult question to answer, mainly because there are so many areas of change that are entangled together.  Personal communications technologies are now changing the face of politics on a mass scale. Medicos and economists are trying to find solutions to problems via computer-generated ‘alternative realities’. Technologists are applying the principles of human anthropology to the development of robots and working to develop human-like machine intelligence.

For all the overlapping complexities involved in all this, there are some common, big-picture themes. We’re living in what I call the third Industrial Revolution (IR). This is covered in the book. In the first IR, during the 19th century, we invited technology into our workplaces. We saw the introduction of factories and industrial cities. In the second IR, we invited technology into our homes – with everything from washing machines to high-tech flat-screen media centres.

In today’s IR, we are increasingly inviting technology into the human body. We’re introducing sophisticated prosthetics, which are controlled directly via brain activity. We’re about to see the introduction of memory chips and other devices which will augment the natural capacities of the brain.

All of this presents us with some hugely exciting possibilities – for the treatment and management of disease and the ageing process, for example. There are great new opportunities in the area of ecology, too, as new techniques bring down the costs and raise the productivity of alternative fuels.

We’re also faced, however, with some important questions. One of those I cover in the book is this: Where will we draw the line between human and machine? Some will wonder whether than question is even important any more. I believe that it is vitally important. It shapes our entire worldview and will impact how we interact with increasingly powerful technologies for generations to come.

It is not our technology that determines our destiny, but our ethics. How we choose to use technology will determine the quality of our future and that of our children’s children.

Mal Fletcher Radio Interviews on the Book:

Mal Fletcher with Mike Shaft on BBC Radio

Mal Fletcher with Paul Hammond on UCB Radio

Fascinating Times Movie Trailer

The above interview was first published in Sight Magazine and is reproduced here by permission.



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