Jane McGonigal — the noted game designer and futurist — has a TEDx video about imagining the future. I’ll be speaking at this topic at CNU on May 4, so having loved her book on gaming, Reality is Broken, I was curious about her take.
You can watch it here, or below, but I also summarize it below.
McGonigal’s project here is to undermine that pervasive feeling that we are unable to shape the future. “The future is dark,” she says, not in the sense of bad but in the sense of hard to see into. It is precisely our ignorance of the future that gives us the space to imagine it, and thus to change it.
She tells the story of a futurism class she teaches at Stanford, where she asks students to name things that they are absolutely sure will be true in ten years. Then, she takes this list to researchers and asks how sure they are of those things. Sure enough, there are cases where something that people thought was permanent is in fact changing.
I am totally with McGonigal on the urgency of helping people imagine a more diverse range of futures, but we must also notice how easily this message gets out of control, and how much of the craziness — and destructiveness — of the tech industry arises from this belief in the radically open future.
If I were in her futurism class I could easily name things that will absolutely be true 10 years from now.
- The circumference of a circle divided by the diameter of the circle will still be a little over three.
- Adult elephants still will not fit into wine-glasses.
- There will still be a mathematical limit to how many vehicles — each filling the width of a traffic lane — can fit down a single lane in a state of free flow.
- In the absence of barriers to walking, the density of population will still determine the number of people within a fixed, short walking distance of any point. That in turn determine the potential market size for fixed transit, which will govern the level of transit intensity and infrastructure that will pencil out in ridership terms.
- Carrying fewer people in more vehicles will consume more urban space, compared to carrying more people in fewer vehicles. This mismatch between demand for road space and its supply will manifest as either traffic congestion or a need to widen roads, removing scarce urban land from other uses.
Those are geometric facts. Within the scale of space and time in which humans live, no invention can change these things.
McGonigal’s rhetoric echoes that of the corporate motivation industry, with its endless implication that nothing is impossible. But as with heated political rhetoric, the danger is always that some people take this stuff literally, and literally, it’s nonsense. The facts about the future I listed above are extremely useful, despite not being ridiculous. They are useful because they keep us from imagining, and spending billions on, truly impossible things.
If we know one thing from watching the tech industry, it’s that the wide-open “anything can happen” futurism that McGonigal praises can be its own bubble, with its own blinders. Much good has happened from Silicon Valley’s willingness to throw venture capital at the occasional wild idea — “moonshots,” they’re called in the biz — but a lot of VC also goes to investing in mathematically impossible things — like moving people from big transit vehicles into small ones without taking up more space — and into attacking folks like me who try to point that out.
In this new era of “disruption,’ urban transportation suffers as much from delusional imagination as from lack of imagination. Only when we allow boring math to constrain our imaginings — and when venture capital gets smarter at recognizing those constraints — can we start to have reality-based conversations about how to liberate people to move in our cities.
Not everything is possible, and it’s a good thing, too.