Like many people, 2020 has creatively consumed me. It's hard to give your undivided attention to something, or put yourself in a truly creative flow, when so much is going on. The sheer onslaught of new information - some newly jaw-dropping story seems to be showing up four to six times a day - puts my brain in a reactive mode. Instead of being inventive and generative, I'm constantly aghast. I'm hopeful that it will be possible to re-find a sort of mental peace once the election has been and gone, but I'm also a realist. The pandemic will continue; the political clown show will continue; children have been permanently separated from their parents, creating an entire, lost Trump generation; we will not right all the wrongs of the last four years overnight.
I've been thinking it would be an interesting exercise to force myself into a generative mode about the future. Instead of reacting to the onslaught of awfulness and saying this is what I don't want, which is almost a default biological reaction, what if we deliberately and proactively painted a picture of a possible future and said this is what I want?
It's a surprisingly hard thing to do. Even thinking about the form of it - is it a manifesto? a short story? - brings difficult choices. But if we're to be truly successful at building a better world, we need to have a strong idea of what that vision for the future really is.
I think speculative fiction can carry us a long way. But even in this creative realm, it's commonplace to paint dystopias: Black Mirror warnings of what could be rather than optimistic visions of what we might aspire to. I would love to read explorations of utopia, but aside from some facets of Star Trek (which, let's call it out, is united by a militaristic Federation), I don't know where to begin to look.
Rather than a complete imagining of this better future, perhaps it's helpful to start with principles. What is the guiding North Star that will help us make decisions about which paths to take?
I've long had a professional mission: I want to work on products that make the world more equal, informed, and kind. But that's a different exercise to defining principles that guide a positive vision of the future.
This is my attempt to define those - or at least, my representation of how I'm thinking about principles for the future today. I would love to read yours.
Principles for the future: Life, Fairness, Autonomy, and Forward Motion
Everyone - regardless of their background, character, geography, and context - should be able to live a good life.
Not every American, or every person in whichever nation you happen to be reading this from; every person.
Nobody should experience poverty; everyone should have a home; everyone should have enough food to eat; everyone should have the opportunity to receive a great education; nobody should succumb to curable disease; everyone should have mobility. This is the foundation of a society that can provide a good life for all.
These things should not be provided by private businesses. I believe we need private businesses, but ability to make a profit at scale is not the same thing as being able to provide a fundamental societal foundation. Those things should be provided by a democratically elected government and upheld by an implicit social contract.
Taxation as part of this social contract is a reasonable funding mechanism. Societies with higher levels of progressive taxation turn out to result in a higher quality of life, in part because basic human rights are taken care of. The important thing is not the money you have in your pocket; it's your experience of living.
Wealth is not a shorthand for well-being.
The progress of the world should be measured by the experience of the people living in it rather than their wealth. In turn, we should measure the success of our nations by the quality of the experience of living in them, rather than their output. GDP, which has become a sort of shorthand for national success, was designed to be a measure of wartime productivity and is far less well-suited to domestic life. We need a better model, and a better measure.
For example, the Human Development Index and Gross National Happiness are great steps in this direction. There are other alternative indexes that are worth considering, although I suspect there will need to be a new, humanist measure to guide us. We do need some measure in order to gauge our successes and failures. This measure must be developed in an inclusive way, with ownership shared by communities across society, so as not to privilege one group over another.
Take the climate crisis: GDP doesn't disincentivize pollution, or directly incentivize cleaning up the environment. (It will, later on, when it is much too late.) A quality of life index would take into account the billions of people who are already feeling the effects of climate change.
It would incentivize public art, and underwriting culture, and providing amazing services, and help for people who need it.
Finally, GDP incentivizes building economic markets, whereas quality of life is method agnostic. All that matters is that we are continually improving the experience of being a human.
Equity is a fundamental human value. Everyone should have equitable access to opportunities and resources.
Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful; equality is treating everyone the same regardless of their context. In other words, mere equality perpetuates existing inequities. It isn't always enough.
Imagine if government was truly representative: not just geographically, but intersectionally.
Imagine if everyone had access to the same level of education, regardless of their context. Then imagine if people who didn't come from generational educational success could receive extra help with the implicit ideas and skills, as well as baseline financial resources, that some people arrive at an institution already possessing. All for free. Imagine if everyone could have the opportunity to do well. Imagine how this wider gene pool of ideas would, in turn, benefit all of us.
I believe strongly that private schools and universities shouldn't exist. Finland, which has one of the highest test scores in the world (as well as one of the highest quality of life rankings), does so well precisely because it prioritizes equity. (There are independent schools, but they're state subsidized, too.)
Imagine if everyone had the same opportunities once they entered the workforce. Imagine if maternity and paternity leave were equalized, eliminating tired old arguments for not promoting women. Imagine if the collective paid parental leave was 480 days, as it is in Sweden, allowing for healthier relationships within families with less economic hardship.
Imagine if salaries were required to be published ahead of time, eliminating both the need for negotiation and the possibility of women and people of color being paid less for the same job. (Finland goes a step further and publishes everyone's taxable income once a year.) Imagine if company boards reflected societal diversity. Imagine if conversations about justice were permitted and encouraged at work.
Imagine if businesses did not depend on workers earning poverty-level wages, in any country. Imagine if resources were fairly traded.
Black Lives Matter is needed to undo centuries of generational, institutional discrimination. Likewise, feminism is a crucial ideology of restorative justice. Imagine if these ideas - restorative justice, generational healing, compassion - were core societal values. Imagine, in turn, if misogyny, racism, colonialism, and the broad spectrum of bigotry that has held so many people back were finally thrown to the fire.
In short, imagine if we built our institutions, systems, and processes to uphold fairness for all, rather than to uphold profit or benefit for some. It's not about ensuring equality of outcome (although, of course, everyone has the right to live a good life); it's about ensuring equity of opportunity.
Imagine if we all punched up instead of down.
Everyone has the right to make decisions for themselves and act on them, subject to the social contract we all make with each other.
That means women have the right to choose what they do with their bodies. Abortion must be legal.
That means rather than criminalizing drug addicts, we should provide help.
That means free speech and creative human expression are imperatives - until my speech is in service of rallying others to harm. It means that the right to protest is also an imperative. Sedition is always a bogus charge; government is never a protected group.
That means privacy and freedom from surveillance are human rights.
That means sex workers should be protected rather than demonized.
That means there should be complete freedom of religion (or freedom to practice no religion) - until that religion is used to invade someone else's autonomy, or to create unfair rules elsewhere in society, or to diminish someone else's quality of life.
That means what consenting adults do with each other is not your business, whether in private or public; nor is their decision to marry, for example.
That means you should wear a mask, as it protects others, just as you should wear a seatbelt, because it protects others.
That means building participative, inclusive, democratic governments rather than authoritarian institutions.
That means everyone should have the opportunity and ability to own and maintain property.
That means valuing diversity and inclusion.
That means allowing broad immigration between countries. Ideally you should be able to choose to live in the country whose values most closely align with your own.
That means enacting peaceful, globally democratic foreign policy.
That means accepting that some people will do things that you will not like - and, as long as it does not cause harm, upholding this as an important value by which we can all live.
It also means ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to make their own decisions and act on them. It implies a non-aggressive approach to policing, and a community-orientated approach to justice.
We should use our resources, creativity, and expertise to rapidly improve quality of life, fairness, and autonomy.
Basic human needs should be the responsibility of an intersectionally inclusive, democratically-elected government so we can concentrate on advancing human society rather than providing the basics.
By effectively measuring quality of life, inclusive teams should receive support to perform rapid, human-centered experiments within their communities in order to quickly determine how that quality of life can be improved.
Universities and research centers should be well-funded - not just for STEM activities, but also for humanities and cultural research. As this research is publicly funded, it should then be made publicly available, so everyone can benefit from its findings.
Exploration of the universe, and of our own planet, should similarly be owned by all of us. By making the fruits of human endeavor public, we can allow everyone to build on it, snowballing human progress.
Entrepreneurship has an important part to play. Innovation is a driver for progress. We should create a world where everyone has the ability to be an entrepreneur (not just the rich and well-connected), can be supported in doing so, and can build on a rich body of public research to help them succeed.
We should all own the process and the fruits of our communal progress. We should react to harms quickly, and continuously work to improve everyone's quality of life. We should have the space to seek our own individual goals, while valuing the goals of our communities. We should be there for each other.
We should tell stories about the future and try to make them real.
This is clearly an incomplete set of principles. They're mine, as written over a set of days in October, 2020. But I think my next step is to stress test them by building a set of possible futures; to tell those utopian stories.
Perhaps your next step could be to build your own set of principles, and use them to tell your own stories. We can build on each other's ideas, as well as the ideas of diverse authors and futurists, to envision the world we want.
And then, of course, we build it.