The Future of Things (Pt. 1: Intro)

In early 2018 I was in the shower idly pondering the future of products and product design, and it started a cascade of thoughts that have utterly consumed my mind ever since. One question led to another and very rapidly they became like a freight train thundering through my head. In an attempt to make sense of the resulting tangle of questions, ideas, and hopes, I’ve decided offload what’s in my head onto paper (or screen). This forthcoming series of posts is my attempt to make sense of the role of products in our lives, and how to perform my craft without causing a serious crisis of conscience. I have no idea where this is going to take me, but I have this inexplicable need, deep in my soul to find out. Let’s dive in!

The question that started it all was: What will our relationship with products be like in the future?

Then the torrent:  What will people’s relationships with consumption, ownership, and value be like?  How will those relationships evolve from where they stand now? Where DO they stand now? Why do they stand where they are? If humanity continues on its present course (upward in many metrics: population, wealth, health, etc.), can our resources sustain the growth? If not, how far can they go? What will the limiting factors be? Will humanity continue to grow, or will something else happen? Can we naturally reach an equilibrium? Is there a risk of catastrophic failure? Can we guide ourselves away from failure? Then the questions got more specific.

Before I go on, I think it’s important to give you an idea of the “lens” that I view the world through. This lens is something I believe every person has, and it is shaped by every single experience we have as individuals over the course of our lives. This means everybody’s lens is one-of-a-kind. I think it’s very easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that our lens is “right” and all other lenses are “wrong,” so partially as a reminder to myself, I just want to say that I will do my best to avoid getting preachy, and try to approach each topic as agnostically as possible. But inevitably my questions, concerns, and conclusions are driven by my lens, so you might as well be privy to it. At the very least, I want to give you a little context for this journey.

Having been raised in Boulder, Colorado, I was steeped in a hyper-liberal culture of sustainability, ecological awareness, social equality, upper-middle class privilege, and the virtue of altruism. I’ve been given the luxury of having ample leisure time which I’ve used to practice hobbies, spend time in the beautiful outdoors, travel, and socialize. I’ve never truly struggled to have access to the basic necessities of life. This background has enabled me to enjoy life immensely, and I have the desire for others to experience the same. I want to preserve the world I’ve come to love so that others may enjoy it as I have. I want to have continued access to clean water, abundant food, the beauty of nature, and the time and resources to pursue my curiosities. I want all of that to be available to everyone who’s living now, and will live in the future.

However these days my media-sphere paints a picture that indicates that many of these luxuries are at risk. With headlines containing words like, “Climate Change,” “Deforestation,” “Wealth Inequality,” “Environmental Disaster,” and “Species Extinction,” it’s hard for me not to feel concern for achieving my hopes of sharing the luxuries I enjoy with others and our descendants. I often stop and wonder about how our current culture of consumerism and our desire-based economy might be affecting our future. Will we end up inadvertently draining our planet’s resources past the point of no return in our constant need for more? Am I enabling the destruction of our planet by being a product designer and Maker of Things?

It’s easy for me to get scared of the prospect of an apocalyptic, Scorched-Earth-style future and start running around screaming at people to, “FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP USING PLASTIC STRAWS!!” but I believe that shaking a finger at the “Others” (whose lenses are different from mine) causes more harm than good. I think it places people on opposite sides of an imaginary line. Instead, I believe it’s important to first learn about our past and present circumstances so that maybe we can design a better future instead of merely reacting to what happens. Many brains much more qualified than mine are working extremely hard in each of their fields to solve the issues we face, and sadly I don’t think this series I’m writing will ever be wrapped up in a nice, tidy bow. However I hope that I’ll be able to uncover some practical and actionable ways to help preserve and share this incredible world we live in.

Earlier I mentioned that my freight train of questions began to get more specific. I found that those questions dovetailed from a few very large categories. Specifically: economics, population, culture, psychology, technology, resources, and energy. All of those categories are connect in very complicated ways and ever since that day in the shower, I’ve been completely fascinated by how everything interconnects. I’m not an expert in any of these fields, but I’ll do my best to give each one its due respect. My current plan is to lay out those questions in a separate post for each category and attempt to bridge the topics as best I can.

The first category I found myself delving into was the topic of economics, and that will be the subject of the next post in the series. Stay tuned!