"Burn the ships; dive in" - A Three Part Series: Part 1
PublishedNovember 7, 2021
Andrew Le, MD: For the audience, can you just tell us a little bit about your background? And what do you enjoy most about your work?
David Kirkpatrick: I've been working as a journalist for probably 35 years. I was at Fortune Magazine for 25 years, the last half as the main tech writer at Fortune. I started a conference called Brainstorm, and I became very interested in bringing people together. I left Fortune to write a book about Facebook in 2008. Then I really wanted to get back into organizing tech-related events. In 2010 and 2011, I started Techonomy, a conference and media company focused on the biggest questions about technology's intersection with society.
I'd say even my interest in Facebook and writing a book about Facebook was connected to that because at the time, I felt Facebook was the one that was most likely to have a massive socio-cultural impact. I am afraid that has proven to be true, although not quite in the positive way I had hoped. It's not all negative, though. But, the main thing I love about my work and the reason I created this company is that I am deeply interested in understanding, studying, and curating conversations about how technology changes the world.
Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress. Image courtesy of Pablo Martinez Monsivais via Wired.
Andrew: Fantastic. So you’ve hit on what you do and what you enjoy most—now help us understand what keeps you up at night.
David: Oh, God. More than ever, we're living in a time of uncertainty. It's a time of tremendous jeopardy for everybody. I just lived through the edge of a hurricane here in the Northeast—which, unfortunately, is very likely to become a routine experience. Extreme weather is hitting all parts of the planet and leading to tremendous suffering.
What's happening in Afghanistan right now is deeply disturbing, as well. The thing that makes it most significant at a macro level in my opinion is the implications on immigration and democracy. Obviously, we care about Afghanistan, but those people have to sort their country out for themselves. I accept that. But the reality is there are hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of Afghans who really don't want to be there, and they're going to do everything they can to go elsewhere in coming years.
The world is going to have to figure out how to respond to that. The last time something happened at that scale was when Syria fell apart, first with a drought and then a war and a series of revolution insurrections. Europe ended up accommodating something like 2 million refugees eight or nine years ago. That was highly de-stabilizing. We saw the rise of people like Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the far right in Poland and even in some parts of Scandinavia.
This is really not about technology per se, but it's the chain of cause and effect between a destabilized state and immigration movement of unfamiliar people into social liberal democracies. It becomes a destabilizing influence in those countries because it empowers nationalism and xenophobia, which then often plays into autocratic governments rising. From a global citizen point of view, I worry about the long-term effects—immigration leading to the destabilization of liberal democracy.
"More than ever, we're living in a time of uncertainty... the world is going to have to figure out how to respond to that."
Andrew: I appreciate you tying those two things together, and I can see how they're intricately related. David, you've had this incredible career about being in the forefront of how technology will change and has now changed the world. Given the challenges you just put forward—destabilized liberal democracies due to immigration and climate change destabilizing the entire world, leading to a lot of immigration—what role do you see technology playing in the next 10 years?
David: We have to hope that technology has not even yet begun to change the world because if it doesn't change the world a lot more, we're all totally screwed. I believe that all behavioral change is necessary. A lot of governmental reaction is required, et cetera, et cetera. If we don't have major technological breakthroughs in terms of how we handle carbon and our responses to climate, the world is not exactly going to end—but it's going to be feel like it's ending.
I was just having lunch today with somebody who was absolutely serious about the possibility in the relatively near future that we could finally start tapping solar energy from outside the earth's atmosphere, where you can have geostationary satellites with an actual cable that flows down to the earth. Or, maybe it could be done with electromagnetic radiation beaming down. You could bring energy down there that's gathered outside the earth. Fusion nuclear power is another very real possibility. People believe both could have a catalytic impact on our ability to respond to climate change because it's not carbon producing and could create massive energy at low costs.
Read more about the potential of nuclear fusion at https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/fusion-power-future/. Image courtesy Science Focus.
Obviously, we have to scale up the things we know can work like solar and wind and geothermal. Geothermal is another area where real breakthroughs could occur, where you could really go farther down in the earth and create pretty much geothermal energy anywhere.
The interesting thing—compared to the past era—is that we are living maybe at the tail end of this whole internet age, so to speak, in which it was all about transforming communications. That was what we thought was the technology impact. It may be that what we're really heading into now is an era much more about basic science and the technology that responds to discoveries in basic science to really change the configuration of our physical planet in some critical ways.
Now, obviously we'll still have the internet, we hope, and we'll still be communicating efficiently, and we'll have AI and all kinds of great new computational capabilities and cloud services, et cetera, to digest our discoveries and maintain the information that's necessary to keep making all this progress. But we need technological breakthroughs more than ever. I am confident that many of them will come, but will they come fast enough? Will they have peripheral harm as our previous generation has had? I expect 50-50 whether they'll come fast enough; it's probably 75 to 100% likely they'll have a lot of peripheral negative impacts that we can't anticipate now. It's always a game of responding to the evolution of what we know. But I am a technological optimist to this day, and I don't ring my hands that we're all done for.
"I am a technological optimist to this day, and I don't ring my hands that we're all done for."
In Part 2 of the conversation, David talks about the future of the internet in relation to democracy and government regulations.
About the participants:
David Kirkpatrick is the founder and editor-in-chief of Techonomy Media Inc., a tech-focused conference and media company.
Andrew Le, MD, is the CEO and cofounder of Buoy Health.