Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Groundhog Year

A groundhog on the ground.
It’s you again! Jack Bulmer/Unsplash

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Inflation is out of control, we are holding emergency summits with the Russians to prevent all-out war, and the Bengals and 49ers are surprising NFL playoff teams. Happy new year and welcome to 1982!

Or is it 2020 all over again, with the endless squabbling over the presidential election and the treasonous attempts to reverse its outcome, plus the omicron surge re-disrupting our lives and further delaying the return of “normalcy”? The news this week is all about postponed returns to the office, schools going online, and the return of empty grocery shelves. My New Year’s resolution is to avoid hoarding toilet paper, but my willpower has its limits.

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I am a sucker for new beginnings, an eternal Micawberish optimist that things “will turn up,” but I confess to have welcomed 2022 with an uncharacteristic case of malaise. And as I suspect is true of many of you reading this, it isn’t necessarily the “Happy” I have been struggling with most in our ritual “Happy New Year” pronouncements. It is the “New” part, which rings hollow, if not mocking, this January. Is there anything new, really?

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It’s as if you’d excitedly pulled out your crisply new agenda book for 2022, so full of promise, only to discover all the old crap already cluttering the pages, including plenty of crossed-out events and question marks thwarting your plans. People talk about Groundhog Day, but could it be a Groundhog Year?

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Back to the Russians amassed on the Ukrainian border: That is an own goal if there ever was one. Plenty of smart people were warning us in the mid-1990s that expanding NATO eastward would only destabilize Europe in the long run, and that the West shouldn’t overreach in its moment of victory. The Soviets under Gorbachev unilaterally laid down their arms and retreated from Eastern Europe, and in exchange for grudgingly acceding to German reunification they were given assurances that NATO weapons would not move into former Warsaw Pact nations. Moscow really needed better lawyers, though, because they never got any of this in writing, and so here we are. We victors milked our advantage to the max, as if it had indeed been a commercial contract negotiation. And, as with Versailles Treaty after a different type of conflict, the results of such triumphal hubris were always going to be more instability and conflict down the road.

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I don’t think we should go to war to interfere or reverse more than a millennium of Russian-Ukrainian interconnectedness (think of how twitchy we got when Cuba allied with the Russians, and Cuba is nowhere as intertwined with us). I realize that you can’t utter such sentiments without being called a Putin apologist, but the point is there would be no Putin, no time loop in our relationship with Moscow, no imminent threat to Ukraine in a more viable and secure post-Cold War system, without the ahistorical arrogance of those policymakers in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise who have brought us to this moment. We are this odious dictator’s Dr. Frankenstein.

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Future Tense is about the future, but the past keeps getting in the way. And sometimes (as with Putin and Ukraine), we put it there by failing to move forward and innovate new approaches to new circumstances. And of course, the more time and energy spent dealing with yesteryear’s messes, the less time and energy is invested in the future. Don’t Look Up received mixed reviews as a movie, but there was no denying that the Netflix hit was spot-on as a timely parable. And we very well could use another parody of our political culture called Don’t Look Forward.

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If our public life seems caught in a time loop, I wonder what you readers think technology has in store to rekindle our hopes for progress and to help refocus our attention on what comes next. You know, beyond, the iPhone 27, 8G, and the 10K TVs (not that we are against any of those!).

Please let us know what you are excited about technology-wise in this new year, which we do, any present malaise aside, sincerely wish will be a good one for all Future Tensers.

Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense:

Wish We’d Published This

A Glimpse Into Disneyland’s Future? Disney may one day project 3-D images for individual guests” by Hugo Martin, Los Angeles Times

Future Tense Recommends

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The Martin Luther King Jr. weekend is usually about the time most of us start surrendering or downgrading our ambitious New Year’s resolutions, and so it is a good time to read Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. I must confess that I picked up this book (named after the average human lifespan) when it came out last year in search of productivity hacks in a ceaseless quest to squeeze the most out of every hour, and every week. But instead of being yet another gimmicky work of org porn, Burkeman’s book is a surprisingly contemplative pushback on the entire conquer-your-inbox-while-meditating-in-the-early-hours-before-running-triathlons-and-learning-Mandarin-in-evenings genre. It is hopeless to stay on top of everything, Burkeman confesses in his engaging, liberating tale, which details how technology is only making it more hopeless—and that is OK. Finitude and choices are OK, too, the stuff that makes life living. Four Thousand Weeks is empowering and very much written in the context of our pandemic experience.

What Next: TBD

On this week’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, Lizzie O’Leary and Meg Tirrell, health and science correspondent for CNBC, discuss why we still don’t have COVID vaccines for kids under 5. Last week, Lizzie talked to Rebecca Jarvis, host of the podcast The Dropout and ABC News’ chief business, technology, and economics correspondent, about the verdict in the Elizabeth Holmes trial and what lessons Silicon Valley might (might!) learn from Theranos.

Upcoming Events

Join Future Tense and Issues in Science and Technology at 6 p.m. Eastern on Feb. 2 for the second edition of our Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club, where we’ll discuss Malka Older’s Infomocracy and its real-world implications. The book club will feature breakout rooms (they’re fun and stress-free, we promise) where we can all compare notes and share reactions, even if we didn’t finish the book! RSVP here.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.