From Odessa to the Future

 Wikipedia Commons 8 87 Potemkinstairs
Guestblogger Marina Gorbis is executive director at Institute for the Future.

At the end of workshops at the Institute for the Future we often ask participants to sum up their experience in one word or one sentence. Applying the technique to myself, I would sum up my whole life in one phrase: From Odessa to the Future.

Right around my 50th birthday I found myself in a position of Executive Director of IFTF, a venerable 40-year old think tank in Palo Alto, California. An honor, for sure, but an honor that for me meant many hours of reflecting on an amazing arc one's life can take, an arc that in my case started in a three room (not three bedroom, three room) apartment I shared with my mother, sister, and grandparents on a street named after a radical and obscure left-wing German politician and historian Franz Mehring in a city most famous for its steps forever immortalized in Sergey Eisenstein's movie Battleship Potemkin. This arc has brought me to the heart of Silicon Valley and to the most unlikely of occupations--a futurist. Although in a funny way, my past may have given me the best training for a futurist, at least the kind of futurism we practice at IFTF. It taught me on a visceral level a lesson that we always try to impart on others: no one can predict the future. If you asked me or anyone around me 35 years ago what would I be, the most likely answer would've been an "engineer." A good bet since most educated Russian Jews are engineers, many of them here in Silicon Valley. I did spend one unhappy year studying naval engineering (this may explain my decision to emigrate at the age of 18). No one around me knew any futurists other than the gypsy fortunetellers regularly trolling the streets of Odessa. You can think of me becoming a futurist as one of those black swan events Nassim Taleb writes about.

My personal experience has also led me to wonder about the unintended consequences of most things we do or that happen to us. I have come to believe that Steven Johnson's apt book title Everything Bad is Good for You applies to many realms much beyond video games and popular culture. I am finding that many things we strive for or think are desirable are actually bad for us and vice versa, things that we thought were bad turn out to be good (unless they kill you, of course). Or to be precise, I don't think they are good or bad per se but that when we make judgments about something being good or bad, we simply cannot foresee the totality of consequences and that among this totality of consequences there are necessarily some good things and some bad.

Prosperity and abundance that we all strive for and that many people have come to America for bring with them huge environmental and oftentimes social costs; lower living standards are simply more sustainable. Abundance of opportunities leads to stress and tyranny of choice, which we experience on a daily basis, from our shopping experiences to the kinds of stressful choices our young people are facing when deciding on colleges or careers. Compulsory education turns many kids off learning. In contrast, kids deprived of educational opportunities, treasure schooling. Just read stories of Afghan girls who were banned from schools under the Taliban and how exalted they were at being able to go to one-room crammed schools. Compare it with kids in many American schools who think of going to school as a punishment. I often think of Solzhenitsyn who once remarked that the freest he ever felt was in the gulag. Who could've thought that in the most oppressive of places one can attain great spiritual freedom? By no means do I advocate depriving people of incomes or kids of schools. I also would not recommend taking spiritual vacations to the gulag. I just like to think about complexity of outcomes and possibilities that often go against the grain of conventional wisdom or clear-cut solutions. I guess this would make me a bad politician. But this is what I like to think about, write about, and debate about, and this is what I hope to engage the awesome Boing Boing community in conversations about.


  1. My first comment would be: how do successful first world citiznes obtain the greatest good in a way that supercedes our normal value judgement and follows your intuitions? (This is an open-ended question, obviously.)

    My second comment: is extreme hardship, and the comfort following, merely a result of the relative distance from bad to good? Is the striving for a permanent, ongoing comfort a lesson in futility?

  2. Welcome! I was just talking to the author of the new
    book, 2044. It is about corporate control.  Where 1984 was a bleak prison camp with guards and cameras and barbed wire, 2044 is a well-manicured lawn with an invisible fence.

    This is a future I feel is almost here already and as they said in the movie X-files I want to “fight the future”.

    How to do this is an issue.Corporations with personhood and money as speech has become an almost unbeatable combination. We now see the consequences of short term profits above all else. But is there any hope of changing this?

    Are there thoughts on how to change the direction of this trend? There are millions being spent to keep the status quo. A few ideas have had disasteriuos consequences but there seems that there is no one with the will or the money to change these ideas.

    I could lead a charge to make these changes but who would pay me to do it? Government doesn’t have the stomach and no corporation will pay to have it’s “personhood” taken away.

    How do you fight the future in this case?

  3. When I was five years old my sister and I lived with our young parents in a two-room shanty in a hooverville on the outskirts of Flint, Michigan. There was no running water, except for an outside faucet, and in the winter a small oil stove provided the only heat. It was the depths of the Great Depression.

    Thirty years later I would sit some evenings on the deck of my Malibu beach house, watching the sunset and remembering how happy I was as a child…

  4. @keneke This is a great question and if we could figure this out, we would be in a much better place, wouldn’t we? Do you have any ideas? Your second point is interesting. Do we always need a distance between something to be able to feel like we’ve succeeded?

    @anonymous the picture is from wikipedia

    @spocko I assume you read Rushkoff’s Life Inc. If not, do so.

    @antinous wow, I am impressed! You actually saw the movie.

    @buddy166 beautiful!

  5. Sorry. Rubbish. Soviet Union with its lower living standards was way less sustainable, especially when it involved environmental or social costs.

    But the big question is why are you sitting in Palo Alto instead of heading to Odessa, where your can ruminate around the kitchen table?

  6. “lower living standards are simply more sustainable.”

    That statement hit me like a cob brick. I knew it intuitively, but I never heard it put so plainly before.

    I am looking forward to your forthcoming posts very much!

  7. @MUDIL, did I miss the part where Marina said the Soviet Union was sustainable?

  8. As someone who has traveled around the world, I find that the statement “lower living standards are simply more sustainable” totally absurd. Poor countries have no environmental protection standards because they can’t afford to care about those. Poor people burn down forests just to cook their food, disregarding the effect it might have on the environment. Poor people burn down forests to grow tomatoes or to raise goats. Poor people throw sewage into the fresh water system because they can’t afford a proper sewage treatment system.
    Rich people, those with higher living standards, have the time and income to spend on conservation, renewable harvesting of resources, proper containment of garbage, and keeping the water clean. This is very clear when one sees it with one’s own eyes.

  9. @ #12 Rich people, those with higher living standards, have the time and income to spend on goods imported from poor countries, where poor people produce cheap products for rich American corporations. As someone else who has traveled around the world, I feel strongly that you must also take a close look at yourself.

  10. In India, I stayed with/socialized with a few families. They absolutely had a lower environmental impact than Americans. These were lower to upper middle class people with adequate food, hygienic food prep/waste disposal facilities, homes ranging from clean and basic to well-appointed.

    But as they pointed out, middle class Indians live very differently than middle class Americans. Individual cars are rare and multi-car households are virtually non-existent. They had money to live well, but not money to throw away. When you don’t have money to throw away, you don’t buy singing bass wall plaques and pet rocks. They’re not a consumer society in the way that we are. When you don’t buy loads of useless crap, you don’t create a market for it and you don’t fill landfills with it.

    Poor countries have no environmental protection standards because they can’t afford to care about those.

    I think that environmental problems/disasters often happen, not because poor countries allow them, so much as because rich countries can afford to ship their disasters elsewhere. It’s not universally true but many problems in the Third World can be laid at the feet of First World corporations using their wealth to purchase local cooperation for things that would never be allowed in the First World. The fault lies in the ability to purchase death and disease for people who can’t afford to stop you. The fault lies with the wealth.

  11. First of all, thanks for sharing that nice color picture of the famous steps – I think I’ve only seen them in the movie, which my brother-in-law forced me to watch for my edification years ago.

    Second, well put. It’s difficult to even communicate to people who have never lived outside of the U.S. and Western Europe what the impact of our lifestyle is and what life is like for people elsewhere. One reason I so loved the movie Slumdog Millionaire was for its relatively open-eyed depiction of the life that so many people in the world share.

    Anyway, welcome! I’m looking forward to what you have to say.

  12. Sorry, the comments about Indian consumer culture do not reflect the present state of affairs. The aspiration for consumer ‘semi-durables’ and ‘durables’ is, by now, absolutely embedded in India, with all the recognised, attendant problems beginning to be evidenced (Debt, waste, depletion, greed, et al.) The take-up is not uniform, due to the diversity of the cultures which constitute the apparently stable entity “India”.

    Also the additional comments about the cause of the problem (i.e. the exporting of the effects of non-sustainability) lying within wealth, per se, are self-serving conflation. Philosophically, there is an absolute distinction between AMORALITY and IMMORALITY, that you are choosing to ignore.

    “Wealth” is a reserve, and is beyond morality. The moral issues cluster around weatlh in terms of how it was obtained, and how it is used, and which groups are able to garner their own reserves. But the problem isn’t “wealth”. If one doesn’t keep this truth in clear focus, the tendency is to come-up with confused and often damaging ‘solutions’ – wrong solutions to the wrong problem. What we used to call “The doublef**k”.

    If you’re thinking all we need to do is banish wealth, well the good news is that the slippery-fingered barony, with their now juddering wealth creating machinery, may be giving you the opportunity you have long desired. So, perhaps all you’ll need to do is sit back and see how it all turns out.

  13. On the debate on sustainability, I also don’t believe that poverty is sustainable or desirable. What I am saying simply is that higher living standards, at least at this point, when we don’t have a sustainable way of producing goods (i.e. with zero or little environmental impact), use up more resources and have more deleterious impact on the environment.

    Simple proof: the main concern about rising standards of living in China, India, and other non-Western economies is that if they achieve the living standards of the US, this planet will simply not be able to sustain its population. Ergo, higher living standards require increased resource use. This is true for now. However, if we find a sustainable means of production, this may not be the case in the future. Let’s hope we do.

  14. @marina: thanks for replying! I don’t really have any answers off the top of my head, because any non-intuitive methods to happiness that are implemented cannot be enforced upon a populace. I guess it falls to the individual to pursue better methods of obtaining happiness. That’s why I advocate education and freedom of information – as long as the individual is responsible for his or her own happiness, I’d do what I can to make sure the individual can reach that goal, without forcing anything on them.

    As to the second point, I am not sure. Are there examples of a type of happiness that is based upon a sustained joy? This would go contrary to many people’s opinions – that happiness is fleeting. I want to find sustained joy, but it seems like you’d get bored with it after a while.

  15. Hi Marina!

    I can’t tell you how REFRESHING & WONDERFUL it is to hear a fellow Eastern European female voice within a male-dominated forum of theorist discussions.

    I very much enjoyed your blog entry and am looking forward to more. I have my architecture bachelors and masters and am looking to pursue a MFA studying in particular women in our culture and society (still not specific yet on which culture, which women…etc) and would love to hear who you love to read and who you recommend.

    Marie Khediguian

  16. Marina, I think you could look at “totality of consequences” in terms of the buddhist dharma. When thinking about all of the possible outcomes of a situation or conversely, all of the causes that went into a given situation we call that emptiness. It is an abstract conept, but an apt one when you consider that any person’s action is built of infite strands of causality from all time. It makes it very difficult to put labels on things such as good or evil.

    I appreciate your post.

  17. @KENEKE Maybe sustainable joy is an impossibility. Maybe joy is momentary and its fleeting nature is exactly what makes it so special. It is something that is rare and different from a regular experience. Just a thought.

    @MARKHED Nice to make your acquaintance and thanks for the kind words. What issues are you interested in so I can suggest some readings?

    @JEFFER I totally agree with you and totally get what you are saying. Do you have any good readings to recommend on buddhist dharma?

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