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.