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Fast Forward

How to keep up—and even get ahead—when technology outpaces us.
February 22, 2017

In their new book, Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future, ­Joichi “Joi” Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, and Jeff Howe, a professor at Northeastern University and a visiting scholar at the lab, write that humans “are perpetually failing to grasp the significance of their own creations.” Edison marketed his first phonograph as a dictation device; Digital Equipment Corporation president Ken Olson famously remarked in 1977 that there was no reason for people to have computers in their homes. Today, at a time when what we’ve created is evolving more rapidly than ever and the Internet allows strangers almost anywhere to connect with each other instantly, Ito and Howe argue that a new mind-set is required to successfully navigate the world. “Our technologies have outpaced our ability, as a society, to understand them,” they write. “Now we need to catch up.”

To get people up to speed, Ito and How offer nine principles (they devote a chapter to each one) designed to encourage new ways of thinking and thereby “bring our brains into the modern era.” They favor “emergence” over authority, pull over push, compasses over maps, risk over safety, disobedience over compliance, practice over theory, diversity over ability, resilience over strength, and systems over objects.

Ito has been using these principles to guide the Media Lab, a place known for anticipating and adapting to change. Some are relatively easy to digest—pull over push, for example. Others, like emergence over authority or practice over theory, might “get the academics kind of riled up,” Ito anticipates. (Emergence refers to the idea that power doesn’t come from the top but is, essentially, crowdsourced. “Decisions aren’t made so much as they emerge from large groups of employees or stakeholders,” they write.)

Ito says that before writing Whiplash, he had read a number of books about how the world was changing and paradigms were shifting, but he felt something was missing: “Not many of them really helped you kind of figure out, ‘Then what do I do?’” He and Howe wanted the book to have a broad reach, with relatable stories and applicable lessons (though not too “self-help-y,” he says): “We envisioned somewhere between a manifesto and a survival guide.”

The book took four years to write, and during that time, the authors found themselves working to keep up with advances in some of the areas they were covering. For example, artificial-intelligence research was heating up as they were submitting their draft; the White House issued a report on AI’s future two months before the book was released. And Whiplash hit the shelves in the aftermath of the contentious presidential election, another lens through which readers can view the book’s messages. “It’s interesting coming out of the political climate that we have right now,” Ito says, “because I think that a lot of people on both sides are sort of energized to action, and inevitably a bunch of change is going to happen.”


Recent Books
From the MIT Community

Animal Electricity: How We Learned That the Body and Brain Are Electric Machines
By Robert B. Campenot, PhD ’76
Harvard University Press, 2016, $39.95

Free Innovation
By Eric von Hippel, SM ’07, professor at the Sloan School of Management
MIT Press, 2016, $29.95

Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World
By Ramesh Srinivasan, SM ’02
NYU Press, 2017, $35

Queer Theory: The French Response
By Bruno Perreau, associate professor of French studies
Stanford University Press, 2016, $25.95

Neural Control of Speech
By Frank H. Guenther, research affiliate, Picower Institute for Learning and Memory
MIT Press, 2016, $63

Nanjing Never Cries
A novel by Hung Cheng, professor of mathematics
Killian Press, 2016, $29.95

Barbecue: A Savor the South Cookbook
By John Shelton Reed ’64
University of North Carolina Press, 2016, $20

DIY Drones for the Evil Genius: Design, Build, and Customize Your Own Drones
By Ian Cinnamon ’14, Romi S. Kadri ’14, and Fitz Tepper
McGraw-Hill Education, 2016, $25

Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2016 and 2017 to be considered for this column.

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