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Humans and technology

To think your way out of a crisis, look beyond it

The editor’s letter from our long-term issue looks at the kinds of technologies the world needs to tackle its most entrenched problems.
October 21, 2020

“If our descendants were to diagnose the ills of 21st-century civilization,” writes Richard Fisher in our opening essay, “they would observe a dangerous short-termism: a collective failure to escape the present moment and look further ahead.” This condition is neither permanent nor new, Fisher says: human thinking becomes more blinkered in times of turmoil and more expansive in periods of prosperity and calm. But it’s particularly extreme right now, especially for Americans, thanks to the covid-19 pandemic and the bitterly contested US election. 

gideon portrait
Gideon Lichfield is editor in chief of MIT Technology Review.

This issue of MIT Technology Review is meant as an antidote. It looks at things that may happen in the years, decades, centuries, and even millennia hence, and what needs to change now to make the future better than it looks from this precarious moment.

As the image on our cover is meant to suggest, these changes aren’t the kinds of Band-Aid solutions the world has been applying for the past few years—a carbon tax here, a health-care expansion there, a financial regulation reform over there. Some of them will involve questioning long-held assumptions. 

For example, as David Rotman writes, the economic doctrine of high GDP growth, once challenged only by people on the radical fringe, is now being questioned by Nobel-winning economists. As James Temple outlines, California needs to scrap century-old fire management policies to fight its wildfires. And the field of AI is just coming to grips with the very real threats the technology can pose, as a leading researcher tells Karen Hao.

One of the biggest challenges we face is a meta-problem that makes all the others harder to tackle: the breakdown of shared systems of understanding. Matthew Hutson uses the LIGO gravitational-wave detector to show just how much of what we know is contingent on trusting other humans’ knowledge, and what happens if this “epistemic dependence” is undermined. And Abby Ohlheiser writes about the scholars and activists, overwhelmingly women and people of color, whose warnings about the attacks on truth through online abuse and conspiracy movements were ignored for years

The war on truth is one of many catastrophic threats that will require long-term thinking to avert. Tate Ryan-Mosley enumerates a host of others, and notes that most of them are, at least in theory, within our control. But this issue is intended to be not just a diagnosis of short-termism, but an antidote to the despair many feel—and there is plenty in here about solutions. 

Britta Lokting interviews an entrepreneur trying to help save the climate by composting human bodies instead of burying or cremating them. Wudan Yan looks at new attempts to tackle the problem of storing nuclear waste, some of which will stay radioactive for millions of years. In a series of dispatches, writers look at new ways to tackle issues from closing the digital divide and mapping insect populations to measuring societal health and encouraging long-term thinking. Mallory Pickett talks to a researcher on the front lines of the hunt for the next pandemic. Charlton McIlwain explores whether AI, instead of introducing hidden racial bias to housing markets, can be used to eliminate it.

In Singapore, Megan Tatum writes, the covid-19 pandemic may even have given vertical farming the boost it needs to finally go mainstream, which could revolutionize the way cities get their food supply. David W. Brown visits the lab where researchers are building a satellite that could knock an incoming asteroid off its collision course with Earth. And in our fiction slot, Masande Ntshanga explores the power of games to help us reimagine the world. I hope this issue of the magazine gives you some of that power of imagination too.

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