The future ain’t what it used to be, to quote Yogi Berra. We chat with Theo Priestley — a former tech evangelist for companies like SAP — about the future of work, AI as our leader, and a coming golden age or renaissance of human creativity.
Or how the future could really suck thanks to surveillance capitalism.
He’s a TED speaker — and has organized a TEDx event — and has written for Wired, Forbes, the BBC, VentureBeat, and other media outlets. He now runs an “anti-consultancy,” where he tells clients what they don’t want to hear.
Listen to episode 2 of future39 right here:
Or, catch it on Anchor, or a bunch of other podcasting platforms. (Future39 is still propagating to Apple Podcasts, but I expect that to happen in the next few days.)
Like reading better? Here’s the full transcript
Note, this is a lightly-edited automated transcript … so it may not be perfect!
John Koetsier: Welcome to future 39: the podcast where every episode, we’ll take a shared peek at one of our infinite possible futures, and maybe a couple more.
My name is John Koetsier. I write for Forbes.
I consult with tech companies and I’m writing Insights From The Future. It’s a book of news … from the future. Our guest today, super interesting gentleman, he’s been the chief evangelist at software AG. He’s been a vice president at SAP, big German company, accounting software, and much more than that. He’s written for Forbes, Wired, VentureBeat, and other publications, spoken at Ted and — didn’t know this — organized a TEDx himself.
Now he’s looking at re-examining how the future should look through a hypercritical lens. If you follow him on Twitter, you will get that. He’s been a futurist, but now he calls himself an anti-futurist. So I’m pretty interested in that. He’s also run a consultancy and still runs one … but guess what …
It’s an anti consultancy. So it’s sort of an anti think tank consultancy kind of service. He says, I’ll tell you exactly what you don’t want to hear because what you do want to hear isn’t worth much no matter how much or how high a price you’ve paid someone to say it. So … super interesting: shoots from the hip, shoots from the lip.
Please welcome. This is Theo Priestley. Welcome.
Theo Priestley: Thanks John. Thanks. I enjoyed that little intro.
John Koetsier: I’m glad you did. Let’s start with this anti futurism thing. I think this is a Yogi Berra quote: the future ain’t what it used to be. I mean, this year has been kind of an eye opener for us, hasn’t it?
Theo Priestley: Yeah, it has, I think it’s a reckoning happening. It’s certainly in some areas in the tech sector around what people perceive is the right kind of future that we should be aiming for. And that’s certainly where I tried to sort of look from a sort of a hypercritical lens.
There’s a lot of hype. And I tried to sort of peel back the veneer in terms of hype and marketing and actually say, well, is there really anything under the hood worth talking about? And is it really worth something that we should be investing in for the future?
John Koetsier: Interesting. Interesting. So let’s go back in time a little bit to before you were an anti futurist or an anti consultant … and you were a futurist and you still are obviously in a lot of ways, but what did you see back then some years ago? And how has that changed?
Theo Priestley: So, I mean, I’d been writing blogs for about 10 years or so. And, I was very much sort of concentrated in the digital transformation kind of industry. So a lot of what I saw stemmed from the future of work, I guess. And, how people would interface with various systems.
And so some of the predictions were more around what was going to happen for IOT. How are people going to interact with systems, whether it was going to be voice, whether it was going to be touch, what kind of systems would be, would adopt these kind of technologies.
And in terms of the future of work, what would it mean for collaboration? What would it mean for hierarchy? And as the years kind of sort of rolled on, and I started to look at other trends and, and kinda connect the dots a little bit. So, you know, I saw that AI would have a severe impact on IOT, for example.
In the future. I looked at some startup trends to sort of understand, well, which ones are worth looking at? Which ones are kind of junk, and then odds, I guess as I steeped myself. I’m more in that kinda sorta culture more, and forward projecting … I could see patterns in terms of, well, actually this isn’t really the way we want to go.
You know, we shouldn’t really be aiming for the singularity, for example. You know, the merging of human and machines that Ray Kurzweil bangs or has banged on about for the last, I don’t know, 20, 30 years or so. And that’s, again, I guess that’s where the anti futurist kind of thing was born from was that a lot of the old guard futurism predictions aren’t necessarily the ones that we should be aiming for.
John Koetsier: Talk to me a little bit about that. I mean, first of all, I’m glad to hear that you’re not the flying car kind of futurist, and you know, I’m also kind of glad to hear that you’re not the kind of futurist that, you know, everything is rosy. Everything is amazing. You know, we’ll all live on Mars and we’ll have a Cybertruck and we’ll drive around and have a great life.
I mean, obviously we want a great life, and there’s amazing things that we see technology can do for us in the future. But I think this year we’ve also seen, we’ve become more aware of things like surveillance capitalism. We become more aware of things that algorithms and AI are doing to us and impacting what it means to be human or what it’s like to have a human experience.
Just today we’re recording. Now it’s Thanksgiving Day in the United States. We’re not, neither of us live … I’m in Canada. You’re in Edinburgh or somewhere close there, right?
Theo Priestley: Yeah. Edinburgh. That’s right. Yeah.
John Koetsier: Excellent. You know, Facebook and Instagram are down and it’s a big deal. Right. So, so talk to me about the kind of future that we should be building.
Theo Priestley: I think we have become very heavily reliant on technology, as a species. And you know, today is a classic example where we have two major outages of services built by one company that we rely on.
And I remember, a while back when Facebook started having outages and, and it was like, Oh, no, you know, all my websites and all my web services are integrated into Facebook with a like button or log in through Facebook or authentication and I can’t do anything.
My life is crippled because my website, I can’t log into my bank because I use it with Facebook authentication, blah, blah, blah. And, and it kind of strikes you that it’s really dangerous to build a future based on singular technological experiences or technological services.
And we’re becoming more removed from human experiences. For example, like you say, I saw there was a release of a new, another social network called Cocoon, which is only for family and friends or small groups. And I’m like, why do we need this? Pick up the bloody phone and talk to your family or something.
We don’t need to surround ourselves in small bubbles enabled by technology. And I think, this kind of worries me when we’re talking about building futures and in that the technology is becoming more and more in front of the person. Rather, and removing them from the experience and from the process itself.
It’s like the, I don’t know if you remember seeing it, the picture of the snapshot of I think, the golden Jubilee, of the queen, and in the picture, in the background, everyone is watching this event through the mobile phone and there was this old lady who’s the only one who’s actually not on the mobile phone. Actually watching the event firsthand and everyone’s watching it through the screen and I just thought, that’s really sad that we place so much in front of us rather than just actually experiencing it for real. So I do feel that technology is starting to eat into what it means to be human and what it means to experience things as a human.
John Koetsier: I think that’s really, really valid. I mean, I think that when we see everybody at a concert, a recording something or you’re on vacation and you go to the viewpoint and people look at it for about a microsecond before whipping out the smartphone, or they just race up to it with the smartphone, capture the picture and then leave without actually experiencing it for what it is.
A lot of us feel like there’s something missing there. There’s something wrong there, and that’s something that’s probably gonna get even worse with the rise of smart glasses, which we see are probably down five years, 10 years down the road or something like that. Right. I mean, right now already, so much of our life is digitally encased … digitally enclosed …what we experience, how we see things is through glass, right. Through a device in our hands, a device on our desks or something like that. And we’ll only get more so, as we live in the matrix with smart glasses and augmented reality and mixed reality.
Theo Priestley: Yeah, I know. That’s right. And I think other things, like you mentioned, sort of surveillance capitalism for example. I mean, there has to be a trade off somewhere. I mean for all the surveillance that takes place in China, for example, they do actually build services around that. And I think because the populace has grown up with that, they’re quite comfortable with the trade off.
So they know that the government takes all our data, but we actually have an improved service. And then if you’ve ever been to China, it’s amazing that you literally cannot survive without using WeChat. Because everything is built into that. And, they know that everything that they do is monitored and even through WeChat itself.
But I think the services that you get back, it obviously to the citizens there, it is worth it. Even the social credit system, for example, I think it does drive a lot of conformancey and the removal of basic services. If you walk across the road or jaywalk for example, you know, you get points deducted, or if you, you shout on a train and it causes a disturbance, you get points deducted off your score system.
And that impacts your ability to access other services. And it does force people to conform it into a different way of thinking. But, I think when we look at what we want to do in the West in terms of what will you want? Hyper-personalization blah, blah, but I don’t want to give you all my details.
I don’t want to sacrifice my privacy. Then it’s like, well, how can companies, or how can corporations, or even the government build those kind of enabled services without you understanding that there is a trade off required. So we’re in this sort of weird transitional state where we have various parties who want to build things, and clever things.
But a lot of us balk at the idea of having to give up all of our personal freedom and our data privacy in order to build that.
John Koetsier: Yeah. I can totally see that. I mean, and it’s amazing because it was just probably a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, that the Black Mirror episode came out right where this woman is getting scored on her reactions and interactions with everybody that she’s passing by.
And we thought, wow, that’s a horrible future and we never want to get there. And we’re living in it right now, at least if we’re living in China with a social credit system and probably living with it here as well. I think it is interesting the point that you brought up, which is, we do want our environment to conform to who we are and what we want.
We do want that. That can become a cocoon … that can become a prison of our own preference. But there is something, there is some value in that as well. I think that one of the challenges with achieving that right now is that all the AI that we interact with today is owned by somebody else and is owned by somebody else with a vested interest in selling our time, selling our attention, selling something to us or our eyeballs to somebody else.
And we don’t own that AI and I know there’s a bunch of projects out there. And I can’t help but think that at some point in the future, everybody will own or have the ability to own their own AI, which then can help. It can be a virtual butler in some cases, in some sense, and control and manage some of the things that are going on … be an assistant in a lot of ways in your life. But also, do what you want it to do rather than what the surveillance capitalists, a company wants to do.
Theo Priestley: Yeah. I’m going back to your point about, predictions that I’ve made in the past. I mean, one of them that I wrote in the blog. Probably through a gin fueled haze, was that kind of thing, which I’m a big data, I think I call it a big data fortune teller was the title of the of the blog itself.
And I did believe at that point in time that we would be able to download all the interactions that we’ve ever had on social media and things like that, and our banking transactions and who we’ve spoken to and our text messages and actually feed it into … you know, a personalized algorithm or an algorithm that we have, and that begins to make sense of the data and all of our daily lives for us. Like you say, rather than all that information being scooped up by corporate entities and they make sense of it, and then they basically feed it back and in the form of advertising and whatnot. We basically have that data and then we feed it through an algorithm for ourselves. And then it basically says, right, well, based on everything that you’ve told me, your life’s a mess and we should turn it around and these are the things that we need to do to help you. And I think that would be immensely useful for the people in general, to make sense of their lives on a daily basis, to wean themselves off for perhaps, and it was kind of a dichotomy to sort of say, wean yourself off technology, but then you’re relying on an AI to help you do that.
But, you know, wean yourself off other things because it’s actually helping you and directing you to make small changes to. So to better your life, because it’s understanding your daily habits. And I think habits are one of the toughest things that humans need to break.
I think we talk about the … we talked about climate change, for example. And how it’s everyone else’s fault, but ours, when in fact there’s 7 billion people on the planet doing daily things that actually impact the climate as well as the big corporations who are pumping out CO2 and not giving a damn.
So we have to break some small habits in order to force them to break one big habit, for example. Yeah. So I think if there are things that can help us achieve that, then I’m all for that kind of self service.
John Koetsier: Nice. Nice. Let’s segue off that then, and you’ve talked about the future of work.
We saw the book come out probably it’s gotta be three, four years now, “The Four Day Work Week” and I think there are actually some countries that are moving in that direction, some of the Scandinavian countries that are moving that direction … to have a four-day work week down from five … can’t imagine that’ll come in the States anytime soon. They’re probably going to move up to six. But, do you see that being achievable?
Theo Priestley: I do in the long run. I think, and again, it kinda goes back to the habits kind of thing. I think what needs to happen is we use the technologies to break the cycle of the five day working week and the mentality around that.
So when we talk about, well, I’m doing four days or five days, or making actually using technology to make us more productive, what that really means is: let’s cram in more work that you can achieve in those five days. I’m not, let’s make you work more efficiently and actually give you some time back for yourself.
And I think that’s the cycle that we need to break in order to achieve a four-day working week for one thing is using their technology to help us achieve this, either the same amount of work or slight something slightly above that level of work within four days, and then give that worker an extra day back for themselves.
And they have to switch off. You know, we have to recognize that yes, we’re always online, but at the same time, we’re giving you the extra day, we’re not going to email you to ask you to do some work from home or anything else like that. And we’re going to serve that time. And then the second cycle that we need to break is obviously, well, how do we fill that time?
You know, how do we not spend a day bingeing Netflix, for example? Because we can though, how do we enable people to … you know, realize some other kind of potential that they have, whether it’s creativity, whether it’s learning, some kind of new skill that’s outside of the workplace, entirely.
Do something for yourself. And how does that happen? So there are a couple of big things. A couple of big societal shifts, I think it’s our attitudes to work. It’s the corporation’s attitudes towards work and productivity. And then humanity’s attitude to how do we move ourselves forward?
John Koetsier: Well, I think that’s essential for people to have some of their time back. I mean, what is the point of having technology? Technology is a tool that helps us do things faster, better, smarter, hopefully. It cannot and can be for other things as well, like military technology.
But, we have technology for a reason and at some point we see that everything that can … like Aaron Levie, CEO of Box told me that he agreed with the statement that anything that can be automated will be automated. Over the long term. Right? And so as that happens, shouldn’t we use that as a way for people to have more time that shouldn’t it take less and less time over the course of coming years for you to earn enough money to have a reasonably good life, a reasonably good living, a couple of vacations, a home, those sorts of things that you want to have. And shouldn’t you be able to do that in less and less time because of the benefits of technology? I think we need to build in that direction.
Theo Priestley: Oh, no, absolutely. I mean, if you think, I mean doctors and nurses, for example, classic, classic example of a profession that is completely overworked, vastly underpaid in my opinion as well. And we see constant reports about some of their work being threatened by algorithms, radiologists, for example, who can turn to an algorithm to, spot diseases or make sure he’s a lot faster.
And I think rather than saying, well, hey, we can make you turn these things around twice as fast. No, but you’re still going to do a 60 hour week. You know, we can say, well, actually let’s bring down those hours a week to something a bit more manageable, which means you can actually spend time with your family.
You don’t have to sleep on a hospital bed in the dark in the dungeon and then not have a shower and have to wake up in five hours time kind of thing, you know? If the algorithm couldn’t take that work away from you, and, and it is this kind of sort of attitude of, you know, doing things faster, smarter, more efficiently, but giving, recognizing that there is still a human being at the end of that work process. And what, how do we basically make their life have more meaning outside of work? You know, if you are living to work, then there’s clearly something wrong, I think with society.
John Koetsier: Yeah. I mean, certainly there are some people who that is their life and that is the meaning of their life. And maybe that’s Elon Musk. But I’m going to guess that that’s a small fraction of the world. And I’m going to guess that even in those cases, those hyper achievers, those workaholics would benefit by having some more time for personal time and family time and other things like that. You’ve talked about, kind of a new golden age or Renaissance. Can you talk about what you mean by that?
Theo Priestley: Yeah. So that kind of stems from the four day working week and giving time back. I kind of mentioned this in my TED talk, where I spoke about would you follow a robot leader and what would people do if AI, you know, not took over the world, but if AI made our lives a lot easier, and I do see algorithms and machine learning and AI sort of.
I’m of the mind that if we, if you want to let AI do the mundane chores, then just let them, because, you know, we weren’t meant to be sitting in a cubicle and a Dilbert box, doing really mundane things. We want to expand what it means to be human. If we want to expand what humanity means as a collective, in terms of art, studying, philosophy, sociology, all those kinds of sorts of things, which are the softer skills rather than technological skills, which is development, coding, all those kinds of sort of things.
So, when I spoke about a Renaissance or a golden age, it was almost peering back in time and seeing, well, look at what the Greeks achieved because they were free to think, and what could we do that, what could we do again if we were free to think, free to create, you know, have that kind of sort of freedom again given to us because AI and robots and stuff like that are actually going to do the really crap stuff that we don’t want to do. Nobody really wants to fill a shelf in a supermarket and nobody wants to serve behind in a McDonald’s or a Burger King, for example.
It we were meant to be better than that. And, and I think we are in this kind of, it’s a really painful transitional period where, you know, we can see that there will be disruption coming through more advanced AI and things like that. What is it going to mean? It’s not going to happen next year.
I mean, we see lots of predictions about people worried about their job, AI’s going to take their job. I mean, let’s put a baseline on this. You know, there is no AI — nobody has AI — there’s some very clever algorithms out there, but they can only achieve very limited things.
There isn’t any AI that can do everything. There’s never going to be a Skynet. These are so far down the line it’s not gonna affect our lifetime probably. When it does happen, when these things do occur I would hope that we can turn round as a species and say, well let them do the stuff we don’t want to do anymore.
I don’t mind being served by a robot from a burger, as long as it means that I can actually learn how to paint. Or learn how to learn woodwork or learn some kind of, plumbing or, and it’s like anything sort of practical cause again, I think practical skills along with the softer skills are actually going to become more and more important as we face a life dealing with climate change as well.
John Koetsier: Interesting. Interesting. So I can agree with pretty much all that you’re seeing right there. And I do agree with that, and yet see some challenges and I know you’ll see those as well, but I’m interested in your answer to this question because, you know, let’s say we have that future, let’s say it’s 10 years, 20 years from now, whatever it is, and we figured out how to let smart systems, automation and robotics do a lot of the grunt work in society. We’ve also figured out a way to share the wealth and the benefits of that. And I’m guessing some nations are going to be a little better than others at that by the way.
But you know what if you know, 90% of people just want to scroll more through Tiktok watching videos and enjoying themselves all day, or watch Netflix all day, if that’s still around, what’s the scenario there that you see?
Theo Priestley: To me, there’s no real easy answer. I mean, this goes way back into just society in general. I think there will always be pockets of society who will be happy to do nothing, and contribute nothing. You know, in the UK there are, and I’ll probably get shot for this. Or shot down for this, but there are pockets of society who are quite happy to live off benefits and who don’t do anything, who have no inclination to go out and work. But, you know, do have a lifestyle that can be supported purely on benefits alone, and they’re happy with that.
And if that’s how they want to live their lives, and then that’s fine because you can’t force people to turn around what’s natural for them… human nature for them. But it doesn’t mean that the majority of society will be like that.
I think the majority will find that they do want to achieve something. They do want a goal in their life that isn’t tied to work. And does give them some intrinsic meaning to who they are. So I don’t think automation and AI and all these kinds of sort of emerging technologies are going to solve all societal problems, but they will for the majority.
John Koetsier: Yeah. I think I tend to agree with you that for the majority of people, they will find more time to discover what it means to be human and what it means to be them and explore their creativity, explore their interests, explore whether it’s arts and crafts, whether it’s technology, whether it is a practical skill or something like that.
Perhaps it’s more interactions with people, other things like that, but that people largely will explore positive things. And I hope that is actually the case. I wanted to also talk … you just closed a deal to do a pretty significant book project. And I think I’m a part of that actually.
Can you tell us a little bit about what is that book project? What’s it called? What are you doing and when’s it gonna come out?
Theo Priestley: Sure. Yes. You are part of that yeah. So I’ve been mulling the idea of writing a book for a while. I’ve been putting it off and putting it off because I think in the back of my mind when you write a kind of business related type of book, it’s almost like … oh, he’s become a speaker. Oh, he’s become a book writer. Oh … and that is the next thing is to become Gary V … you can sell your soul that way. I’ve been keen to sort of avoid the traditional business book. And what I did was, I thought of a concept where I wanted to tackle the subject of the future and what it means for businesses, society and technology in general.
I didn’t just want to sort of do another Homer Duce kind of thing. I wanted to involve a lot of people because I believe that having different viewpoints and having different inputs actually should enrich the reader experience, but also bring a broader view to, a book.
So, I hit upon the idea of calling the book the Future Is Now, and the subtext is expert insights into the future of business, technology and society. I’m co-authoring it with another futurist from South Africa called Bronwyn Williams. And we are involving 20 to 30 others.
So futurists and experts in different fields to basically, write about the future of health care or about the future of mobility, the future involving AI and the future of banking, all these kinds of business and societal topics that we believe will be key for consideration in the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years.
And, hopefully, lead the readers through a bit of a journey, but also give them something back in terms of insight, in terms of how to tackle that from their own personal lives, but also from a business perspective. So how does a business adopt AI? How does a business take advantage of the data from IOT?
What does this mean for healthcare? What does this mean if I want to sort of create some kind of new banking empire, that kind of thing. So I’m hoping that the topics resonate with a lot of people, both on a personal, but also from a professional level. And Bloomsbury were excited when we pitched it. They’re picking it up. We signed that deal this week. It will be available, fingers crossed, April 21.
John Koetsier: Wow. Very specific date!
Theo Priestley: Yeah. We have challenging editorial deadlines to meet.
John Koetsier: Excellent. Excellent. Well, I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to starting on the piece that I’m working on and looking forward to seeing the entire thing as well. I wanna thank you for taking some time in your evening in Scotland to join on the podcast here and to contribute your insight on what you see in the future, what you see around the corner, what you see as the future of work and maybe even the future of humanity along with technology. Thank you so much.
Theo Priestley: Thank you John. Thank you.
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