Apr 222010

But, if we don’t all have helicopter packs, how will we fight the barbarians at the gate

Earlier this month, Kevin Zero, of Grinding fame, wrote Your Jetpack (Cannibal Futures), an excellent rant on the old “Where’s my fucking jetpack?” trope that called on people to stop sitting around and actually build their own future. There was also something about a latex gimp suit and strapping rockets to asses, which I quite appreciated.

It’s dead-on, and provoked me to think about what exactly people want out of a future. For a long time my grousing reply to “Where’s my fucking jetpack?” had been “I don’t know, you were too busy whining to build the damn thing.”

My ire is because when someone says the aforementioned words to me, they’re immediately indicating two things.

1) They want their future handed to them. The indignant entitlement in WMFJ is impossible to miss.

2) They associate the future primarily with technology. Not just technology, but extremely fancy technology.

I mean, really, are you going to go to the bar in your jetpack? Pick up the kids? In some ways it’s the ultimate in conspicuous futurotica: loud, explosive, resource-guzzling and not particularly useful.

Things that really change the type of world we live in, technological or otherwise, aren’t usually big, complex or awe-inspiring. Instead, they’re simple, reliable and easy to replicate, usually fulfilling a very basic niche. For that reason they prove extremely infectious and end up shaping countless lives.

What do I mean? It’s worth looking at some recent examples that have drastically changed the world we live in, for millions, if not billions, of people. They offer a guide that anyone looking at creating something to survive tomorrow must take into account.

Let’s start with one of the most successful, world-changing technologies of the past half century. It beats the jetpack all to shit.

Yes, that’s an AK-47. First produced by the Soviet Union, they’ve long outlasted the country and ideology that gave birth to this weapon. It’s currently estimated that almost one in five of all the firearms in the world is an AK-47. In Kenya, as of 2005, it costs four cows.It’s a perfect example of how a successful invention (tech or otherwise) becomes extremely infectious.

Other automatic weapons are more powerful, more accurate and arguably better. But few are as legendarily reliable, easy to replicate or, importantly, as powerful in the hands of relatively untrained users. Local gunsmiths in Pakistan or Africa can crank the things out, as they don’t require a particularly high-level of technology to reproduce. The fact they’re more low-tech than the AR-15/M-16 family, for example, is actually one reason for their success.

To millions, it’s less important to have a state-of-the-art weapon than it is to have one that’s good enough and always works. In more prosperous countries, the AK-47 has become synonymous with extremism and strife, to others around the globe it’s an invaluable method of protection in a world that remains extremely violent. That speaks to another important aspect: it fills a niche that everyone needs, and does it in a way that doesn’t rely on harder to construct things like widespread government authority.

Not all similarly successful innovations are bloody in nature, however, so, for the second example, let’s look at something more life-affirming.

Norman Borlaug is one of history’s great movers, but what he wrought is so utterly pervasive that few people even know how much it’s changed the planet. Between 1943 and the late ’70s, Borlaug led the way in introducing hardier, higher-yield strains of grain around the world, along with more modern farming methods.

The resulting Green Revolution saved billions of people from starvation and turned many countries from teetering on the brink of famine to self-sufficiency, even exporting crops they once lacked.

In some ways the same principles hold as with the AK-47: make it durable, reliable and easily to replicate. After an initial burst of education, the methods became infectious, as did the new strains. Agriculture is such an ancient technology that rural subsistence farmers could replicate Borlaug’s innovations. The nature of plants, too, is to spread.

This niche is perhaps the most primal of all: everyone needs to eat. That brings us to another innovation that’s reshaping much of the world.

Microloan recipients in Northern Malawi sell their fruit and vegetables. Photo by Judith Perle

Resources. Whether measured in hard currency or some other way, they’re extremely vital. The role of financial structures in changing the world is all too often overlooked, as it lacks the flash of much technology, but it’s as or even more important.

Microloans, a growing method in developing nations for getting the desperately poor the small amount of funds they usually need to start a larger enterprise, is a perfect example of how a relatively small innovation can have a large impact.

Microloans are the latest mutation of credit, an economic innovation that played as much of a role as the steam engine in building the modern world (and occasionally tearing it apart, for laughs). Hell, the Steam Age could just as easily be called the Compound Interest Age, if we weren’t so fixated on old machines.

Like the AK-47 and the Green Revolution, microloans are easy to replicate: got some form of currency? You can do them. It’s also a concept based around another basic niche: an influx of resources is often needed to begin a larger endeavor.

That’s why it works, and because the amounts are so small, repayment rates for microloans tend to be relatively high, making them viable for the lender too.

Even though weaponry, agriculture and finance are vastly different areas, each of these examples, and their massive impact, point to some similar themes: most of the world doesn’t give two shits about jetpacks, real or hypothetical.

Instead what’s radically changed their futures are reliable food, a little bit of cash and the ability to hold their own in a fight.

You want to change the world? Find something so basic we take it for granted. Then find an inexpensive, reliable way to it better, and make sure that people don’t have to be rich or savvy to use and tinker with it.

Because at the end of the day there are more important things than a freeking jetpack.

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