Close

We Don’t Need a Jetsons Future, Just a Sustainable One

“Cozy futurism” reimagines tech for the greater good

3 min read
A cup of tea with a microchip at the end of the teabag string.

For decades, our vision of the future has been stuck in a 1960s-era dream of science fiction embodied by The Jetsons and space travel. But that isn't what we need right now. In fact, what if our vision of that particular technologically advanced future is all wrong?

What if, instead of self-driving cars, digital assistants whispering in our ears, and virtual-reality glasses, we viewed a technologically advanced society as one where everyone had sustainable housing? Where we could manage and then reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere? Where everyone had access to preventative health care that was both personalized and less invasive?

What we need is something called cozy futurism, a concept I first encountered while reading a blog post by software engineer Jose Luis Ricón Fernández de la Puente. In the post, he calls for a vision of technology that looks at human needs and attempts to meet those needs, not only through technologies but also cultural shifts and policy changes.

Take space travel as an example. Much of the motivation behind building new rockets or developing colonies on Mars is wrapped up in the rhetoric of our warming planet being something to escape from. In doing so, we miss opportunities to fix our home rather than flee it.

But we can change our attitudes. What's more, we are changing. Climate change is a great example. Albeit slowly, entrepreneurs who helped build out the products and services over the tech boom of the past 20 years are now searching for technologies to address the crisis.

Jason Jacobs, the founder of the fitness app Runkeeper, has created an entire media business called My Climate Journey to find and help recruit tech folks to address climate change. Last year, Jeff Bezos created a US $10 billion fund to make investments in organizations fighting climate change. Bill Gates wrote an entire book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.

Mitigating climate change is an easy way to understand the goals of cozy futurism, but I'm eager to see us all go further.

Mitigating climate change is an easy way to understand the goals of cozy futurism, but I'm eager to see us all go further. What about reducing pollution in urban and poor communities? Nonprofits are already using cheap sensors to pinpoint heat islands in cities, or neighborhoods where air pollution disproportionately affects communities of color. With this information, policy changes can lighten the unfair distribution of harm.

And perhaps if we see the evidence of harm in data, more people will vote to attack pollution, climate change, and other problems at their sources, rather than looking to tech to put a Band-Aid on them or mitigate the effects—or worse, adding to the problem by producing a never-ending stream of throwaway gadgets. We should instead embrace tech as a tool to help governments hold companies accountable for meeting policy goals.

Cozy futurism is an opportunity to reframe the best use of technology as something actively working to help humanity—not individually, like a smartwatch monitoring your health or self-driving cars easing your commute, but in aggregate. That's not to say we should do away with VR goggles or smart gadgets, but we should think a bit more about how and why we're using them, and whether we're overprioritizing them. After all, what's better than demonstrating that the existential challenges facing us all are things we can find solutions to, not just for those who can hitch a ride off-world but for everyone.

After all, I'd rather be cozy on Earth than stuck in a bubble on Mars.

This article appears in the August 2021 print issue as “Cozy Futurism."

The Conversation (3)
Francesco Rago 29 Aug, 2021
LM

This post contains a deeply reactionary argument that considers the social problems of minorities to be primary over the development of humanity. This philosophy is not modern but ancient: traces of it can already be found in the Greek works of those who did not like adventurous travels to southern Italy to found colonies. The whole post has nothing to do with science and technology but is a consequence of decadent post-modern philosophies of a society that has lost all interest in novelty. The post forgets the purpose of the scientific method and the need deriving from the evolution of the species to open new fronts to allow adaptation to new contexts. To be cozy on Earth means to create a dead society.

Eric Toft 02 Aug, 2021
M

First of all, you got the entire motivation for going to Mars (or any other unexplored place) wrong. Such people want to create a new society according to their own ideas, without having to answer to established authority. Kind of like the people who want to live on a sea-going artificial city-state under no nation's laws, but with more money. There is also a pioneering spirit at play, and the good old gee whiz, we're living in the future appeal, that will fade away pretty quickly in the minimalist and chancy existence to be expected in a bubble on Mars.

Whose definition of the greater good will we be implementing? Red state or blue state - just to name one obvious point of contention in society - there are many more. This article really has very little to do with technology and a great deal to say about planning people's lives by - guess who - their betters. Subjecting technological progress to planning is a great way to get less of it. The essential fallacy is that we can actually know what long term societal benefits (and harms) new technologies will have in the future - we don't. What unanticipated advancements will spin off from the "space travel" impugned by the author? We already know that the moon race in the '60s paid enormous dividends for society. That Jason Jacobs is doing his thing with "My Climate Journey" is good for him because he's doing his thing. Telling other people not to do their thing, or worse, preventing them from doing so is authoritarian and evil ("hold companies accountable for meeting policy goals"). This nation's founding definition of the greater good is this - "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

Thus we come to the appeal of the Climate Crisis. Here, apparently, is the overarching justification for ordering other people's lives - it's for the good of the planet. We will tell you what your life is, what liberty you are permitted, and ration your pursuit of happiness. "Cozy futurism" is really just old-fashioned statism, which is in no way cozy, rather smothering.

Manuel Perez 30 Jul, 2021
LM

Congratulations Stacey for this very common sense opinion. First, it exposes the so-obsolete "disposable" mentality that allowed our technology to grow by leaps and bounds, while not being held accountable for its trail of environmental disasters in terms of discarded obsolete technologies, polluted environments, and so on. During 2020 we saw the rise of gold-plated billionaire bunkers, preferably in New Zealand, and now colonizing Mars because Earth is so polluted that those with the financial resources prefer to abandon ship, instead of working together to save spaceship Earth.

You are in no way proposing to stop innovation. What you are definitely calling for is to see all people around us a being members of the one and only human family, and therefore entitled to the same rights as human beings. There are many people working diligently to save our common home, and your call for this is much welcomed.

Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less