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. 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."
Stacey Higginbotham writes “Internet of Everything,” Spectrum’s column about how connected devices shape our lives. Tech writer Higginbotham enjoys covering the Internet of Things because the topic encompasses semiconductors, wireless networks, and computing hardware. She alsopublishes a weekly newsletter called Stacey Knows Things and hosts The Internet of Things Podcast. Higginbotham figures she has at least 60 IoT gadgets in her Austin, Texas, home, and she admits, “Frankly, I hate keeping it all up and running.”