I’m a fan of Alexis Madrigal, a person half my age who is smart and curious (and, near as I can tell given that we’ve never met, a decent human being). He was maybe my third follower on Twitter. I didn't (and don't) know why he followed me, but I followed him back and --- he’s been instrumental in “guiding” me through the terrain that is the world today, keyboards and all. (I use the term “guiding” in the most general sense, because his guidance was neither intentional nor overt.)
Madrigal recently announced that he was leaving his current position at TheAtlantic.com to join Fusion, a cable network.
In a note to subscribers of his 5 Intriguing Things, he wrote:
My animating belief is that politicians and bullshitters and ideologues have taken the idea of societal change and replaced it with a particular notion of technology as the only or main causal mechanism in history. Somehow, we’ve been convinced that only machines and corporations make the future, not people and ideas. And that's not true. Just take a look back in history at the mid-century “futurists” projecting they’d be living on Mars with their stay-at-home wives, playing pinochle in all-white communities.
But if you really want to know what the future is going to be like, you can't just talk about the billions of phones in China or paste some logarithmic growth charts into your Powerpoint. You have to go to the places where people are experiencing bits of the future—living the changes—and use that reporting to weave together a multivalent portrait of our possible futures. You have to get the many ways of thinking about the future into the same space, so you can see how they fit together. [emphasis added]
I agree. One hundred percent. That notion is precisely what has guided my work as a historian. It was the point of my first book, a history of plumbing in the 19th c US: Ideas —- the products of people — matter. Not the “technology.” Every book I’ve written since has made the same point by looking at the IDEAS — the social context — in which technologies were created and adopted.
These particular days — early autumn 2014 — are exiting times for me. I’m not “going places” physically. Intellectually, however, I'm moving in a new direction, one that allows me the leisure to examine those far-away places, both geographic and intellectual; to think more about our intensely interesting present and thus about the future. Because in my heart, to borrow Anne Frank’s phrase, I believe that if we understand that the past is different from the present, then we also understand that the future is ours to shape.