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"Society if..."

Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose
Programming note: I’m tweaking this newsletter a bit in response to some thoughtful feedback from readers. Instead of sending it out on Sundays, I’m going to send it out during the week, when more people are likely to be paying attention to their inboxes. I’m also going to play around with format and frequency, and you can expect a bit of variety this summer as I dial in the right formula. As always, please send feedback!
You may have noticed that the logo for this newsletter has changed. There are two reasons for that.
First, and most practically, Twitter will soon be integrating newsletters by Revue (the newsletter platform with which I’m writing these words) more tightly into its core product. Soon, you’ll be able to subscribe using a button on my Twitter profile page. Which is fun! But also possibly confusing, given that the old logo for this newsletter was the same as my Twitter profile photo. With a new logo, that won’t be an issue.
The second reason for the change is that for the past few months, as I was thinking about what I want the vibe and purpose of this newsletter to be, I kept coming back to this image:

If you spend a lot of time online, you probably recognize this as the “Society if…” meme. It’s a meme based on what looks like a video game rendering of a hyper-evolved, super-futuristic world full of flying cars, gleaming skyscrapers, and perfectly groomed landscapes.
According to KnowYourMeme, it started in 2018, when Twitter user @bhrisgreen posted a similarly futuristic image with the caption “society if bobby shmurda never went to jail.”
@bhrisgreen
@bhrisgreen
The joke got picked up by a few Instagram meme accounts, which shared it with different futuristic images. A few months later, Twitter user @yanemic tweeted the now-familiar image with the caption “the world if k-pop was illegal,” and it was off to the races.
Now, the meme is everywhere, usually accompanied by some caption like “Society if Jake Paul never existed” or “Society if boomers could pronounce ‘Chipotle.’”
emma healy
society if google docs default font was times new roman size 12 instead of arial size 11 https://t.co/5iPFEbnjpq
helen
society if brendan fraser hadn’t been blacklisted from hollywood in 2003 https://t.co/TOyhpx2VMV
At the risk of killing the joke by over-analyzing it, what I love about this meme is that it depicts a contingent vision of the future. It says: the future can be incredible, a shimmering Jetsons-like utopia where everything is amazing and life is easy, but only if certain conditions are met.
That, in a nutshell, is how I feel about the future. And it’s why, when someone asks me whether I think Technology X or Company Y is going to make the world better or worse, my answer is usually: It depends!
Will AI free us from mundane tasks and help us solve humanity’s biggest problems, or will it eliminate millions of jobs and create a dystopian society of haves and have-nots? It depends!
Is social media going to strengthen communities and increase access to information, or will it increase polarization and erode the foundations of democratic society? It depends!
Will Amazon provide good, rewarding jobs or usher us into a future of labor exploitation and algorithmic management? It depends!
All of these outcomes depend on choices made by humans – executives, workers, politicians, investors, users – in the present. Nothing about the future is inevitable or fully baked; everything rides on what we decide to do with the tools and resources we have, and whether we decide to design and use new technologies in a way that makes people’s lives better or worse.
In Futureproof, I tried to strike a balance between optimism and pragmatism – explaining how AI and automation could make our lives either much, much better or much, much worse, and how the difference between those outcomes rests, in large part, on the personal and political choices we make today. I’m going to try to strike that same balance in this newsletter. I’ll keep sharing stray thoughts, links to things I find interesting and the occasional mini-essay. But I’ll also try to pitch things forward, and talk about how certain choices are bringing us closer to, or further from, the utopian vision of the future we all want. You could think of it as “Society if…” in newsletter form.
As I do that, I’ll be thinking a lot about this guy from the meme:
Me IRL
Me IRL
As you can see, he’s walking his robot dog with what looks like some telescoping Inspector Gadget thing on his arm. He looks content, chill and unbothered by the flying cars zooming overhead. Technology, the future – it’s all working for him, to the degree that he doesn’t seem amazed or taken aback by any of it.
Ultimately, that’s what I want – a society in which technology works for us, makes our lives easier and happier, and ultimately does its job so well that it fades into the background. There’s a long way to go, but I hope we’ll get there.
What I've been up to:
– I guest-hosted The Daily this week, with an episode about the struggles of India’s largest vaccine-maker
– I appeared on a few other podcasts to talk about Futureproof, including Freedom Matters and Infinia ML
– We adopted a puppy! He’s 3 months old, a German Shepherd/Lab mix (we think) and extremely cute when he’s not eating all my computer cables
Good links:
– Kyle Chayka on “main character energy
– Cade Metz and Erin Griffith on flying cars
– Lauren Smiley on one of the craziest gig-economy stories you’ll ever read
– The Defiant’s Definitive Guide to DeFi (I’m reading up on decentralized finance – if you’ve read something enlightening on the topic, let me know)
– Lina Khan’s original Yale Law Journal article on Amazon and antitrust (newly relevant, given her new post atop the FTC)
– Ezra Klein’s podcast with Sam Altman about AI
– Ali Breland on Amazon’s aggressive PR tactics (which are sadly not unique to Amazon)
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Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose @kevinroose

On life among the machines.

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