David Rothkopf's new book confronts profound questions about the nature of disruption on human behavior, creativity, economic activity, and human understanding that our shaping our collective future.
I'm a big fan of the TED Books series from Simon & Schuster. Like the speeches that spawn the books, they always pack a lot of punch in a little package—none more so than their latest release, The Great Questions of Tomorrow by David Rothkopf, who is the CEO and Editor of the FP Group, publisher of Foreign Policy.
The opening quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, sets the foundation of the book: "If I an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper questions to ask, for once I know the proper questions, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes." David Rothkopf believes in the power of questions, and he travelled the world—a world he believes is on the brink of a transformation akin to the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution—looking for the best ones.
The following excerpt, explaining the deep personal beginnings of this intellectual quest, is the Introduction to the book.
When I was seventeen years old, I watched a documentary on nuclear winter that described the imagined aftermath of World War III. Hundreds of millions were dead. Hundreds of millions more were displaced or starving or slowly dying of radiation poisoning.
The summer day on which I was presented with all this was especially beautiful. Nonetheless, the film had left me in a kind of fog, shocked by the enormity of what seemed a plausibly imminent and horrific future for all mankind. Catastrophe palpably loomed even for leafy, green Summit, New Jersey, prosperous, oblivious, and bathed in sunshine as it was. I went looking for my father.
My father was a scientist. He had come to the United States in 1939 at the age of thirteen. He and his parents left one step ahead of the Nazis. Almost all the rest of our immediate family, almost three dozen people, were lost to the senseless horrors of the Holocaust. Five years after my father arrived he was in the US Army on his way back to Europe. There, he would command artillery batteries, and later embark on a journey to find the traces of lost relatives amid the desolation of the recently liberated concentration camps.
You would have thought that enduring such horror—growing up in fear in Nazi-controlled Austria, seeing his father dragged off on Kristallnacht, fighting in the bloodiest war in the history of mankind, adjusting to life after loss and dislocation in a new and unfamiliar country—would have produced a certain grimness in my father, perhaps even pessimism. It did not. That does not mean that he forgot what had happened. Every year on the anniversary of Kristallnacht he would send my brother and sister and me reminders of the day. Right now, as I write this, the last handwritten note he ever sent me—a postcard of Dachau, Germany—hangs taped to the wall over my desk. It reads “November 10.”
My father channeled his energies into science. Some people found solace in religion. Others found it in expressing their feelings or sense of alienation via the arts. He chose with each blow to become more rational, to turn not to God as limned in dogma and ritual but as manifested in nature. He sought understanding in facts, proofs, and algorithms. Specifically, he sought to understand how the human brain worked, how we learned. He asked questions. Constantly. Finding the right questions and seeking answers became his mission and, I believe, his own personal religion. His work brought him to perhaps the foremost scientific and technical research institution on earth at that time, the Murray Hill, New Jersey, headquarters of Bell Telephone Laboratories.
Bell Labs was a sprawling campus. In 1973, I had a summer job there. It was a world in which scientists were given free rein to do pure research, and the results in the nearly half century since the Labs were established had already proven to be transformational. Unlike other corporate labs or sponsored research in think tanks, this was a place that, in its heyday, was about creative minds being set free to first search for the most important questions, then for the best possible answers.
Bell Labs is where radar and telecommunications satellites were developed and where new frontiers in computing were explored. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment was the development of the transistor, an innovation designed to amplify long-distance calls that went much further in its applications, ushering in the information age by enabling the miniaturization of electronics and the establishment of the networks and the creation of computing power on which modern society relies.
I’m sure that, back then, I hadn’t the slightest idea of where the innovations that began at the Labs would lead, of the vast changes they would invite and demand of us all. Nor did I recognize the new questions that they would raise, or how they might tie into my contemplation of nuclear oblivion.
After searching for a bit, I found my father. If memory serves, I tracked him down at the swim club that many others from the Labs belonged to. He was by the tennis courts—a place typically dominated by a couple of fierce mathematicians groundstrokes and matching temperaments. As I approached him, he knew I was troubled by something. He was, after all, a psychologist. That said, when he asked what was wrong, I don’t think he expected me to say that I was shaken by the looming prospect of global thermonuclear war. It just didn’t seem like that kind of afternoon.
We sat down and I explained what I had seen. “Hundreds of millions of people will die!” I said, “And it could happen. It could happen any minute. In fact, it probably will happen.” The US and Russian militaries were on a hair-trigger setting. Missiles were waiting in their silos and onboard submarines lurking just off our shores and theirs.
He paused for a minute and then asked with a kind of contrarian perversity that I know he and many other scientists thought was wryly charming, “I see. So, what is it that has you so upset?”
This kind of curveball question had been thrown at me my whole life. But still it made my head spin. “What do you mean, why am I so upset? The whole planet will be devastated. Hundreds of millions will die. Even if you survive, there will be no point in going on living.”
He paused for a moment and stared out into the distance. “Well,” he said calmly and with a slight trace of a Viennese accent, “you know, a hundred million people—a third of the population of Europe—died during the fourteenth century of bubonic plague. The result was the Renaissance.”
The Renaissance represented a civilizational watershed. It produced changes of scope and profundity that touched every aspect of human lives. The nature of states and the rules that governed kings and kingdoms, their relationship with the Church, the fundamental tenets of religious belief, the nature of work and of economics, the nature of war and of peace, even the basic philosophies which societies embraced regarding the role of individuals, individual rights, the nature of the social contract, the very purpose of civilization would be rethought and changed forever. It was an upheaval that for Europe and, ultimately, the world, was epochal. How does the seemingly distant past, a time that for us is depicted only in the yellowing pages of books and in the cracked images of centuries-old frescoes, have any relevance in this era of virtual reality, big data, mapping the genome, and an entire world that seemingly has its eyes glued to glowing screens?
As was the case during the fourteenth century, we too are living in what might be described as the day before the Renaissance. An epochal change is coming, a transformational tsunami is on the horizon, and most of our leaders and many of us have our backs to it. We’re looking in the wrong direction. Indeed, many of those in positions of power and their supporters are so actively trying to cling to the past we can almost hear their fingernails clawing at the earth as they try to avoid accepting the inevitable and momentous changes to come.
Technological shifts will be only a part of the cascading disruptions associated with the new era. As history shows, these shifts will, in turn, change human behaviors, open new areas to human understanding, enable new forms of creative expression, empower new means of economic activity, thinking about the way lives and governments and businesses should be organized. These changes will empower the reweaving of the fabric of our lives much as the steam-powered looms of the Industrial Revolution did not only with textiles but with the lives of workers, the rise of a new middle class, the empowerment of unions, the recasting of politics, the remaking of the relationships associated with colonialism, the shifting of the power of nation-states, and so many other changes.
In every area of our lives—whether we are rich or poor, residents of a great city or a desolate region untouched by technology—it seems certain that disruptions on a similar scale are coming. Indeed, they are already beginning.
Excerpted from The Great Questions of Tomorrow by David Rothkopf.
Copyright © 2017 by David Rothkopf.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.
All Rights Reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David J. Rothkopf is CEO and Editor of the FP Group, where he oversees all editorial, publishing, event, and other operations of the company, publishers of Foreign Policy Magazine. He is also the President and CEO of Garten Rothkopf, an international advisory company specializing in global political risk, energy, resource, technology, and emerging markets issues based in Washington, DC. He is the author of numerous internationally acclaimed books, including The Great Questions of Tomorrow, Power, Inc., Superclass, and Running the World. He writes a weekly column for Foreign Policy, a regular column for CNN, and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, CNN, Newsweek, Time, and many others.