‘The Bald Futurist’ Comes to Whitman

Emma Fletcher-Frazer, Staff Reporter

Steve Brown, otherwise known as The Bald Futurist, came to town last week to present on the future of work.

“A futurist doesn’t predict the future,” Brown said. “A futurist is there to help model the future, what are the possible futures, and then to help ask and answer two questions: first, what’s the future we want to build? Second question: what’s the future we want to avoid?”

Brown, who has worked in tech for 30 years, became captivated by people’s interactions with technology after working for a cultural anthropologist.

“I’m fascinated with the idea of how technology makes life better for people,” Brown said. “The world is built by people. The future is built by people working together.”

Brown found his niche working to guide corporations on dealing with technical advances. This May, he spoke at a rural development conference in Oregon. Danielle Garbe, the CEO of Sherwood Trust and Whitman alumnus, happened to attend that same conference.

“[The talk] made me realize… I hadn’t been paying enough attention to some really key developments, like artificial intelligence, and other technological advances,” Garbe said. “It made me want to learn more, and it made me realize that it would be really helpful in Walla Walla to make sure that people were having these conversations as well.”

When a group of non-profit business leaders located in Walla Walla got together to discuss the theme for this year’s event, the future of technology popped up, and Garbe remembered Steve Brown.

Garbe contacted Brown in the interest of coming to talk at the Walla Walla conference, and he agreed. It then occurred to Garbe than Whitman College might find his talk useful as well. Garbe sat on Whitman’s Strategic Planning Committee a few years ago and recalled discussions she had previously encountered in that time.

“We’d had a lot of conversations about Whitman students’ concern about making sure they were prepared for the careers and jobs they would have in the future,” Garbe said. “The college was trying to think about ways to bring more resources to students and help them connect their career ambitions to what they were learning in the classroom or outside the classroom during their Whitman experience.”

Garbe reached out to Noah Leavitt, Director of the Student Engagement Center, who then worked with Brown to create opportunities for students to interact with Brown. This included a lunch with Computer Science students and an evening talk.

The talk, entitled “The Future of Work,” occurred in Olin, where a packed audience gathered to listen. The presentation included a briefing of new and important technologies, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, autonomous machines and augmented reality, as well as advice on how to adjust and work with this changing world.

Sophomore Annie Xue attended the talk and enjoyed the variety of didactic information.

“The overall presentation [was] educational, but not like a boring one,” Xue said. Xue believes that the talk gave valuable knowledge, as well as assurance.

“It urges you to think what the future will be. It will sometimes be depressing for some people… I feel like a lot of people will have that kind of concern. I mean, it’s inspiring, but also concerning at the same time,” Xue said. “To some extent, you feel more secure when you know what is really happening right now.”

Brown hopes that others at Whitman will heed the information about new technologies and take advantage.

“It’s an exciting time to be alive,” Brown said. “I wish I was the age of the students at Whitman because I see all this incredible possibility and while some people see all these technologies coming as a threat because it will change the way that we do things. Younger people, I hope, will look at them as a massive opportunity.”