An upcoming episode of Jason Feifer’s podcast Build For Tomorrow was inspired after he ordered a to-go cocktail from Rosetta Hall in Boulder on New Year’s Eve.
“It just got me thinking: How did that happen?” he explains over the phone. “Like, how did we go very quickly from not being able to get to-go alcohol to being able to get to-go alcohol? And why was that illegal in the first place?”
Feifer, the editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur magazine, is “obsessed with how change happens.” It’s the driving quest behind Build For Tomorrow, where Feifer uses historical documents and expert interviews to dig deep into humanity’s history of fear-mongering and mythmaking. Sifting back through time, Feifer proves again and again that almost no problem on Earth is new: We’ve always feared new technology (“A bicycle is dangerous,” the New York Times declared in 1880; 22 years earlier the paper claimed the telegraph was “too fast for the truth”); our delirium over substance use long predates prohibition of alcohol or marijuana (coffee was banned and bad-mouthed by kings, sultans and businessmen across the globe for 500 years out of fear that it stimulated radical thought); every election is the “most important election of our lifetime”; and nostalgia has long clouded our vision of when, exactly, were “the good old days” (incredibly, Thomas Jefferson felt wistful for the age of Anglo-Saxons who roamed Earth 700 years before he was born).
“Modern human behavior (abstract thinking, art, blade tools) began 50,000 years ago, and we think we are so special that the small fragment of time in which we all are alive is the time in which everything changes,” Feifer says. “I suppose it’s possible, but it is statistically unlikely. So what is happening here? Why are we doing this? Why do we think every new technology will end civilization and that every new generation is worse than the last? And, more importantly, are we harming ourselves by constantly thinking that there’s danger where there’s no danger? And the answer I found is yes, it genuinely slows innovation.”
But all is not lost. Hope is the overall message Feifer wants to send, which is part of why the podcast recently rebranded after a number of years under the moniker Pessimists Archive, a collaboration with digital archivist Louis Anslow.
“We had to do what we’re always preaching about,” Feifer says, “and that’s change.”
Without stooping to tired cliches or preaching to the choir, Build For Tomorrow suggests that fear and uncertainty don’t have to be never-ending loops into each other — with some focus (and maybe a few history lessons), we can embrace change and find paths to opportunity.
“The stories that we tell ourselves about progress are often incorrect,” Feifer says. “A lot of the things that we think are totally unique to us are not unique to us, and despite whatever challenges you see and experience, you have an opportunity to create something better out of that. But that has to start by having a real, clear-eyed, sober understanding of the problems in front of you instead of the problems as you’re told they are.”
What to listen to next: The podcasts Jason Feifer can’t get enough of
‘Richard’s Famous Food Podcast’
Richard Parks III — a James Beard Award-nominated writer, filmmaker and cookbook author — hosts this Gastropod-meets-Rick-and-Morty project. A running narrative between anthropomorphic pickles weaves between the histories of foods and culinary trends. “There’s no way to explain it,” Feifer says. “Just go listen — it’s amazing.”
Former Fresh Air with Terry Gross producer Ian Chillag created this much beloved show that interviews inanimate objects. “They do just the most exquisite job of thinking through what the perspective on life would be if you were a bar of soap or a subway seat,” Feifer says. “It’s just charming and thoughtful and weirdly human. I can’t get enough of it”.
Alex Blumberg documented the creation of his internationally successful podcast company Gimlet for the first season of StartUp. “He recorded stuff that you just never hear,” Feifer says. “He recorded his conversation with his co-founder about their equity split, he recorded their very uncomfortable fumbling pitches with their investors. I’ve never heard anything like it.”