Tag Archives: foresight

Thought leaders and followers.

 

Next week, the World Future Society is having its annual conference. As a member, I really should be going, but I can’t make it this year. The future is a dicey place. There are people convinced that we can create a utopia, some are warning of dystopia, and the rest are settled somewhere in between. Based on promotional emails that I have received, one of the topics is “The Future of Evolution and Human Nature.” According to the promo,

“The mixed emotions and cognitive dissonance that occur inside each of us also scale upward into our social fabric: implicit bias against new perspectives, disdain for people who represent “other”, the fear of a new world that is not the same as it has always been, and the hopelessness that we cannot solve our problems. We know from experience that this negativity, hatred, fear, and hopelessness is not what it seems like on the surface: it is a reaction to change. And indeed we are experiencing a period of profound change.” There is a larger story of our evolution that extends well beyond the negativity and despair that feels so real to us today. It’s a story of redefining and building infrastructure around trust, hope and empathy. It’s a story of accelerating human imagination and leveraging it to create new and wondrous things.

It is a story of technological magic that will free us from scarcity and ensure a prosperous lifestyle for everyone, regardless of where they come from.”

Woah. I have to admit, this kind of talk that makes me uncomfortable. Are fear of a new world, negativity, hatred, and fear reactions to change? Will technosocial magic solve all our problems? This type of rhetoric sounds more like a movement than a conference that examines differing views on an important topic. It would seem to frame caution as fear and negativity, and then we throw in that hyperbole hatred. Does it sound like the beginning of an agenda with a framework that characterizes those who disagree as haters? I think it does. It’s a popular tactic.

These views do not by any means reflect the opinions of the entire WFS membership, but there is a significant contingent, such as the folks from Humanity+, which hold the belief that we can fix human evolution—even human nature—with technology. For me, this is treading into thorny territory.

What is human nature? Merriam-Webster online provides this definition:

“[…]the nature of humans; especially: the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans.” Presumably, we include good traits and bad traits. Will our discussions center on which features to fix and which to keep or enhance? Who will decide?

What about the human condition? Can we change this? Should we? According to Wikipedia,

“The human condition is “the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.” This is a very broad topic which has been and continues to be pondered and analyzed from many perspectives, including those of religion, philosophy, history, art, literature, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and biology.”

Clearly, there are a lot of different perspectives to be represented here. Do we honestly believe that technology will answer them all sufficiently? The theme of the upcoming WFS conference is “A Brighter Future IS Possible.” No doubt there will be a flurry of technosocial proposals presented there, and we should not put them aside as a bunch of fringe futurists. These voices are thought-leaders. They lead thinking. Are we thinking? Are we paying attention? If so, then it’s time to discuss and debate these issues, or others will decides without us.

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Future Shock

 

As you no doubt have heard, Alvin Toffler died on June 27, 2016, at the age of 87. Mr. Toffler was a futurist. The book for which he is best known, Future Shock was a best seller in 1970 and was considered required college reading at the time. In essence, Mr. Toffler said that the future would be a disorienting place if we just let it happen. He said we need to pay attention.

Credit: Susan Wood/Getty Images from The New York Times 2016
Credit: Susan Wood/Getty Images from The New York Times 2016

This week, The New York Times published an article entitled Why We Need to Pick Up Alvin Toffler’s Torch by Farhad Manjoo. As Manjoo observes, at one time (the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s), the study of foresight and forecasting was important stuff that governments and corporations took seriously. Though I’m not sure I agree with Manjoo’s assessment of why that is no longer the case, I do agree that it is no longer the case.

“In many large ways, it’s almost as if we have collectively stopped planning for the future. Instead, we all just sort of bounce along in the present, caught in the headlights of a tomorrow pushed by a few large corporations and shaped by the inescapable logic of hyper-efficiency — a future heading straight for us. It’s not just future shock; we now have future blindness.”

At one time, this was required reading.
At one time, this was required reading.

When I attended the First International Conference on Anticipation in 2015, I was pleased to discover that the blindness was not everywhere. In fact, many of the people deeply rooted in the latest innovations in science and technology, architecture, social science, medicine, and a hundred other fields are very interested in the future. They see an urgency. But most governments don’t and I fear that most corporations, even the tech giants are more interested in being first with the next zillion-dollar technology than asking if that technology is the right thing to do. Even less they are asking what repercussions might flow from these advancements and what are the ramifications of today’s decision making. We just don’t think that way.

I don’t believe that has to be the case. The World Future Society for example at their upcoming conference in Washington, DC will be addressing the idea of futures studies as a requirement for high school education. They ask,

“Isn’t it surprising that mainstream education offers so little teaching on foresight? Were you exposed to futures thinking when you were in high school or college? Are your children or grandchildren taught how decisions can be made using scenario planning, for example? Or take part in discussions about what alternative futures might look like? In a complex, uncertain world, what more might higher education do to promote a Futurist Mindset?”

It certainly needs to be part of design education, and it is one of the things I vigorously promote at my university.

As Manjoo sums up in his NYT article,

“Of course, the future doesn’t stop coming just because you stop planning for it. Technological change has only sped up since the 1990s. Notwithstanding questions about its impact on the economy, there seems no debate that advances in hardware, software and biomedicine have led to seismic changes in how most of the world lives and works — and will continue to do so.

Yet, without soliciting advice from a class of professionals charged with thinking systematically about the future, we risk rushing into tomorrow headlong, without a plan.”

And if that isn’t just crazy, at the very least it’s dangerous.

 

 

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What could happen.

1.  about last week

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my blog last week was a bit depressing. However, if I thought, the situation was hopeless, I wouldn’t be doing this in the first place. I believe we have to acknowledge our uncanny ability to foul things up and, as best we can, design the gates and barriers into new technology to help prevent its abuse. And even though it may seem that way sometimes, I am not a technology pessimist or purely dystopian futurist. In truth, I’m tremendously excited about a plethora of new technologies and what they promise for the future.

2.  see the future

Also last week (by way of asiaone.com) Dr. Michio Kaku spoke in Singapore served up this future within the next 50 years.

“Imagine buying things just by blinking. Imagine doctors making an artificial heart for you within 20 hours. Imagine a world where garbage costs more than computer chips.”

Personally, I believe he’s too conservative. I see it happening much sooner. Kaku is a one of a handful of famous futurists, and his “predictions” have a lot of science behind them. So who am I to argue with him? He’s a brilliant scientist, prolific author, and educator. Most futurists or forecasters will be the first to tell you that their futures are not predictions but rather possible futures. According to forecaster Paul Saffo, “The goal of forecasting is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.”1

According to Saffo “… little is certain, nothing is preordained, and what we do in the present affects how events unfold, often in significant, unexpected ways.”

Though my work is design fiction, I agree with Saffo. We both look at the future the same way. The objective behind my fictions is to jar us into thinking about the future so that it doesn’t surprise us. The more that our global citizenry thinks about the future and how it may impact them, the more likely that they will get involved. At least that is my hope. Hence, it is why I look for design fictions that will break out of the academy or the gallery show and seep into popular culture. The future needs to be an inclusive conversation.

Of course, the future is a broad topic: it impacts everything and everyone. So much of what we take for granted today could be entirely different—possibly even unrecognizable—tomorrow. Food, medicine, commerce, communication, privacy, security, entertainment, transportation, education, and jobs are just a few of the enormously important areas for potentially radical change. Saffo and Kaku don’t know what the future will bring any more than I do. We just look at what it could bring. I tend to approach it from the perspective of “What could go wrong?” Others take a more balanced view, and some look only at the positives. It is these perspectives that create the dialog and debate, which is what they are supposed to do. We also have to be careful that we don’t see these opinions as fact. Ray Kurzweil sees the equivalent of 20,000 years of change packed into the 21st century. Kaku (from the article mentioned above) sees computers being relegated to the

“‘dull, dangerous and dirty’ jobs that are repetitive, such as punching in data, assembling cars and any activity involving middlemen who do not contribute insights, analyses or gossip.’ To be employable, he stresses, you now have to excel in two areas: common sense and pattern recognition. Professionals such as doctors, lawyers and engineers who make value judgments will continue to thrive, as will gardeners, policemen, construction workers and garbage collectors.”

Looks like Michio and I disagree again. The whole idea behind artificial intelligence is in the area of predictive algorithms that use big data to learn. Machine learning programs detect patterns in data and adjust program actions accordingly.2 The idea of diagnosing illnesses, advising humans on potential human behaviors,  analyzing soil, site conditions and limitations, or even collecting trash are will within the realm of artificial intelligence. I see these jobs every bit as vulnerable as those of assembly line workers.

That, of course, is all part of the discussion—that we need to have.

 

1 Harvard Business Review | July–August 2007 | hbr.org
2. http://www.machinelearningalgorithms.com
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Speculating on the future. How do we know?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes a futurist as:

“one who studies and predicts the future especially on the basis of current trends”1 (emphasis mine).1

According to the Society of Professional Futurists,

“A professional futurist is a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.  It is not the goal of a futurist to predict what will happen in the future.  The futurist uses foresight to describe what could happen in the future and, in some cases, what should happen in the future.”2

Their definition expressly denies any attempt at prediction. Embedded in that definition is the term foresight. Voros, in his paper, A Primer on Futures studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios, seems to agree.

“Futures (or foresight) work is not, contrary to popular misconception, about prediction or crystalball gazing and trying to guess what “the future” will be. Serious futurists are not in the business of prediction.”3

When I presented my paper Design Fiction as a Means of Provoking Individual Foresight and Participation in Today’s Decision Making, at Loncon3, The World Science Fiction Convention Academic Programme last month, a question arose from the audience suggesting that The Lightstream Chronicles was speculating on “so much”, such that how could I know?

At the time I thought the questioner was inquiring as to my methodology for speculating about future events on such a broad, world-building scale. I started a nutshell explanation of how I built the foundation of the world in 2159, but before I could get very far our time ended (as these things run like a clock). I hoped to carry on the conversation afterward one-on-one, but alas the questioner disappeared,

Thinking about it afterward, either he came in late and missed the point or I did. The point of The Lightstream Chronicles is not to predict the future, but to get us thinking and to provoke discussion and debate about it—today. In this regard, my story about how design and technology blend seamlessly with culture influencing behavior and humanity, shares its intent with Paul Saffo’s definition of foresight: “The goal of forecasting is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.”4

So the answer is, we don’t know.  At the same time there is a rationale for all of this speculation. Here, I turn to Voros’ “Three ‘Laws’ of Futures” :

The future is not determined.

The future is not predictable.

Future outcomes can be influenced by our choices in the present. 3

And that is the point.

 

 

1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/futurist

2. http://www.profuturists.org/futurists

3. Dr Joseph Voros, Swinburne University of Technology, Foresight Bulletin, No 6, December 2001, Swinburne University of Technology.

4. Saffo, Paul. “Six Rules For Effective Forecasting. (Cover Story).” Harvard Business Review 85.7/8 (2007): 122-131. Business Source Complete. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

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Design Fiction: More Ammunition

Design Fiction Rationale #24

There are a number of good reasons to practice design fiction. A few:

  • It’s the foresight side of design thinking.
  • It generates ideas free of constraints like, “How many can we sell?”
  • It helps foster an appreciation for the interdependency of things. 

And then there are provocations about the implications of creating any design, it’s affect on society, on behavior, on other things.

I have already written about this in my MFA thesis, When Designers Ask, “What If?”, and more or less predicted it, but as it has been widely reported over the last couple of weeks, a 3D printer has produced a gun that has been successfully printed and fired. In a web article, this quote fell out:

“An undetectable firearm constructed on your computer may sound like science fiction, but unfortunately, it’s already here and our laws have never contemplated this scenario,” D.C. City Council member Tommy Wells, who introduced the legislation, said in a press release. “These weapons create a significant and immediate threat to public safety.”

I hate break it to the D.C. City Council, but laws do not contemplate anything and more often than not, laws are created to fix problems that people never contemplated. So, now we have a new problem that city councils all over U.S. will have to create laws for and governments will have to regulate.

Roll your own. Source: The Sun
Roll your own. Source: ibitimes

But let’s face it, the cat is out of the bag. You can make it against the law to do anything, which works for the wide majority of people, except outlaws, terrorists, and loose-cannon regimes.

Did anyone think about potential ramifications of a home 3D printer in the hands of a bad person? Perhaps, but as is often the case these “black cloud” scenarios are usually brushed off with the positive outweighs the negative types of comments. There’s heavy pressure for progress and precautionary types are dismissed as “Debbie Downers.” I think we build things because we can, and then think about it later.

We like to think that technology will save us, save us from destruction, from cancer, from obesity, from boredom, from death. Some folks are holding out for it. But there is always a downside, like with Uranium gone missing, or texting while driving, bovine growth hormone. In the future it may be that our perfect selves along with a 24/7 virtual fantasy in our heads will become … boring. Then there’s that death thing. What could be wrong with scientists and artists and loving wonderful people that live forever? Except, of course, for the people that aren’t so wonderful or just plain evil.

And that’s one way we can use design fiction, with our diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change, so that people can look at the possible future with this new thing or that new thing and maybe take extra time to think about the downside. Like Bruce Sterling says, “It’s important to explicitly acknowledge the drawbacks of any technological transformation—to “think the underside first,” to think in a precautionary way” (Sterling, Shaping Things, 2006:12).

Maybe the bigger question is this: If we knew then what we know now, would anything have changed? Are we even capable of stopping ourselves from building, or injecting, or releasing the next big thing because of those few minor, potential mishaps? Should we? After all, surely we can find some technology to prevent the downside from even happening.

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Kickstarter graphic novel has a futurist angle.

Writing a science fiction graphic novel that is set 147 years from now takes a lot of speculation on what the future holds. Not only technology is up for grabs, but geopolitics, society, transportation, fashion, and entertainment. The list is endless. There is a prevailing view among many science fiction writers that writing anything that falls in the near future runs dangerously close to being obsolete before you are published. That is one of the reasons I chose a far future scenario. It does drift into the realm of futurism. Of course, that is not my profession. There are plenty of futurists out there; professionals that make a living at researching and prognosticating on what might happen. They rarely go this far into the future, however. It’s just too far away to know and so much can happen between then and now.

Nevertheless, I am considering this a work of design fiction with a little bit of critical design thrown in for good measure. Design fiction is an emerging field of study that combines the application of design and speculative futures to, “enhance our capacity to seek out and work with possibility… exchange speculative ideas, disrupt conventional mindsets with provocative visions of alternative futures, and affirm individual agency” (Resnick, 2011:iii).1

Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, speculative design might be seen as an evolution of critical design. “Speculative design is a dreamlike exercise – manufacturing alternate worlds, ones which feel every bit as real as the ‘real world’ we inhabit day-to-day… It cannot predict the future, but it can shape the present”(Keating, 2011).2

At a basic level, design is a future-oriented pursuit—to create something that does not currently exist. Thus, as design expands to embrace more complex social issues and wicked problems, the migration toward, and application to the future sciences becomes more relevant. High atop these disciplines is the study of foresight. Foresight embodies critical thinking about long-term developments, to generate debate and participation toward shaping the future, especially toward public policy.1 In the practice of foresight and futures research, usually, “in the service of national strategic interests (Resnick, 2011:13), many have arrived at the conclusion that the changes imminent in the 21st Century are so broad and happening so fast, that current methodologies cannot cope.“ “… the emerging strategic conditions of the 21st Century require us for the first time in history to develop the capacity to engage consciously in the evolution of existing human cultures, including their most fundamental frames of reference” (Nelson, 2010:282).3

The graphic novel project and this paper are based on a collection of ideas from the aforementioned experiments into critical design, speculative design, design fiction, foresight, design research, and narrative among others. The project is, at a surface level, a science-fiction graphic novel. It depicts a future where technological, political, and cultural “evolutions” have not only transpired, but are commonplace. They have become a part of the everyday fabric of a future culture.

All of this underlies what, on the surface, looks like a sci-fi, crime thriller. But that makes it that much more interesting on many different levels. So, if this all sounds a bit too scholarly for you, forget it. Enjoy the story. Remember Chapter 1 is still free online and there is still time to get in line for the book or digital edition when it’s completed.

The police maintain order in DownTown, through cruisers and remote drones. The drones can scan your implanted chips (everyone has them) and quickly identify if you are authorized to be in this neck of the woods. More on The LIghtstream Chronicles website. http://thelightstreamchronicles.com

Citations:

1.Resnick, R. (2011) Materialization of the speculative in foresight and design. Master of Design. OCAD-Ontario College of Art and Design.

2. http://pstevensonkeating.co.uk/a-critique-on-the-critical

3.Nelson, R. (2010) Extending foresight: The case for and nature of Foresight 2.0. Futures, 42 (4), p.282-294.

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