Society & culture

The archaeology of the unborn future

The future is definitely not what it used to be. Indeed, as the writer Simon Reynolds recently observed, the street scene out of his Manhattan East Village window looks remarkably ordinary and un-futuristic. There are no flying cars, no jetpacks, no metallic silver clothes and no Smell-O-Vision televisions. Indeed, the scene could pass for 1967 or perhaps even 1957. So where did the expected future go? Where are the promised sci-fi landmarks and why does it still take so long to boil an egg and make a slice of toast? This futuristic frustration has been building up for a few years. First there was the millennium – nothing really seemed very different on 1 January 2000 did it? 2001 was expected to be a futuristic date, but all we got was a bunch of crazed lunatics with knives taking over some aeroplanes (not to be underestimated for its impact, but not quite the life-changing event that many people were anticipating). Indeed, it almost feels as though ‘progress’ has slowed down or been put on hold recently. Look at food for instance. Sure we have ‘nutraceuticals’ and ‘functional foods’ but it’s hardly dinner-in-a-pill is it? Indeed, we seem to be rushing in the opposite direction with organics, local produce, seasonality and comfort food eating based on nostalgic recipes and ingredients.

If you’re still reading this there’s a new book, which you should perhaps be aware of called ‘Where’s My Jetpack? A Guide to the amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived’ by Daniel H Wilson. Not that you’ve got the time to read a book of course. You are clearly on the Internet, en route to Second Life, CyWorld or some other virtual metaverse. But, hey, perhaps that’s where the future went? When we think of the future we usually think of it in turns of space architecture or aliens, but what has arrived is no less fantastic. The Internet, medicine, iPods, mobile phones and other inventions are just as futuristic as silver space suits and ray guns. The book isn’t perfect. The style is petulant and impatient and its tone is glib and flippant. However, there are some brilliant reminders of the future that never showed up. Remember aquatic hotels? Or how about space colonies, robots and meat grown in a laboratory? Interestingly, many of these ideas, like the jet-pack referred to in the book’s title did make a brief appearance but vanished before you could say science-fiction-tastic. Cultured meat is around the corner, there are a couple of aquatic hotels in existence and a moon colony is only 13 years away according to Wilson.

In my opinion there are three key take-ways from this book. First, many futuristic ideas still haven’t shown up but given enough time they will. In other words future predictions are very often right if only you give them enough time. The second ‘lesson’ is that the future arrives subtlety and unannounced. Third, we shouldn’t get too hung up on technology. The reason that many of our scientific fantasies haven’t made it into reality is that technologists and futurists make the mistake of forgetting about human history. People have a need to interact with others and there is a limit on how much technology we can take. Moreover, some inventions, like books, are already perfectly designed and no amount of futuristic technology is really going to make them any better. This is not to say that books are here forever, simply that it can take a very long time for one idea to replace another and the impact of human nature, psychology and anthropology cannot be entirely ignored.
Ref: Salon (US), 12 May 2007, ‘Back to the future’, S. Reynolds.
Search words: future, sci-fi, predictions, futurology, the future, human nature
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Dumb luck versus probability theory

In 1907 a certain Captain Edward John Smith allegedly said, ‘I never saw a wreck, and nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort’. Five years later he commanded the inaugural voyage of an ‘unsinkable’ ship from Southampton to New York. The ship was, of course, the Titanic. Asking whether it would still have sunk under the command of another captain is a futile. Equally, anyone recommending the reinforcement of cockpit doors prior to 9/11 would most likely have been ignored. In other words, we cannot predict or change many future events. Of course there are people that disagree with this. Risk management, and to some extent scenario planning, uses predictive techniques but for the most part all they can foresee are high-probability low-risk events or, sometimes, low-probability, high-risk events. Donald Rumsfeld was widely laughed at for referring to ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ but for once he was right.

Probabilities can only be judged and predictions can only be made if we can actually describe an event. There is a tendency in modern society to use hindsight to illuminate the future. Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung was clearly crazed and some argue that if only we had enough intelligence we could have prevented the slaughter. We have all become over-explainers believing that once an event occurs we can analyse it and so prevent a similar event from happening in the future.But life, unfortunately, is inherently unpredictable and dumb luck accounts for much more most of us are willing to admit. Ex trader and hedge fund manager, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ describes two worlds. One is ruled by classical probability theory and bell-shaped distribution curves. The second is altogether more unpredictable and features fractal geometry and power-law distributions.

Most people think we live in the former but in reality it’s often the latter. The black swan of the title refers to the fact that some things are unimaginable until they are seen. In classical probability theory no single event matters, only accumulations and agglomerations. But in the real world, single events – especially unforeseen and unimaginable ones – can make an enormous impact on overall outcomes. For example, while it is sometimes possible to predict the overall trajectory of certain technologies, predicting individual inventions is impossible – because what you can predict would already have happened. In addition, when it comes to innovations or events it is often the sequence of events or the interplay between innovations that matters. Our world is becoming more connected and more complicated so this randomness is, if anything, becoming magnified. Apparently, one journalist asked Taleb whether he could create a list of the most likely future 'Black Swan' events, but of course asking this question completely misses his entire point.
Ref: Financial Times (UK) 28-29 April 2007, ‘Unimaginable horror: Is analysis useless if the most influential events are impossible to predict?’ J. Kay. See also The Guardian (UK) 28 April 2007, ‘Days that shook the world’,
O. Burkeman.
Search words: future, prediction, risk analysis, risk management, scenarios, scenario planning, events, outcomes, probability, luck, forecasting, futurists.
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Information pandemics

We live in a brave but increasingly strange new world. For example, why was bird flu more scary when it was ‘over there’ (in Asia and Continental Europe) than when it actually arrived in Britain for the first time? The answer, it seems, is that anxiety has taken over from optimism as the dominant cultural force. Consequently we run from one supposed threat to another without stopping to think about the actual level of threat posed. Our newfound connectivity also means that information about these supposed threats spread like wildfire, so what could once be contained and analysed now spreads before we have time to assess the real risk. It is as though we have collectively lost our critical faculties. We feel that we are vulnerable and at risk to forces beyond our control. But we also feel that humanity is itself destructive so we end up fearing ourselves. And if it’s not bird flu, it’s climate change, terrorism, paedophilia … the list goes on. Politicians and the media don’t help, of course, because scared people vote for incumbents and buy newspapers, so both intentionally fan the flames.

Anxiety also sells books, which presumably pleases people like Mike Davis, who has written a book called ‘The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu’.But what, fundamentally, is driving this new politics of fear and uncertainty? The answer, to some commentators at least, is something called the ‘Precautionary Principle’, which says it’s better for scientists, politicians and the media to err on the side of caution. Another explanation is that we have always been afraid of the unknown and that these days, ironically thanks to globalisation and connectivity, there is more to be afraid of. Bird flu is simply the latest focus for our human fears and it will not be the last. Post 9/11, we are also afraid of ‘them’ – which generally means foreigners. This may become an especially destructive trait because this fear will restrict the cross-border movement of people and ideas. Fear and anxiety also feeds a culture of irrationality and we have become fatalistic, superstitious, unreflective, earnest and sentimental. This in turn is leading people to escape into worlds of nostalgia, fantasy and luxury. This is a shame, because on almost every level the world is actually becoming a better place. We are safer, healthier, cleaner and richer than ever before. For example, the number of people living on less than US $1 per day has dropped from 16% in the late 1970s to 6% today. Equally, the worldwide illiteracy rate has fallen from 46% in 1970 to 18% today. Climate change is certainly an issue but it’s not exactly the end of the world. Indeed the only thing that is coming to an end is hope and a sense of perspective.
Ref: Various including The Observer (UK) 3 June 2007, ‘This is the modern world’, R. Behr, Spiked (UK) 8 February 2007, ‘A tale of two panics’, B. O Neil, The Spectator (UK) 2 December 2006, ‘It is a wonderful world: richer, healthier, and cleaner than ever’, A. Heath, The Australian (Aus) 3-4 March 2007, ‘Freeman told the new members of Congress that the reaction to 9/11 was the equivalent of a national nervous breakdown’, P. Adams.
Search words: politics, fear, anxiety, media, information, pandemics, risks
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‘Showa nostalgia’ in Japan

Millions of Japanese are currently nostalgic for household appliances and consumer goods from the period 1955-1965, a period commonly (and confusingly) referred to as the ‘Showa thirties’ – a term referencing the reign of Emperor Hirohito, which began in 1926. This period was a golden age for Japan, a time of hope and early economic prosperity. And as with all reminiscences this particular nostalgia boom portrays the Showa 1930s as a time of innocence, simplicity and certainty. A time when fresh-faced children naively played in suburban streets and fathers came home early from work to eat dinner with their families. The trend first emerged in the early 1990s when Japan was in an economic slump – a period that is now regularly cast as the ‘lost decade’ – and was first seen in popular culture ranging from comics to magazines and then later, film, museum exhibits and even architecture. More recently the trend has spawned an interest in collecting and displaying ordinary household objects from this ‘golden period’. So what’s going on here? The most obvious answer is that this collective longing is part of some kind of post-modern transformation of consumer society whereby the future is no longer seen as a place to look forward to but a place to escape from. It is as though Japan is looking back on its recent past in a jaded fashion saying to itself that the human cost of economic development hasn’t been worth it.
Ref: Australian Financial Review (Aus) 5-9 April 2007, ‘Showa nostalgia’, J. Sand.
Search words: Nostalgia, escape, Japan.
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Can you predict Justin Timberlake?

Anyone that watches popular culture must surely be acutely aware that the odd ‘blockbuster’ makes it big while everything else seems to slip quietly away.For every outsize commercial success like JK Rowling (current book sales are 320 million +) or Justin Timberlake, there are countless thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of books, albums and films that vanish overnight or languish over several months or years. Why can’t professional media types with decades of experience predict what’s going to be hot and what’s not?Referring to Hollywood, William Goldman (MGM) once said, ‘Nobody knows anything’ and perhaps he is still right. Conventional wisdom says that predicting commercial success in cultural industries is impossible because these markets are made up of millions of individuals ‘doing their own thing’. Hence the only reliable indicator of success is whether you, personally, like ‘it’. But surely, after all this time, someone would have paid enough attention to their own failures and successes to have built some kind of predictive model?

When individuals like what other individuals like, the difference in outcomes is often referred to as ‘cumulative advantage’. This theory essentially says that if you’ve got ‘it’ – either talent or commercial success (and ideally both) at the right moment – then you will become enormously successful compared to others. In other words, small random differences and fluctuations can end up creating huge variations in a manner similar to the ‘butterfly effect’ of chaos theory. This can explain why two bands with identical talent can ultimately end up in totally different places critically and commercially. Being at the right place at the right time pays dividends, or, more accurately, the long-run success of any new idea or venture depends upon ‘the decisions of a few early-arriving individuals’. This more or less concurs with everything from phrases like ‘success breeds success’ to Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of a tipping point, but it can also work in reverse with early failures having their failure magnified out of all proportion. Furthermore, these ‘network effects’ will presumably grow even stronger in our new age of connectivity. As for whether these outcomes can ultimately be predicted, the math geeks among us would probably say yes. There is, for example, already a piece of software that claims to select hit songs on the basis of historical data. However, my money’s on not. As Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling book ‘Eats, shoots & leaves’ once said: ‘It sold well because lots of people bought it’.
Ref: New York Times (US) 15 April 2007, ‘Is Justin Timberlake a product of cumulative advantage?’ D. Watts.
Search words: Prediction, cultural industries, tipping point, decisions, cumulative advantage, Justin Timberlake.
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A culture of digital nomads

A central tenet of John Henry Clippinger’s book, ‘Crowd of One’ is that people only become themselves through their interaction with others. This seems like a sensible idea although I, for one, am worried about the amount of time people are spending alone these days. I don’t really mean alone of course. Such a state is virtually impossible nowadays. We are all tethered to a host of electronic devices ranging from Blackberries to phones that never entirely allow us to switch off and escape from the presence of others. This is a point picked up in an essay by Sherry Turkle who argues that ‘what people mostly want from public spaces these days is to be left alone with their personal networks’. I’ve witnessed this first hand. First on holiday where numerous couples were sunbathing next to a swimming pool, each of them on some kind of portable electronic device. What were they doing? I have no idea but they certainly weren’t talking to each other and I doubt that they were thinking very deeply about anything either. The second instance was when I took my brother’s kids to an indoor playground. Soon after I sat down a couple in their late 20s (along with a girl of maybe six) sat down next to me. The girl was dispatched to the play area and both parents took out Blackberries and proceeded to check email. They did this for over an hour without speaking to each other once or acknowledging the presence of their small daughter. It’s the same at work.

Ten or 15 years ago people didn’t take calls in the middle of meetings. Today it’s commonplace. I was in a meeting last year when someone in the room took a call and the rest of the room was put on hold until the call had ended. As Sherry Turkel points out, it’s as though there is a new ‘state of self’ developing where we can literally transport ourselves somewhere else at the touch of a button. We are so connected to others through our digital networks that a culture of rapid response has developed. As a result nobody feels secure enough to just leave these devices alone for an hour, let alone a day or a week. We rush from one thing to another so fast that I wonder whether the quality of our thinking – and ultimately our decisions – is suffering as a result. And this is the point that really concerns me. We just don’t switch off. Ever. We are so connected and available that we have left ourselves no time to properly think or reflect. We scroll through our days without thinking about what we are really doing or where we are ultimately going. We maybe connected globally, but our physical relationships are becoming superficial and parochial. If this continues we really will be alone and unconnected to anything that really matters.
Ref: Forbes (US) 7 May 2007, ‘Can You Hear Me Now?’ S. Turkle
Search words: Digital, thinking, talking, networks, self, connectivity, relationships, constant partial attention,
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Two books, one trend

One emerging trend is a religious belief that is both dogmatic and apocalyptic. We are also living in a time when people are becoming cynical of democracy but too lazy to do anything about it. We fear science and knowledge, preferring instead to worship the cult of youth and all things shiny and new. The spirit of inquiry and questioning is disappearing and we are focusing instead on trivialities and banalities. This is very much the theme picked up by two worthwhile new books – ‘Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilise Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole’ by Benjamin Barber and ‘Have a Nice Doomsday’ by Nicholas Guyatt. Both more or less predict a new dark age where complacency is widespread and mediocrity is celebrated over and above excellence – which is generally deemed elitist. This in turn gives rise to an ‘infantilising ethos’ where individuals lack empathy and cling to material possessions for comfort and security. Ultimately, society denies the very idea of progress on the basis that it’s too hard and we are left with a world where the challenge is to distract and reassure rather than to challenge and improve. Familiar to anyone out there?
Ref: The Observer (UK) 3 June 2007, ‘This is the modern world’, R. Behr.
Search words: society, pessimism, fatalism, dark ages
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Challenging environmental orthodoxy

A TV screening of a film by Martin Durkin called ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ seems to have stirred up a hornet’s nest of trouble. The film questions whether the causes of global warming are entirely man-made. For example, there is an argument that solar activity causes global warning and there’s another that questions whether CO2 levels are influenced by changes in temperature or the other way around. Who’s right and who’s wrong doesn’t really matter in this instance because what the film has brought into focus is the fact that there is now a global environmental orthodoxy and anyone challenging it risks being labelled a crank, an idiot, or worse. What is interesting about the current climate change debate is how it has impacted on political discussion and human ambition and the way that the media in particular seems to be self-censoring and submissive on the subject. In other words we rarely, if ever, hear voices of dissent. The accepted version is that it’s our fault and the only way to put things right is to restrain development, especially in developing nations like China and India. Ten years ago BC (Before Climate) most issues were argued out in a relatively sensible fashion. Both sides got to put forward their argument and each individual was left alone to make up their own mind (a simplistic view of history, I know, but there’s some truth in it). Nowadays we either don’t hear both sides or else the approach seems to be to demonise and demolish the speaker rather than the argument. I for one haven’t entirely made up my mind on climate change, but what worries me is what’s happening to the battle of ideas. If this censorship of debate is simply a one-off then that’s bad news. But if all news in the future ends up having the controversial elements removed then that’s a disaster of climatic proportions.
Ref: Spiked (UK) 9 March 2007, ‘Apocalypse my arse’, B. O’Neil.
Search words: environment, climate change, environmentalism, argument
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The exuberant mediocrity of crowds

There’s an old saying that if you give enough monkeys enough typewriters one of them will eventually end up writing Shakespeare. Adherents of sites like YouTube, Second Life and Wikipedia would seem to agree. Web 2.0, after all, represents the democratisation of media and the ‘wisdom of crowds’ is changing the whole world for the better. An infinite number of monkeys may not produce a Mozart or a Picasso but working collectively and collaboratively they almost certainly will. Of course if you dare to challenge this ‘fact’ on the web you will not be very popular. Either that or you’ll have a very timely idea and end up writing a book, which is precisely what Andrew Keen has done. His book, ‘The Cult of the Amateur’, makes the point that many of these ‘new media’ websites are destroying ‘old media’. For example, Wikipedia has all but annihilated the Encyclopaedia Britannica, potentially with the consequence that we will end up with a reference source that is anonymous and thus unchallengeable. The worst-case scenario here is that we will unwittingly replace a dictatorship of experts with a dictatorship of idiots. Take investigative journalism. Bloggers often pride themselves on their lack of training and the fact that they provide highly personal commentary on the stories unearthed by the mainstream press.But the reality is often that bloggers are stealing content and readers from the mainstream press, which could ultimately mean that mainstream newspapers will be unable to afford to conduct investigations and ultimately go out of business – thus, ironically, robbing the bloggers of their only reliable food source. ‘Free’ content is therefore nothing of the sort. Moreover, paid content allows publishers, broadcasters and distributors to discover and nurture talent, very often over long periods, so to remove their revenue streams could kill off another golden goose. As Keen points out, culture is being flattened with the result that ‘everything becomes a commercial break’. But do we really want books with ads every few pages? The ad-supported model is a good one but it would be a huge mistake, in my opinion, to make it the only one.
Ref: The Sunday Times (UK) 3 June 2007, ‘According to Wikipedia I’m the Mona Lisa’, JP. Flintoff.
See also ‘Social Networks and the end of life as we know it’ – this issue (What’s Next 16), media section.
Search words: Web 2.0, wisdom of crowds, collectivism, crowd sourcing, intelligence, digital Maoism, amateurs, user-generated content, user filtered.
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To serve and protect

Over one million motor cars are stolen in America every year, worth around US $7.6 billion, so any idea that can turn this flood into a trickle is welcomed with open arms.One such idea is something called DataDots from Australia. If you haven’t heard of this before, DataDots are essentially a way of covering valuable items – anything from cars to watches – with hundreds or thousands of invisible dots, each of which carry an identification number. For example, spraying 5,000 dots throughout a single automobile will make it almost impossible for thieves to resell the vehicle unless they are prepared to locate and remove every single microscopic dot. All the police need to do, in contrast, is to find a single dot and look at it using a x50 microscope to determine whom the owner is and where the item has been stolen from.So what else is on the horizon in terms of personal and product security?

One new technology that’s sure to be a hit is the use of flexible display screens on plastic debit and credit cards to fool potential pickpockets and fraudsters. The idea is that every time you use a card you are vulnerable because you are using the same card number. Steal the card and you’ve stolen the card number. However, turning the card into a flexible screen allows the card to display a new number every time it’s used, thus fooling anyone who tries to use a card number from a previous purchase. No idea what I’m talking about? OK, the card still has a static number but at the time of each new transaction a microchip in the card is instructed to create a series of additional numbers that are displayed on the card. These are not random numbers but rather numbers generated by an algorithm and relate to the numbers used on your previous transaction. Still don’t get it? Don’t worry, Innovative Card Technologies, which is the US firm behind the idea, is already running tests and should have one in your hands within a few years.

Next up are security cameras. Currently most cameras merely record the action – or more usually the complete lack of any. Enter a new generation of smart security cameras running some smart software that can distinguish between a handshake and a punch and instantly report any suspicious activity to the relevant authorities. Expect to see these in widespread use by about 2012. Finally there’s meat. An Irish company called IdentiGEN has developed a DNA-fingerprinting technology that can be used to guarantee that meat comes from a safe source. Once an animal has been declared disease-free, the meat is analysed and a genetic identifier is taken and then loaded into a central database. Once inside the supermarket the meat is tested again to ensure that the meat on sale is the same as that which tested earlier. And if anything ever does go wrong, a morsel of meat is all scientists will need to trace the sample’s entire life history.
Ref: Popular Science (US) February 2007, ‘The Future of Personal Security’,
Search words: Security, DataDots, theft, ID theft, meat, cameras, surveillance.
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