Deciding not to adopt a certain future

What happened to the future? David Graeber thinks about why we didn’t realize mid-20th-century future dreams in this talk, “On Bureaucratic Technologies & the Future as Dream-Time”.


Wired: short takes on futuring techniques

Yesterday, Wired had a small feature which provided short descriptions of how “visionaries” spot the future.  Nothing groundbreaking, but I think Tim O’Reilly might have one of the more popular right now: he recommends coolhunting.

I don’t really think I spot the future; I spot the things in the present that tell us something about the future. I look for interesting people. I find the cool kids and then say, what are they doing?

VC attorney Chris Sacca agrees, saying people on Twitter do his due diligence on products worthy of investment and watching people shop in Best Buy is a good indicator of the market.  Peter Shwartz also agrees with the idea of watching people, only he looks at what the “smart kids” are doing.

Watch where scientific talent is heading. Science advances in part by attracting talented people. So if an area is attracting great talent and money from governments and companies, you can expect to see important change

On the other side, many of these visionaries ascribe to the idea that innovation has more to do with getting some of those smart people yourself and doing something daring with them.  MIT media lab director  Joi Ito says, “Agility is essential,” mouthing the other mantra of post-Fordist flexibility, but in the end this flexibility is best understood as having the capacity to react – meaning you have to have some good people who are ready for anything. As Vint Cerf puts it, “Some things get invented because it is suddenly possible to invent them.”  The passive voice elides the fact that this invention happens because there are smart people who are able to spend the time inventing them – and institutions to support and deliver that invention on a broader scale.

How many of these assumptions, then, are based on a precarious hangover from the disintegration of the Fordist model?  It could be argued that Post-Fordist capitalism has basically relied on a exploiting the capacities, infrastructures, and institutions of that earlier era, without necessarily replenishing the pond for the next round of innovation.  As we pull back the riens on public support for science, education, and infrastructure, who will be the cool kids and will there be any smart kids in any position to invent those amazing new things?  Or are these material circumstances already built into these assumptions?

Economic Complexity Theory

I have been meaning to finish a long post on the implications I see in economic complexity theories coming out of MIT.  The basic theory is that economies are best thought of not in large terms of GDP or even exports per se, but in terms of the capabilities exports represent.  These capabilities can then be thought of as the raw materials for future exports and economic activities.  As a short NYTimes piece last spring described it:

Hidalgo and Hausmann think of economies as collections of “capabilities” that can be combined in different ways like an Erector set to produce different products. An Internet retailer, for instance, cannot function without some kind of electronic-payment network. It also needs a working system of postal addresses — not every country has one — as well as reliable mail. Because these capabilities cannot be easily identified and observed, Hausmann and Hidalgo track the silhouettes that the capabilities cast upon trade statistics. If a product is a significant part of a country’s exports, it offers evidence that the country has certain kinds of related capabilities.

The sticking point is what those mean.  In general they seem to break it down according to a distinction relevant to the statistical physicist (Hidalgo) behind the endeavor: capabilities are related to economic development as potential is related to kinetic energy.  If a country has a lot of capabilities and a low per capita GDP, then they are presumed to have high potential energy, waiting to explode into GDP growth.  On the other hand, if a country has high capabilities and high per capita GDP, its already kinetic activity has little upward potential (outside of discovering cold fusion).

As with most attempts to equate economics with physics, this one has all sorts of cultural, political and social blindspots, but it is an interesting set of abstractions that may be fun to play with.  The scholars at MIT have written a book – free on their website, of course – outlining this theory.  But real fun is in playing with their data on the MIT Media Lab website.

Experiments like this seem to illustrate just how difficult it is to predict future growth.  But they might also offer some insight into how it might be generated.  It would seem the best idea would be to help people within your country develop tacit knowledge and deep competencies and capabilities.  If only we had some sort of institutions where these kinds of things could be developed – some sort of publicly supported infrastructure of higher education. Hmmmm.

Facebook: bubble, 2.0

As Facebook prepares for their IPO, Business Week points out that they have a very meagre profit profile.

There’s no question Facebook is huge—possibly the largest digital-only social enterprise that has ever existed—and it’s still growing at a fairly rapid rate. Just a few months ago it crossed the 800-million-user mark, and it has now passed 900 million, which suggests it will probably rack up a billion active users sometime later this year. And more than half of that user base visits the site at least once a day, a level of engagement other Web services would likely kill for. [. . . .] Facebook’s problem is somewhat different: It has nearly a billion active users, but it makes a remarkably tiny amount from each one—about $5 per year. That’s not a lot, considering over half of those users visit every day. And while the amount Facebook makes from the average user rose in the most recent quarter, it grew just 6 percent. Some of the marketing costs the company is racking up are no doubt increasing that number. But how much more can Facebook squeeze out of its existing user base?

Much of the focus on the company is on its incredible number of dedicated users – which should be Web 2.0 manna. But unless the goal is to have all 6-7 billion people on the planet on Facebook, there is only so much further they can grow in that direction.  The question is how much of that dedicated user base is due to the relatively uncommercial skin of the platform?  As they try to monetize it with more ads or deeper data collection and sharing, will people run away?

This is a very specific question about Facebook, but it speaks to the general anxiety of our age: as culture can be more freely distributed and shared – arts, music, movies, education, and news – how do we develop the structures to support those activities in a sustainable way?  In this sense, there is a very fine line between micro-level hypercapitalism and no capitalism at all, at least in terms of supporting cultural production through its commodification.  We may soon have to answer some difficult questions about what kind of work we would like to support and foster as a society – and how.

Meanwhile, please share this post on Facebook.  We don’t get any money from the site, but it is always gratifying to see those pageview stats.

Census of the future

What will the 2084 US Census look like?  It’s a fun futuring prompt, making us think of a certain kind of specific detail: household data, and therefore what households could look like.  At a meta level, we have to imagine what would happen to change such a massive institution.

Four futures, or questions of abundance

What does the future look like, if we can attain abundant resources for all?  Peter Frase builds four scenarios from this thought, using a classic 2×2 matrix setup:

resource abundance vs. scarcity and egalitarianism vs. hierarchy

The results suggest 20th-century politics, but go further than that: socialism, communism, rentism, and “exterminism”.  Consider, for example, the leading employment categories under IP-dominated rentism: “designers and artists…  marketers… an army of lawyers…  [and] ‘guard labor’”.

Note, too, the way Frase relies heavily on science fiction for inspiration throughout the article.

Seeing the 20th century in the 21st

How will 20th-century trends fare in the 21st?  Daron Acemoglu offers an interesting and readable take in “The world our grandchildren will inherit: the rights revolution and beyond” .   Nice example of extrapolation, too.

He begins by outlining ten giant megatrends from 1900-2000:

  • the rights revolution
  • the sweep of technology
  • unrelenting growth
  • uneven growth
  • the transformation of work and wages
  • the health revolution
  •  technology without borders
  • century of war/century of peace (big Steven Pinker ref there)
  • counter-Enlightenment in politics
  • the population explosion
  • a combination of resources and the environment.

Next Acemoglu connects the first trends (rights) to the rest, seeing expanded human rights as crucial.

Then how do these giant currents drive forward in our new century?  In brief, most will carry on in Acemoglu’s view.  Unevenness will flatten out a bit (except maybe in the US and Britain).  Globalization could slow down.  The biggest threats are a possible Chinese economic reversal and the impacts of global warming.  One wild card is an uptick in religious or other counter-Enlightenment movements.

A lot of this draws on Acemoglu’s recent and co-authored book, Why nations fail: the origins of power, prosperity and poverty.  Haven’t read it yet.

Imagining a digitally immersive future

What does life look like if immersive digital media keeps on developing?  “Golden Age – Somewhere” is the kind of science fiction future imaginative video we’re grown accustomed to… but with a twist. The first 2/3rds are lush and optimistic. And then:

GOLDEN AGE – SOMEWHERE from Paul Nicholls on Vimeo.

(via Bruce Sterling)

Tumblr rising

A cute extrapolation from XKCD:

Extrapolating the tablets

Here’s an example of extrapolation: tablet sales by platform, projecting recent years into the future.