Futuring media

2020 Media Futures is a fine example of a collaborative futuring project.  The topic is specific (Canada’s media landscape), but the practices are quite general.

2020MF uses a variety of futures methods:

  • Environmental scanning, or signals from the media future.  These are primarily news stories, arranged under general futures rubrics (Social, Technological, Economic, Ecological, Political, Values, or STEEPV) and media-specific topics (books, tv, etc).
  • Trend analysis.  2020MF determined a series of likely, powerful forces, again arrayed against STEEPV categories.
  • Driver identification, or the forces underpinning the already-selected trends and signals.  Read the full page for a good description of how they managed the group work.
  • Critical uncertainties, the powerful forces which could still appear in very different forms, unlike trends.  Note the way these are very industry-specific:

Critical uncertainties for Canadian media in 2020.



Technology’s future is S-shaped

Maybe the long boom of technological disruption will slow down, ponders sf writer Charlie Stross.

We are undeniably living through the era of the Great Acceleration; but it’s probably[*] a sigmoid curve, and we may already be past the steepest part of it. [link in original]

Ah yes, that famous S-curve.  Slow to start, fast to build, massive in effect, then ultimately tapering off, like so:

Sigmoid curve plot.

The big “S”.

So we can imagine the tide of industrial-technological change rising in the 1700s, roaring into life during the 1800s, turning into a transformational riptide through the twentieth century, and then, in the 21st, gradually… slowing… down.  The rate of innovation drops.  We become accustomed to the new.  Future shock stops shocking.


Reversing the future

ImageJohn Crowley, brilliant writer of splendid speculative fiction, meditates on the future in the most recent Lapham’s. I’d like to draw attention to two main points, beyond the brooding lushness of Crowley’s prose.

First, there’s a futuring method on display.  Even if it’s tongue in cheek, the approach is both entertaining and potentially useful for group work.  The gist: reverse our expectations for the future.  You could even test it retrospectively:

if you simply reversed what the past had imagined, you got something close to the real existing present.

I’d like to try this on small groups.

Crowley then offers an example of this method, projecting one future:


Looking back as 2012 as future

Reflecting on predictions is a useful exercise.  In one case it can be heartening: seeing which futuristic predictions came true in 2012.

Overall?  Lots of progress.  The machines are doing well.

Predictions from Scientific American

Car of the future, 1918Here is a fun article looking back at predictions made in the pages of Scientific American, over the past century+.

I’m charmed by this one:

The car of the future will have no such thing as a “driver’s seat.” All the seats in the car save the rear one will be moveable. Driving will be done from a small control board, which can be held in the lap. It will be connected to the mechanism by a flexible electric cable. A small finger lever, not a wheel, will guide the car. [January 5, 1918]

The subtraction exercise

Nicholas Taleb offers a fun exercise in his new book.  This might work well in some forecasting situations:

the way to do it rigorously is to take away from the future, reduce from it, simply, things that do not belong to the coming times.

One future datapoint to check

Here‘s a metric to check for one possible future:

“The Air Force now buys more unmanned than manned aircraft every year, and that trend is not going to change,” said Lance Janda, a historian at Cameron University. “Within our lifetime, I think you’ll see an end to manned combat aircraft, because unmanned planes are more capable and a lot cheaper.”

It’s also a bracing vision to consider.

(thanks to Steven Kaye)

Modeling the US presidential election

Here’s a good survey of the diversity of models aimed at the United States presidential election this November.  It’s fascinating to see what goes into each approach: polls, performance in primaries, various economic indicators.

One has many moving parts:

Lewis-Beck and Tien’s “Jobs model” uses five variables: whether or not an incumbent is running, the incumbent’s popularity rating according to the first July poll by Gallup, Gross National Product (GNP) growth between the second quarter of the election year and the last quarter of the previous year, growth in jobs over the first 3.5 years of a president’s term, and one for the closeness of the relationship between the incumbent president and the incumbent party’s candidate.

Most of these show Obama winning:

A future of work

Dell and Intel asked one consulting group to think about the future of technology work.  The results, “The Evolving Workforce”, are interesting as a trends analysis.

TNS identified seven trends:

Crowdsourcing and Crowdsource service: The workforce of the future, for many industries, could be thousands of people working in different places. Is Cloud computing and other information and communications technology (ICT) applications going to make it easier to distribute more tasks and adhere to a ‘just in time’ labor force model?

Productivity measured in outputs, not hours: Standardized measures of productivity based on numbers of hours inputted would become less relevant in a knowledge based economy. What are going to be the new metrics to assess productivity?

Changes in adoption of devices: The number and types of devices and operating systems are proliferating and changing. Choice of device would become more about the situation, location and occasion. Are employers and the current systems and processes going to allow for increased end-user utility and choice?

Intergenerational kiss and punch: There will be more intergenerational knowledge transfer between younger ‘digital natives’ and the older generation. However, is there an increased risk of conflict and tension between workers of different ages, backgrounds, knowledge and skills?

Values versus rules: It would become easier to tell what employees are doing, but harder to tell them what to do. In this scenario, would employers use pervasive technology to oversee their workforces at any given time? And if so, would distrust of employers accelerate?

Many hats of the IT manager: As employee aspirations change to a greater onus on happiness, autonomy and choice, workplace IT would be one way of recruiting and retaining staff. Will the job of the IT manager increasingly align to the HR department?

Employee-led innovation: The business software of the future will be adopted and increasingly be designed by employees rather than management or the IT department. Are we going to see more networked, de-centralized organizations to facilitate this shifting corporate hierarchy?

A fascinating mix.  Note how many of these are about workplace tensions, either generational or organizational.  Technology is less a driver than are social and political factors.

Some of these trends cover multiple points.  “Values”, for instance, seems to really be about data and privacy.

The report appends a very short case study to each one.  My favorite is about generational differences:

Lloyds of London has moved from a paper-based system for creating, maintaining and updating client contracts to a tablet-based system. However, a significant level of resistance was encountered from some brokers. A solution that employs software that imitates the look and feel of the old paper-based system has now been rolled out. This has been received positively from the brokers.

The future of embarrassment

Sf writer Charlie Stross poses an intriguing futures question.  What will embarrass people in the future, after a generation of online porn, widespread surveillance, and ubiquitous computing?

What is public shame going to look like in 2033? And what are the implications for the psychological profile of the kind of people who will be campaigning for high level office? Are we going to see candidates for the highest posts raised from toddler-dom in hermetically sealed media bubbles by their dynastic political parents, with lives so carefully curated that there’s nothing for their rivals to get a handle on during a dirty campaign? Or are we going to see a public who increasingly expect politicians to behave like jaded celebrities (or their own peers) and who won’t blink at revelations of anything short of murder?

What is the future of blackmail in the 21st century?