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:


Four futures for 2030

An interesting futures example, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” (National Intelligence Council) sketches out some geopolitical directions.

It begins by identifying a set of drivers, or “Megatrends”.  These include: increased individual empowerment; diffusion of global power (decline of US unipolarity); certain demographics (some countries age extensively, while there are also , “a still-significant but shrinking number of youthful societies and states”; growing urbanization; a potential resource crisis (the “food, water, and energy nexus”).

The authors also mention a bunch of “game changers”, problems which could also warp things: governance problems, economic fragility, rise of conflict, regional instability, new technology.

Using these drivers and selected game changers, the report presents four scenarios.

  • Stalled Engines. The bad one: “Under this scenario, the eurozone unravels quickly, causing Europe to be mired in recession. The US energy revolution fails to materialize, dimming prospects for an economic recovery… global economic growth falters and all players do relatively poorly”.
  • Fusion, the happiest, in some ways: “With the growing collaboration among the major powers, global multilateral institutions are reformed and made more inclusive. In this scenario, all boats rise substantially.”
  • Gini Out-of-the-Bottle.  That’s “Gini” as in the famous inequality coefficient.  Economic inequality booms, and “the lack of societal cohesion domestically is mirrored at the international level. Major powers are at odds; the potential for conficts rises. More countries fail, fueled in part by the dearth of international cooperation on assistance and development. In sum, the world is reasonably wealthy,but it is less secure as the dark side of globalizationposes an increasing challenge in domestic and international politics”.
  • Nonstate World.  The decline of states and their replacement: “Formal governance institutions that do not adapt to the more diverse and widespread distribution of power are also less likely to be successful. Multinational businesses, IT communications firms, international scientists, NGOs,and others that are used to cooperating across borders and as part of networks thrive in this hyper-globalized world where expertise, influence, and agility count for more than “weight” or “position.””.

In comparing US outcomes, the team offered this intriguing view of what national GDP might look like as a proportion of global output.  Note which scenario is best for that condition:

US GDP as portion of global, broken down by scenarios.

Also in this project: a nice set of black swans, and a group blog for surfacing ideas..

Nate Silver looks to 2014

Star forecaster Nate Silver, fresh from this month’s election, predicts the House of Representatives in 2014.

Unlike the presidential race, this early forecast doesn’t rely on polling.  Instead Silver looks to historical patterns.

Jeff Selingo gave a talk on five forces disrupting higher education.  Interesting set:

“swirl” refers to students attending multiple schools, rather than one.

It’s a good mix, hitting major themes.  I can quibble with parts: “Value” should be “Perceived value”, to emphasize the culturally contested form of this, for example.


A day in a Slashdot future

Imagining a day in the future is a useful exercise. This Slashdot example show why: a series of trends, assumptions, and foci appearing in the very accessible day-in-the-life-of.
For instance, lunchtime:

The server robot finally rolls up to your table and deposits your sandwich, along with a glass of water (soda is a rare treat these days, because of the tax). After eating half your meal and picking at the rest, you realize it’s not hunger that’s making you feel poorly. You briefly remove the CID from your phone and wave it across the table to pay for your food. You leave a small tip for the robot maintenance engineer, then walk to your car, calling work on your way to notify them you’re feeling ill. Once you’ve instructed the car to go home, you recline the seat and take a short nap. The car gently chimes to wake you when you’re safely home. Heading inside, you walk to the bathroom and root around in a drawer for your phone’s medical attachment. Once connected, you instruct it to contact the CDC’s servers for a virus definition update. You quickly swab your nose and throat, and place the samples on the attachment’s sensor, then step into the kitchen to make some tea while you wait. In 20 minutes, the results come back, showing a very strong likelihood that you have the seasonal flu. Your results are automatically sent to the CDC, where their algorithms verify your CID and confirm you had contact with several other people now exhibiting symptoms. An antiviral drug is prescribed for you immediately. You dispatch your car to pick it up.

50 years ago, the Jetsons

The Jetsons only ran for a single season, but offered an influential glimpse of the future to 1962 America.

According to that Smithsonian article, the series drew heavily on contemporary futurism.


I wonder, too, how the show fed into Baby Boomers’ conception of the future.

One digital future

“A Digital Tomorrow” is a short design fiction video imagining several ways digital technology could impact daily life.  But it’s not techno-utopianism; instead, it shows people sometimes failing to get tech working.

Warren Ellis points out that interfaces offer an unusual futuring opportunity:

User Interface, however, is in a sense all about the characters. All about the people. And, as in A Digital Tomorrow, has things both speculative and critical to say about the approach of the next New Normal. In the way that core science fiction, which acts as social fiction, speaks to the potentials of the present and the strange weather of the future.

A few more thoughts:

  • Notice how un-digital most of the story is.  The majority of surfaces lack digital displays.  Most objects are analog.
  • Very low budget.  Anyone can do this!
  • Much is inferred rather than described.

One Apple education future

Here‘s another vision of education in 2020.  I’m struck by its emphasis on Apple products.

The iPad:

The tablet will be the dominant learning platform and will contain all dynamic course content and will allow students to attend classes, online study groups, and parse through libraries with millions of volumes.

The Apps Store:

Institutions will be defined by their apps and the way they structure content for mobile devices.


There will also be a content marketplace – much like an iTunes, and a vast majority of institutions will sell their own content to both individuals and other institutions. Institutions will focus on subject niches and will have less internal competencies around fewer focus areas that aren’t directly related to their core research. The best content will rise to the top and be purchased from other institutions.

And the use of iPad images as proxy for “the future”:

To his credit Grant Sabatier mentions other, non-Cupertino-related developments, like gamification and networked learning.  But it fascinates me to see how one company can loom so large in a prediction.  Call it the Steve Jobs Future Distortion Field.


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:

The dark side of augmented reality

What are the negative consequences of widespread augmented reality, a la Google Glasses?  “Sight” (2012) is a short science fiction video imagining some of them.  Spoilers after the embed.

The protagonist (or villain) is cut off from some of the world, as e27 observes.  He has little opportunity to experience things physically (does he taste the food, really?) or intuitively (the entire date is augmented).  Gamification blots out experience, and cheapens it.  Finally, bad actors can abuse the system.

It’s useful to compare “Sight” to “Google Glasses: A New Way to Hurt Yourself” (2012).  The latter differs in tone, being comic rather than dystopian, but also in subjects.  “Google” identifies another set of AR problems: communication misfires, physical injury, ad spam, and police surveillance.

As forecasting tools, these kinds of anticipatory sf videos are quite useful.

(via HackerNews)