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.

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Looking over the next decade

An April Institute for the Future meeting reflected on major trends for the next decade.  It’s an interesting set,  “six fundamental shifts defin[ing] a landscape of change”:

  • Hyper-urbanization: From strategies of enclosure to open strategies for the shareable city
  • Deindustrialization: From pipeline infrastructures to agile energy ecosystems
  • Dematerialization: From large-scale manufacturing to just-in-time manifestation
  • Social Production: From institutional wage labor to networked micro-contributions
  • Information Intensification: From information overload to cognitive prosthesis
  • Biomolecularization: From individually responsible intelligent organisms to complex ecosystems of biologically distributed intelligence

The same meeting also offered a nice way of thinking through the gap between present and future trends, which they call the two-curve problem:

We find ourselves facing a gap between the familiar past and an alien future. Our incumbent path is predicated on trends that may well have reached their peaks, yet the emergent path has not yet taken shape. The props of our historical strategies—open spaces, cheap fossil fuel, abundant natural resources—are in decline. But new alternatives are not yet ready for prime time. 

An interesting gap.

Mapping the European future

Creating maps is another futuring visualization tool.  Sometimes they can be tongue in cheek, but always reflecting the present moment of their composition.  For example,

Some of this is cute, like the current German leader’s name superimposed over a newCarolingian realm, or the Vatican’s new title.  Some is also less fanciful, such as the notes about overfishing, Turkey’s awkward un-fit within Europe, and east Asian debt.

(via Martin Lindner chez G+)

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.

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)

Extending trends

When does a single story suggest more of the same?

Consider this analysis of climate change in the Mediterranean basin.  Rainfall has declined, sometimes sharply, in some areas:

Notice that one of those regions is Syria, now enduring some degree of civil war.  Water problems aren’t the only cause, but can be seen as a significant driver.

Now consider the rest of the map.  What about Jordan, Morocco, southern Spain, Montenegro, southern Turkey, Greece?  Should we think about events in those nations with an eye towards the kinds of stresses we’re seeing explode in Syria?

Visualizing different futures

Here’s a neat way to chart different models of the future, from a Morgan Stanley presentation.

This one connects two different outcome series, one for the US and one for the European Union.

Here they quantify likelihood: