Monday, August 13, 2012

News from the Future

A Report on the World Future Society's 2012 Conference

Michael recently spent a very rich two days at the annual conference of the World Future Society and thought you might appreciate his views and comments. The conference was held in Toronto, Ontario, one of North America's most highly diverse and multicultural cities. This vibrant setting was ideal for an international event that brought over 700 dynamic people focused on the future together.  It's impossible to give you an accounting of what went on in all 58 sessions and workshops.  Even as peripatetic as he is, Michael couldn't be in more than one session at a time.  But, he sure hit a few!  Here are some highlights:

Brian David Johnson

Brian David Johnson, Intel's resident futurist, a most energetic and warm human being, took us through a history of computer memory to remind us that we now store more information on a jump drive than the guys who went to the Moon had in their capsule.  "Meaningful computing power will approach zero by 2020.  Blood flow will power a computer.

Anything will be turned into a computer. We've moved from 'Can we?' to 'What do we want to do with it?'"  We're entering an era where the biggest challenge that humans face will be to "change the story that people tell themselves about the future they'll live in."  Johnson's thinking along these lines is elaborated in his book,  Science Fiction Prototyping, and in his activities at Intel's  The Tomorrow Project.    

Lee Rainie
Lee Rainie is the director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project which studies the social impact of the Internet.  "More for Me" (i.e., technology will enhance my life) versus "More for Them" (i.e., technology will make it easier for those that wish to track me in order to manipulate me) was the general theme of Lee's talk. Pew polled hundreds of "experts" of all different sorts regarding a variety of paired polarities related to this general theme to see how they expected it to play out.  For example, 53% of those polled thought that "Big Data," (e.g., the kind of information Facebook has on 1,000,000,000 users world wide) will generate a better future providing each of us with an "Endless You" loop through which we can continuously enjoy and expand ourselves.  On the other hand, 47% worried all that data about you is going to turn into something like a "No You," when anything and everything you might do is comprehended by the ruthless algorithms of computation.
The "Poverty of Imagination" panel session featured noted Australian futurist, Richard Slaughter, co-founder of the Global Business Network, Jay Ogilvy, former OECD program manager, Riel Miller, director of the Centre for Futures and Innovation at Glamorgan Business School, Martin Rhisiart, and senior fellow at Korea Development Institute, Cheonsik Woo.   Miller, who hasn't published anything in a while but may have a book coming out shortly, was quite brilliant in his thinking about the metaphors people and organizations use to anticipate the future.  "Everyone uses industrial language.  Everyone
Riel Miller

wants to be at the top of the pyramid. The race is on for greater and greater  efficiency.  This way of thinking creates enormous stress, and its a losing battle just to stay in place.  This is not an imaginative conceptualization process; it is drawing on imagery that is "out of gas."  "Our politics have become defensive and reactionary.  The hatred of science that we're seeing is coincident with the notion that things can and should last forever.  We are willing to use war and authoritarianism to preserve what is, because of a fear of change and the inability to imagine a really good future.  Ogilvy elaborated on these themes.  "We underrate our capacity to change the world.  Nietzsche, in "On the Use and Abuse of History for
Jay Ogilvy
Life," critiques 'monumental history,' i.e., using history as a way to prove that one thing or another thing 'had to happen.'  Things unfold in a 'necessaritarian' fashion.  Contrarian history shows us the knife's edge of history.  The present is always plastic.  We've set the bar too high.  We've privileged peace as a condition rather than pushed ourselves to get good at peacemaking."    Slaughter picked up on the plasticity of the present theme in noting how "counterfactual" histories [such as Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle] present a highly plausible alternative history that demonstrate that inevitability exists largely in hindsight. 

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, former Danish ambassador to Singapore, presented a session
on the evolution of Asian economies over the next decade.  Moeller, something of a force of nature, has spoken with depth and mastery at many World Future Society conferences and this talk  was another demonstration of why he's such a favorite.  Drawing on his encyclopedic awareness of data and his imaginative ideational abilities, Moeller paints a positive and a negative picture of the future of Asia.  For example, the United States's structural debts have given China a great advantage in calling the shots over the next decade, an advantage that will likely cause the U.S. to renege on its obligations in 2016 and drive Japan into the Asiatic

Joergen Oestroem Moeller
sphere of influence that it has avoided since at least the end of WWII.  As others have as well, Moeller analyzes the demographics of Asia to predict that China will become increasingly focused on technology as its population ages and that the manufacturing activity currently going on China will largely shift to other Asian nations like India by 2020.  Bangladesh
, for example, is currently the world's 3rd largest producer of textiles .  "China has to invest in technology; India has to invest in infrastructure.  Will these two Asian giants manage their transitions going in opposite directions from where they are now, while simultaneously maintaining free trade with each other?"  Moeller believes that China will become a more important power than the U.S. and its Western allies because its people are more willing to cooperate with one another than those who come out of the West's individualist traditions. 

Presentations by the Singularity University's faculty and students were fascinating, albeit controversial.  The Singularity is a proposition that four intertwined exponential trends will bestow immortality on humanity by mid-century.  The  Singularity holds that the arrival of immortality will represent a discontinuity with all previous versions of humanity and, therefore, represent a state of beginning somewhat similar to that which existed at the Big Bang.  While Vernor Vinge coined the term, Ray Kurzweil, a mega-millionaire inventor and entrepreneur, wrote the book that turned the idea of the Singularity into something of a viral
concept.  José Luis Cordeiro, a Singularity University faculty member, presented a powerful overview of the convergence and acceleration of NBIC technologies [Nanotech; Biotech; Cognotech (technology based on brain activity); and Infotech].  Anna Trunina, a 23 year old woman of Russian ethnicity who speaks flawless English, described the activities of the genetic counseling service, Premier Life, she is creating as an example of how the Singularity University's ideas are migrating into use in the world.  Some futurists see the Singularity as a rigid way of thinking about the future and, therefore, as a digression into prediction rather than anticipating the flexibility of possible futures, which is more consistent with futuring as a discipline.

Michael Marien, publisher of Global Foresight Books, William Halah, president of TechCast, Richard Slaughter, and Thomas Homer-Dixon, chair of Global Systems at the Center for International Governance Innovation) addressed an overflow crowd on the
“Global MegaCrisis: Four Scenarios on the Future of Progress” demonstrating exactly what an anxious age we're living in.  The Global MegaCrisis is postulated as an emerging "perfect storm" of climate change, economic crises, joblessness, growing inequality, corruption, terrorism and more.  In other words, it's a mighty bad place.  Marien and Hallah have described four possible scenarios, "Decline to Disaster," "Muddling Down," "Muddling Up," and "Rise to Maturity", as responses to the emerging and present crisis for several years. Marien and Slaughter take a pessimistic tack in discussions of these possible futures.  Hallah, in contrast, holds a quite optimistic view based on technological advances.  Homer-Dixon concentrates on the "deeply rooted psychological biases" that impact a person's fundamental orientation toward hope or despair (i.e., If one is biased toward ideational causal factors, one is likely to think that the human mind can overcome everything.  If one focuses on material causal factors, one is more likely to believe that external, structural factors will control human destiny, and probably not in a good way.).
Let's close this overview of the conference with some notes from Jay Ogilvy's brilliant report on "Lessons from Three Decades of Futures Research."  Ogilvy taught philosophy at the university level for many years.  As the co-founder of the Global Business Network, he is one of the real creators of the "Scenaric Stance" (the view that the future can evolve in many different ways and that the job of the futurist is to cultivate an openness to the possible).  He spoke of three way stations in evolution of human thinking about time and "futurity."  The first stop was the view that the future is a space in time that we just haven't gotten to yet: what the future will be is certain, "the clay just hasn't gotten dry".  The second way of thinking about the future is exemplified by Aristotle's thought of time as a "moving image of eternity" -- essentially, there is no evolution; the future is bifurcated.  We can be optimistic about the future (reading the tea leaves of the present and finding much to support a notion of progress toward something better) or we can be pessimistic(finding no meaning in a random universe).  The third way of thinking about the future, the scenaric stance, holds both the pessimistic and the optimistic views of future possibilities in mind simultaneously.  In Ogilvy's view, the scenaric stance allows us to exist on the knife edge of what the future may actually be.  In his book, Facing the Fold, Ogilvy finds numerous advantages to the scenaric stance:
- An acute sense of freedom from any official future
- The intellectual honesty of not knowing
- A focusing of action and intent, with knowledge of the stakes at hand
- The ability to toggle back and forth between possibilities without psychic stress or guilt
- Emotional depth, a personal feeling for what the future might be and an ability to communicate that
- A subtle frame of mind, seeing nuance in stories.   

Consider all the predictions you've been sure about that didn't pan out; that's a great way to get at the mindset of the scenaric stance.  No one knows anything about the future with absolute certainty.  That truth is a door to the freedom of exploration.  


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