Information. There is probably nothing so important to our lives, to our culture, to our world. Information, and the ability to communicate it, has been at the foundation of humanity’s rise since before we used fire or stone tools. It has allowed us to grow from nomadic clans to villages to city-states to nations to become a world-spanning society.
As our society and technologies have grown, so too has our world of information. Its depth, breadth and sheer volume have expanded exponentially. This has occurred for millennia, probably throughout our entire history. Yet now, as we find ourselves in the midst of the Digital Age, we discover we’ve reached a point when the volume of data we generate threatens our very ability to utilize it.
Data grows exponentially. According to market research and analysis firm IDC, the world’s digital output is doubling every one and a half years. In 2010, they expect the world to create and replicate a record 1.2 zettabytes of data. That’s over a trillion billion bytes, or a stack of DVDs reaching to the Moon and back. By 2020, IDC expects this number to grow to 35 zettabytes, or enough DVDs to reach halfway to Mars. But there are reasons to believe this estimate may fall woefully short.
How we address the issues surrounding the information explosion and the overload that accompanies it will directly impact how we develop our society and technologies in the future. My new article “Treading in the Sea of Data” is the cover story for the latest issue of The Futurist (July/August 2011) and it explores what this “data deluge” could mean for our world. The challenges created by Big Data are significant not only from a technological perspective, but from personal and societal ones as well. However, there are a number of approaches we can take in dealing with what will only continue to be a growing condition of life in this time of accelerating progress. I welcome your comments.
(This article draws from my more in-depth paper in the World Future Society’s 2011 conference volume, Moving from Vision to Action, which may be preordered from www.wfs.org.)
If, like me, you find President Obama’s already overused “Win the Future” catchphrase catching in your throat, you might also be wondering how he decided on this feel-good, but nonsensical slogan.* It seems incredible that an administration that so readily talks about future technologies doesn’t give better consideration to the strategies behind their promotion. Reducing the dialog to the metaphor of competition diminishes it before it has even gotten started. The future isn’t a prize, a thing to be won, it’s a process, a never-ending unfolding of the possible. As futurist Jamais Cascio recently wrote, in encouraging us to “Win the Future”, President Obama “is not just asking us to do something that simply cannot be done, he’s asking us to accept a meager, ephemeral sense of triumph, when we could do so much more.”
It should also make us wonder about the government’s collective grasp of the concepts and processes essential to futures thinking. As complex as our challenges are and will be in the coming decades, we need to be using all of the tools at our command.
I’ve wondered from time to time about the idea of some sort of federal “Department of the Future” or “Office of Foresight”. Part of me rebels against such an Orwellian-sounding governmental agency, but on the other hand, we need to be making policy decisions with a much longer term, systems oriented view than we currently do.
Certainly, there are other departments and agencies that incorporate futures methodology – intelligence agencies and the military, for example. But there can be little doubt these entities have a particular focus and therefore are limited by their own filters. Would we be better served by a nonpartisan futures equivalent to say the Congressional Budget Office? Something which could provide an assessment of potential impacts for a particular piece of legislation? Could we reduce wasted tax dollars, not to mention avoiding unintended consequences, especially ones that could have been readily foreseen?
Remember the tax credit for ethanol production? Because a significant percentage of corn crops were diverted to energy production, food prices around the world skyrocketed. (Commodity speculation was also a contributing factor, though it can be argued this was exacerbated by the policy.) People in some parts of the developing world suffered considerable hardship and many starved. Was such an outcome so impossible to anticipate?
Despite this, I’m not saying I’m entirely convinced an “Office of Foresight” is the right way to go. But I do think it’s worthy of exploration and dialog. It’s not as if there aren’t already precedents. In the UK, the government’s Foresight Programme was established to help them think systematically about the future and its application to developing policy and strategy.
Of course, there are already futures organizations that inform and advise government, but could we be better served by a more fundamental integration of these disciplines into our policy making process?
Maybe this is a good idea. Maybe it isn’t. What do you think? As for me, I know we can do better than to approach the future with the same mentality we bring to a basketball game.
*(Full disclosure: I was and still am an Obama supporter and contributed to his 2008 presidential campaign.)
Mark Twain once wrote “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The same might be said about the future – with one significant exception: I don’t think people are talking about it nearly enough.
“But what about the energy crisis?”, comes the imagined reply. “What about global warming? What about the water shortages that are impacting significant parts of the world? Surely that shows we’re looking ahead to the future?”
No, it doesn’t.
Each of these examples cites a present-day response to a problem that could have been anticipated and acted upon decades ago. The information was available, the technology was feasible. What was lacking was the will to look beyond present-day motivations and the very immediate future in order to alter the way our actions affect the world.
WorldFuture 2008 conference
Of course, there are some people who do want to look ahead. In July, over 1,000 futurists from nearly forty countries attended WorldFuture 2008 in Washington, DC. During this annual five-day conference of the World Future Society, attendees took part in courses, presentations, debates and discussions addressing future economic, educational, political, social and technological trends. It was an exciting event, full of ideas, inspiration and hope.
These futurists recognize the importance of foresight and planning in a world that is changing in profound and increasingly rapid ways. They’ll be the first to tell you that the future can’t be predicted – not in specific terms anyway. But they also know there are methods and tools to point the way. Trends can be analyzed and extrapolated; scenarios can be created to anticipate best, worst and preferred possibilities; roadmaps and models can be built; systems-wide thinking can be applied. All so that we can be better prepared for the changes and challenges that lie ahead.
If there’s one thing we can learn from this, it’s that we should all be talking more about the future. Our future. Perhaps then, and only then, we can start to do something about it.