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.)
has come to a close, but the ideas and inspirations it generated will carry on well into the future. Held last week in Boston, the annual futurist conference was often profound, consistently thought-provoking, and even occasionally unsettling. With nearly a hundred presentations, workshops, tours, seminars and keynote speeches, over 900 attendees from around the world had plenty to think and talk about. This year’s conference theme was “Sustainable Futures, Strategies and Technologies”, made all the more relevant given the economic and environmental challenges the world has recently had to face.
The sustainability theme ran through a broad range of fields and topics. A small sampling of these presentations included “Global Efforts to Develop Sustainable Public Health Initiatives”, “Achieving Low-Carbon Economic Growth”, and “Sustainability and Future Human Evolution.”
While sustainability was the official conference theme, accelerated growth could easily have been designated the unofficial one. Technology ethicist, Wendell Wallach addressed it in his opening speech, “Navigating the Future: Moral Machines, Techno Sapiens, and the Singularity”. Inventor and author, Ray Kurzweil revisited the concept repeatedly in his keynote presentation, “Building the Human Mind.” (Kurzweil mentioned exponential growth enough times that some attendees later joked about turning it into a drinking game.) Many of the other presenters also talked about how the nature of technological progress, especially the convergence of previously unrelated fields, is driving this acceleration. For me, it was truly exciting to be among so many people who readily accept and incorporate this important concept.
Given my own inclinations, my favorite sessions tended toward the more technical. Among these were “Technology Futures and Their Massive Potential Societal Impacts”, “Humans in 2020: The Next 10 Years of Personal Biotechnology”, “Challenges and Opportunities in Space Medicine” and “The Human-Computer Interface.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend every presentation I wanted to see. That’s the downside of a conference of this scale: there’s no way to do it all. But then on the plus side, there’s definitely something for everyone.
For me, the best thing about WorldFuture is that while the conference themes and presentations may change from year to year, there’s always a strong belief in the need to look ahead. The world faces many serious environmental, technical and social challenges in the coming decades. We’re going to need serious foresight and planning if we want to make it a positive, sustainable future that’s supportive of our citizens, our economies and our planet.
How often do we hear people ask “Why isn’t the future here yet? Where are the gleaming cities connected by suspended walkways that look disturbingly like Habitrails? Where are the moon colonies and twinkling domed cities? Where are the robot servants dressed in 1940’s maid uniforms?” And most ubiquitously, “Where, oh where, are the flying cars?”
For nearly all of human history, there have been people who looked to the future with an almost utopic fervor. Too often they’ve foreseen it as an earthly nirvana, where dirt, crime and social ills fall away, unable to adhere to its highly polished non-stick surface.
But somehow it hasn’t seemed to work out that way. Most people’s perception of our present is that it’s pretty much like our past, save for a few new gadgets and a few different problems. The future hasn’t been the universally transformative event many had hoped for.
So what happened? I think author William Gibson succinctly answered the question when he said, “The future is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed.” With that pithy observation, Gibson summed up the entire issue. It’s here, it just isn’t everywhere. Yet.
The reality is we’re already capable of some pretty amazing things, stuff that belonged to the future not all that long ago. We’ve put a dozen men on the moon and maintained a significant presence in space for nearly four decades. We can sequence a person’s complete genome. We’ve created humanoid robots that are improving by literal leaps and bounds. We even have flying cars. So why aren’t these wonders more common, more available? Well, economics is certainly one significant factor. Given enough effort, we probably could have had a moon colony by now, but what a price tag! Likewise, domed cities, yet to what real purpose? Flying cars? Even if you get past the costs, you’re in a vehicle where even a minor failure is catastrophic. Combine the potentially high death-to-accident ratio with regulatory issues, astronomical insurance costs, the nightmare of air traffic control and the fact few of us have the necessary three-dimensional spatial skills and it’s doubtful we’ll see too many of these babies zipping across our skies anytime soon.
But there are many developing technologies that will almost certainly be embraced in the not-so-distant future, first by the wealthy, then over time by the rest of us. Biotech wonder drugs tailored to our unique DNA. Space tourism. Nanocomputers embedded in our clothing and throughout the environment. Artificial organs which our bodies won’t reject because they’re created from our own cells. Robot assistants to aide us in various tasks, hopefully minus the maid uniforms.
Technology adoption is also a question of inertia. Civic. Social. Political. Psychological. We don’t want to tear out all of the buildings and transportation infrastructure every quarter century just because there are newer, perhaps better ways to construct them. So we end up with 21st Century buildings set amidst 20th Century structures, maybe with a number of 19th Century ones scattered around and so on. Which is a good thing because it gives us continuity and makes us feel better psychologically. While parts of our minds have come to crave change, for other aspects continuity equals security. (Or inversely, change equals threat.) So we carry on moving forward along our timeline, letting the new mix in with the old, hanging onto legacy systems, products and methods, either because of cost, convenience or sentimentality.
So how do we get to a more evenly distributed future? We give it time to merge with the present, at which point, of course, it’s not the future anymore. A little over a century ago, no one had electricity or a telephone. It took decades before a quarter of the populace had these scientific marvels. Cell phones took a fraction of that time to reach a similar level of market saturation. Now there are nearly five billion cell phones in the world, which is fast approaching one hundred percent saturation. Put another way, there are tribal nomads walking around today with far more computer processing power and digital storage in their pocket than was on board the Apollo command modules. That’s a very thoroughly distributed technology.
Today’s present has so many wonders that yesterday’s present couldn’t even dream of: vaccines that have all but eradicated many lethal illnesses; vehicles that hurl us around the globe quickly and in comfort; buildings that soar high into the clouds; instant communication with anyone, anywhere, anytime; the sum of human knowledge available at our fingertips.
Make no mistake, the future’s here and it will be with you shortly. But by that time, it will be your present overlaid onto your past. Which, of course, was once someone else’s future. So just be patient.
And don’t expect the skies to be filled with flying cars anytime soon.
My latest article “The Age of the Interface” is the cover story for the May/June issue of The Futurist which is out this week.
A properly designed and implemented interface not only facilitates system-to-system communication, but it also simplifies and automates control of otherwise complex functions. Interfaces let us operate on things that we can’t otherwise deal with and peer into regions where we couldn’t otherwise see. From steering aircraft carriers to moving atoms with atomic force microscopes, interfaces rescale our actions. They translate digital signals and invisible radiation into media that are readily accessible to our senses. In essence, they become our eyes, ears, hands, and even extensions of our minds.
As astounding and varied as our interfaces are today, they’re on track to become much more so in the near future. Under development now are a range of new methods for interacting with our devices in ways that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. With so many advances now on the horizon, we may someday look back on this period as the Golden Age of the Interface.
This article grew out of some of my observations about the profusion of interfaces that are currently under development. Some of these will be coming onto the market this year, others five to ten years from now. Overall, the trend is toward more natural ways of interfacing with one (or more) of our senses and an increasingly immediate integration with our bodies.
I’m very pleased with how the article turned out and welcome your responses and critiques.
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.
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.