Category: future

Habitum Alteram Naturam – Part 3

## Simplicity and Complexity ##

__Habits are simple, nature complex__. This formulation is meant to help understand how to talk about and act regarding the future. Change is necessary, and it is even possible. How do we conceive of this possibility? How do we talk about it?

The real question regarding talk, is to what degree is talking needed for change, that is action which creates change. Perhaps not at all. In fact, stopping talking can be such a powerful catalyst for change that perhaps the proliferation of social media inhibits needed change in our world. Action is the mediator between language and reality, not language the mediator between action and reality.

## Possibility and Predictability ##
David Ben-Gurion wrote that “all experts are experts on what has happened.” As we again try and focus our minds on the future, on possibility, is it possible to be an expert of the future? Again, the question of futurology and futurologists present itself.

In a November 4, 2008 article published in the Bangkok Post, Uri Avnery wrote:

In a world in which a person like Barack Hussein Obama can appear from nowhere and advance within a few years to the highest levels of world politics, nothing is predictable–and therefore everything is possible.

Here we have an insight that at first appears quite promising in terms of pregnant with possibility. But there is a fundamental error here. Predictability is about knowing. We precisely cannot say that “everything is possible”, since we don’t know that. All we get from this formulation is that we cannot predict, we cannot say what is possible. We most certainly, therefore, cannot say that everything is possible. Here there is a breakdown in what we can know, not a fundamental freeing of our mind from predictability. The problem is a mistake in thinking that an epistemological failure (inability to predict) has ontological weight (making everything possible).

This, then, is the problem of talk of the future freed from predictability. That is futurology loses its status as science, and attempts to don the robes of a prophetic voice, becoming a teller of stories, of possibilities.

## The Return to the Present ##
Meditations on the future are simply not fruitful, unmoored as the futurology has become from its presumed foundations. Instead it is precisely the present which deserves the attention and intentions. The complexity of possibility can be captured in the simplicity of the present moment. It is through the intensity of the present moment which change can take place. It is in the present moment that new habits are formed, and nature changed.


Habitum Alteram Naturam – Part 2

### Talkin’ ’bout the future ###

Talking about the future has two senses, the first is along the lines of “just talk” as opposed to action. The second sense has talking as a part of bringing the future into being.

The best way to predict the future is to create it. –Peter Drucker

### The Monk ###

There is a story somewhere which talks about a monk who was so devout and discerning that he only spoke the truth. He was never drawn into saying anything that wasn’t true. He never speculated, dissembled, or told anything less than what was absolutely correct. Needless to say, he didn’t have many opportunities for conversation; people are fond of their illusions.

It came to pass that the relation between the speech of the monk and the truth of the world was powerfully entwined. When the monk would talk about the future it would become true.

### The Futurologist ###

The futurologist is something of the opposite of the monk. Most futurologists use what is called scenario planning to try and understand the future. A scenario is a description of a “possible future”, in the lexicon of futurology. Good scenarios are vivid and compelling, much like a good story.

As the futurologists rely on the notion of possible worlds, it almost statistically impossible for a given scenario to actually come true. The futurologist necessarily lies. Of course the lie is meant to “tell the truth” of the future, much like the famous definition of painting.

### The Possible ###

However, the future doesn’t exist in our common sense meaning of the term. The truth that is being told is rather about the possible worlds notion of the future. In possible worlds, the _future_ can be understood as various possibilities, not as an emergent actuality.

Possible worlds do not have a clear relationship to an actual, emergent future. Of course there is likely a feedback mechanism between talking about the future (future possibilities) and which possibilities may become more likely through those conversations.

### Perception of the Future ###

Scenario planning in organizations was pioneered in Shell Oil. They credit their planning of scenarios with sensitizing their management to what was happening during the oil embargo in the 1970s. The unrestricted access to oil fields by oil companies was unquestioned at the time. One scenario, though considered unlikely, was that there would be restricted access at less favorable terms by the sovereign nations who controlled the oil fields. Shell was able to adjust their organizatinal strategy (stop building tankers and refineries, switch resources to exploration activities).

This approach makes scenario planning and perhaps other methods of futurology as adaptive responses to changing environments. So far so good. This approach understands the future as a changing environment that the organization must adapt to in order to survive and thrive.

The world now knows, more clearly than ever before, that the possibilities of the future astound us, even when we know that to be the case. The day before the election, Uri Avnery wrote in the Bangkok Post:

In a world in which a person like Barack Hussein Obama can appear from nowhere and advance within a few years to the highest levels of world politics, nothing is predictable–and therefore everything is possible.

### Talking helps Thinking ###

Talking about the future, in semi-structured approaches such as the futurologists scenarios, helps us think and understand future possible environments. These are fictions that train the mind, much like story problems in algebra class.

But how do we take the next step from thinking to action? How can we engage with the real, felt future?

The goal is not to understand the world but to change it. –Karl Marx

End of part 2, part 3 to follow…

Futurology and Development

Any future must and will actually come from places like Manila and Bangkok. At the very least it will find a home there. The present discourse around futurology is predominantly driven and reflected of the developed world. The future is a developed future along the trajectory of current developed nations. And thereby leaves the most dynamic, diverse, and different futures off of the table.

A bit of reflection will reveal how much we know this to be a mistake.

* The current future was created by developing countries. In other words, developed nations emerged through development. Development, however, is far from a specific trajectory.
* The developed world is largely stagnating in terms of population and economic growth. Of the G7, countries are shrinking in population or encouraging massive migration from the developing world. China is entering this situation as well. The future will come from places such as Brazil, Vietnam, India, Thailand, South Africa, and Indonesia
* Greater economic connections between countries is seen as the best way to stabilize and manage risks in the global economic environment.
* The developing world resembles the developed world only insofar as it wants to, and only insofar as the viewpoint is from the perspective of the developed world.
* Most importantly, looking to the future is about trying to understand change, what will be different. And what will be different, even in the most hegemonic approach, is how things will be different in the integration of developing markets and political systems.

The developed countries are shrinking in relative population and power. Why would the future belong only to those aging countries or be made in their image?

Habitum Alteram Naturam – Part 1

_Habit changes nature_

##Habit and Nature##
Some might suggest we are human doing, rather than human being. I believe it was Aristotle who suggested it is what we do that makes us what we are. There is no essential being underneath our actions, per se, but the actions and the beings are concomitant. If so, then what we do right now is of vital importance. Our habit, what we do regularly, _is_ what we are.

##Habit and the Future##
In some strong sense the future is about change, otherwise it would be as Lao Tze would have it, that if people kept their customs and worshiped the ancestors, he could tell you what life would be like in 10 generations. The point is that people do not keep customs and worship the ancestors as was done in the past. Things change, and even people change. This means that habits can change.

De futuris contingentibus non est determinata veritas. –Aristotle

##How Then, Change?##
How, then do we change? And is the discourse of change, or of the future, a part of this change? Or can it be a false substitute for taking action? I know I have been as guilty as anyone in terms of talking about the future more than taking the necessary steps to bring it into being.

##The Role of the Discourse of Change in Actual Change##
Of course it is possible that talking about the future is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for it to come into being. Sort of how we need to talk about change, engender belief in change, before we can have a candidate for change, who then can be elected and actually create change (we hope).

_End of part 1…_

Twenty Trends for the Next Ten Years

Caveat, these are specific to my own interests and attention in higher education and information technology, but also in regards to energy, material science and sensors, since these last three sectors will have feedback effects on the other trends.

Forecasting? Not Possible

People I have spoken with about the future know I am suspicious to the point of incredulity about any kind of ability to predict or even forecast accurately the future. Think about it–if you could even know for certain the stock price of a single stock within a 24 hour time period, you would be a millionaire in no time. The recent Hawaii 2050 exercise only received my scorn (and certainly no link love). Folks, that is 42 years in the future, what are you thinking! What did we know about 2008 back in 1966? Absolutely nothing. All guesses wild, all certainties rendered ridiculous if not sublime. (For more information on the past and current practices of futurology, see the wikipedia article.)

My position is informed by a strong interest in forecasting methods, including a graduate course by a professor who worked with the early forecasters at RAND. I am not saying forecasting is nonsense, but rather that it is much more constrained than people generally think. Why? Well it just isn’t comforting to know that we really have no idea what specifically (as opposed to generally) our future will be. However, what is the better position: to be blissfully unaware that we do not have such control, or to know that, and thereby be able to act in ways that render more effective the control we do have?

That said, when we talk about the future using the language of forecasting, in many (most) instances we are telling stories. What’s so wrong or bad about that? Well, nothing, mostly. However, when a state agency spends tax dollars on an exercise that has no measurable outcomes and takes up people’s most valuable and inelastic resource, time… well then.

Plausible Scenarios

Students of forecasting understand that we both over- and under-estimate what will change over the medium term, and cannot be sure which is which. I don’t know anyone who believes any of the Gartner 5-year projections, but they do represent a realm of possibility, something of an overstated yet under-characterized scenario.

Some of the best science fiction can not only generate tangible scenarios, but to some degree invoke them into existence. Neal Stephenson‘s Snow Crash (1992) had within in The Metaverse, a vision of an immersive virtual world which Linden Labs took as their design goal (without the immersive part), and 12 years later we have Second Life. Snow Crash also has versions of Google Earth in Earth, Justin.TV in the Gargoyle and an advanced approach to semantic reasoning in The Librarian (not yet realized).

Appropriate Time Horizon

Vernor Vinge‘s Rainbows End (2006) is set in 2025, 17 years hence (20 when written). Vinge, an extremely talented science fiction author claims that all he did was extrapolate current trends. This is about as far as one could rationally say one could think about the future. There is also the concept of the pipeline, the time it takes innovations and developments to make it to the marketplace where they can be adopted, such as the process for FDA approval for newly discovered drugs or the time it takes to build manufacturing capacity for new solar cell production, etc.

I believe that while we can talk about 20 years, and daydream, we cannot actually think about it in the sense of rational thought. We simply don’t have the tools. I want to suggest that 10 years is about as far as a time horizon we can deal with. Now some may accuse me of giving up on the future; nothing could be further from the truth. Which is wiser and more truthful: holding a conference about what the future may be in 42 years, or working toward where we need it to be in 10? One approach has a sense of involvement and responsibility. The other is simply fantasy.


So what should we look at for the next 10 years? There are trends which appear to be growing quickly or at least steadily, sometimes chugging along under the radar. These particular trends have the ability to upset not a few rather largish apple carts. It is not that we know what the outcomes will be, which beaches these waves will impact, and how the various landscapes will be transformed. What we can do, however, is sense these trends, and then vigorously pay attention to them. We can begin by imagining what and how changes might manifest.


Any item on the list should be, first and foremost, obvious. Why? We are talking about a 10-year time horizon so there should already be a sense that these things are either the next big thing, or that they are going to have an impact on our lives. In addition, the trends should have feedback effects with other trends. They should as a constellation of trends exert gravitational force on each other.

At the 10-year horizon, we tend to underestimate in terms of breadth and magnitude of impact of large-scale trends. The point is to look for items that will be big and messy (touch many things) and think through the implications and possibilities.

For your musing pleasure, I present (and for future blog posts, will discuss) twenty trends for the next ten years.

Twenty Trends for the Next Ten Years

  • Open Source
  • Open Content
  • Open Standards
  • Cloud Computing
  • Social Media
  • Online Video
  • Online Education
  • Smart Mobile Devices
  • Wireless Broadband
  • Augmented Reality
  • Virtual Worlds
  • Serious Games
  • Information Visualization
  • Novel Interfaces
  • High Cost of Energy
  • Global Warming
  • Novel Materials
  • Sensor Networks

This posting handily provides me with a wealth of (at least 20) topics for future blog posts, namely what these are and how they are impacting and may yet impact our lives.