Posted tagged ‘future’

Starting a futures discussion – some docs

January 8, 2013

I’m giving a talk to some masters students in London tomorrow and was asked to suggest something for them to read in advance.

I wasn’t quite sure where they were starting from, or where we might want to take the discussion in a single 90 minute session, so in the end I provided a selection. These are not samplings from the Dark Mountain, or cornucopian blatherings, more entries into some kind of conversation about how we think about the future, and why. Aside from that

The criteria were fairly simple arbitrary:

not by me

not too long


easily available

exemplifying different approaches/points of view

on my hard drive already

It occurs to me they might be of use to a few other people, so here is the list, with web links.

20 Ways the Future has Let Us Down

One of those, where’s my flying car? pieces…  LINK

A Primer on Futures Studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios  Dr Joseph Voros, Swinburne University of Technology LINK (pdf)

The Future of Humanity Nick Bostrom

Big picture/deep time thinking from Oxford LINK (pdf)


H. G. Wells – “The future is as fixed and determinate as the past”

(or: The Discovery of the Future) as printed in the New York Times, 1913 LINK (pdf)


The Future and How to Think About It.

(old Cabinet Office Paper – gives flavour of some government thinking in UK) LINK (pdf)


Outsights – 21 Drivers for the 21st Century

A flavour of independent consultancy in this area. LINK


Paul Saffo – Six Rules for Effective Forecasting

Harvard Business Review 2007  LINK


And I’ll add a couple of very recent documents which result from large scale, institutional foresight efforts from establishment global elite points of view –

The World Economic Forum – Global Risks 2013 LINK

US National Intelligence Council – Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds

(latest in a series dating back some years) LINK

Also very thought-provoking is this new essay in the American Historical Review on the conflicted roots of post WW2 futurology. LINK

Feel free to add others which might be better in the comments…


Are we safe? Maybe, sort of…

March 27, 2012

“Are we safe?”, I was asked last week. The question was a discussion starter for an enjoyable panel which closed the Oxford Literary Festival’s Saturday afternoon look at science and the future – an event which ranged from cosmology to climate change.

The event was a conversation (with the always apocalyptically cheerful Anders Sandberg and writer Sara Wheeler)– generally a  better way of doing these things than getting panellists to speak separately. But, in the way of conversation, it provoked some second thoughts. So here are a few of the things I said, or thought I might have said, in some sort of order.

Are we safe?

No, of course not. We are mortal. We live in a peculiarly fortunate culture where, for quite long spells, many of us can forget about this. But, in Larkinesque fashion, it is a truth which always comes back.

But what of existential risk – in the sense of threats to the whole of humanity? Individual responses to this tend, in my view, to be determined by a combination of temperament and circumstance.

How so? Well, we are talking about the probability of lots of inevitable individual deaths happening all at once, adding up to the death of a species (ours), or extinction.

We do have some information that bears on that, but not enough to give a very clear answer on how likely it is. So the way we feel about it tends to reflect our intuition about some related questions: is human life fragile or robust, the cosmos friendly or unfriendly, hospitable or inhospitable?

At the moment, we can find reasons for answering that question about equally convincingly either way.

Good things: the constants of the universe are tuned to just the right combination which allows life to exist. (The Goldilocks principle). We seem to live in a cosmos which is disposed to allow the emergence of  complexity – in ever more wondrous forms. In some sense, perhaps, we are meant to be here. In Stuart Kauffman’s phrase, we’re at home in the universe.

Notsogood: one of the main processes which allows that complexity to emerge – natural selection – is rather scary when you look at how it works. I don’t mean Nature red in tooth and claw: evolution has a place for co-operation as well as competition. However, although natural selection sounds neutral, or even benign, the agent of selection is death – of individuals and, on the larger scale, the death of species. Extinction is just what happens to species, in the end. Endurance beyond a few tens of millions of years is very much the exception, and those species that have lasted for a few hundred millions years are heroic survivors. (Afterthought to the afterthought – I wonder if that is true if you include the microbial world, where the concept of species is in any case pretty hard to apply…)

Of course, a species can leave descendents on the path to extinction, as we may do. But in its original form it has still quit the scene. At our current point, where culture – in the shape of technology – is a more powerful evolutionary force than natural selection, that seems an increasingly likely outcome. Whether you terribly much mind that idea depends on whether you think Homo sapiens in our present form are such an adornment to the cosmos we ought to be around for ever, or if it is OK we are just a stage on the way to something else. That something has a post-human form we cannot quite define. But we’ll know it when we see it.

Aside from how evolution actually works, other features of the cosmos suggest that a middle of the road position is justifiable. The universe is more or less hospitable, but risky.

It is interesting to contemplate the latest results on star systems with planets, for example. Amazingly, our observations now have such fine resolution that we can detect planets orbiting distant stars, and not just gas giants but even smaller, possibly Earth-like ones. It looks more and more as if there are an enormous number of solar systems out there, and a heck of a lot of Earth like planets. That surely makes it more likely that there is complex life spread, however thinly, through the galaxy, maybe all galaxies in the observable universe.

Then consider gamma ray bursts. We don’t understand them very well, but we do know by observation that, occasionally, there are absolutely enormous energy releases, with no warning that we know how to register, that rip through large regions of space.

So if life, even intelligent life, is ubiquitous, every now and again one of these gamma bursts takes out a civilization. (Oliver Morton wrote about this eloquently in Prospect a decade or so ago, when the search for extra-solar planets was less well on than it is now.) The universe, if you like, is welcoming to life, then takes random shots at it for sport.

Against that background, the risks we face on Earth at the moment seem relatively manageable. Bad things will happen. Perfectly terrible things may happen, in the future as in the past. A person who predicted that the sky would fall 65 million years ago, before an asteroid impact caused a mass extinction, would have been right. A person who predicted crop failure, pandemic and the death of between a third and a half of the population of Europe in the 14th century would have been right. Those who foresaw a a terrible conflict in Europe in the late 1930s (read Louis MacNiece’s Autumn journal for the atmosphere) were correct.

On the other hand, plenty of possible dire events did not come to pass. No nuclear holocaust (yet). No billions starving before 2000, pace Professor Ehrlich.

So, there will be good and bad. But, assuming gamma ray bursts are not coming our way, the end of humanity is not coming any time soon, probably…

(Thanks to Georgina Ferry for the invitation to Oxford.)

Styling the future

March 4, 2012

What does the future look like? Does it matter? A piece of book karma prompts an attempt to amplify a thought I was trying to air last week. Talking to an audience at UCL, including quite a few old friends, I mentioned an idea which has come up here, and in other talks, a few times – that the accumulation of old futures has interesting effects on the way we respond (if we do) to current future talk.

The accumulation is real, and takes various forms – there are quite a few coffee table books. But it is most often encountered, I reckon, in websites, often very nicely curated ones, which feature images and designs from past futures efforts – Worlds Fairs, magazines, comics and so on. As I said on the night, hardly any need to illustrate these. Do a google image search for retrofuture or palaeofuture and you’ll get thousands of them.

Next day I called in on my favourite London odds and ends bookshop, Judd Street Books (don’t look there, incidentally, it’s in Marchmont Street). More or less the first title I set eyes on on the front table was this.

It is a beautifully crafted graphic novel, only published in 2009, which I unaccountably missed when it came out. The narrative is a little didactic, but the imagery covers much of the history of decayed futurity, and comments on it perceptively. There’s a clever, and also nicely realised, interwoven narrative of a made-up comic book which enriches the author’s take on the feelings which were in play in all the episodes he depicts so well, from the New York World’s Fair in 1939 – which I talk about as well – to the final Apollo moon landing in 1975.

I won’t summarise it, as plenty of others have – here and here for example.

But what I like about it is that it takes such trouble to go beyond the images. The very interesting discussion after the talk moved a few times to talk about imagery and design like this and how they get used now. And it seemed to me, though I didn’t formulate the thought clearly at the time, that this is part of the problem. The images are so easy to come by that folks get caught up in talking about the look and style of the future.

I love looking at these pix, but I don’t actually care what the future looks like, or much about changing fashions in futuristic design. What matters is surely how the future might feel, what past futures tales tell us about that and, if we can fathom them, what the mentalities of times past made of their imagined futures.

This book makes a good stab at representing that, going beyond and reworking the images. It has affinities with David Gelernter’s splendid but quirky Lost World of the Fair, but is more accessible. It is well worth getting hold of as a discussion starter.

Incidentally, and back to images again, the notes to the other book point to a fascinating compilation of visitor shot cine of the World’s Fair, at

like this 

Afterthoughts on technology futures

October 14, 2011

Technology looms large on most futures discussions, and when I put together the Rough Guide I tried hard not to constantly have tech in the foreground – I hoped that this would give a clearer view of social, political, or economic questions.

But reading around since then I’ve got the feeling there is some unfinished business with technology. The tensions between various strands of futures talk often seem to come from views of technology (and/or nature). The recent essays in revisionist environmentalism by Stewart Brand or Mark Lynas put a lot of emphasis on technological development, engineering know-how, and pragmatic approaches to problem solving as our best hope for tackling current and near future crises, and Mark Stephenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future still more so.

Others, Ray Kurzweil being the most prominent, continue to forecast a technological singularity, in our lifetime – a forecast based on the inexorable working out of a law of accelerating returns.

Kurzweil’s vision is easy to doubt, in spite of all the exponential performance curves he compiles. Paul Allen, who knows a thing or two about technology, offers one recent, convincing critique here. But there are of course also plenty of critics of the pragmatic optimism of Brand or Lynas. Their distaste for what is usually seen as an unwarranted faith in technical fixes is one legacy of our long experience with technology now, and of its sometimes undesirable second and third order effects.

I lean toward the Brand/Lynas view, but mainly from a vague feeling that there is an astonishing range of technological possibilities in prospect, and a lot of R&D folk ready to work on them, given the incentive. It would be nice to have a better reason.

I flipped through Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology: What it is, how it evolves when it came out on 2009, but didn’t take much in. Having just read it properly, it seems his theory of how technology evolves, or develops by descent – which is brilliantly and clearly argued – might offer some support for a middle of the road optimism. He ends by stressing reasons to be ambivalent about tech, and certainly does not see it is a panacea. But his account of its development through human history does give reasons to expect a lot more technology, with a lot more uses.

His view is that all technologies develop from existing technologies, put together in new combinations. No need to summarise it again – he does it very well at the end of the book: “all technologies are combinations of elements; these elements are themselves technologies; all technologies use phenomena to some purpose…  technology is a programming of nature.”

He shows how those principles work themselves out through human history to allow a wider and wider range of principles – disclosed by science which is is both enabled by and enables technology – to be exploited for human purposes. There is human agency involved,  along with an element of bootstrapping. Indeed, if you bracket out the agency, technology appears to be self-evolving or creating – autopoietic in what was originally the biological sense.

The details are beautifully laid out in the book. Some implications. As there is more tech, the number of combinations increases, so the whole ensemble gathers more possibilities for extension into new areas of capability, and need. This is, in some degree, exponential, though not in the way Kurzeil charts. It is a simple combinatorial effect.

The order in which new combinations are tried is contingent, and that is one way the history of technology is path dependent. In fact, “indeterminacy increases as the collective develops”. Put those things together and you may conclude that technology will continue to develop faster and faster in future – as there are more technologists, too, then presumably more combinations are tried. They will not necessarily be a larger proportion of the possible combinations, though, as their number will increase a lot faster. That means, I think, that technological futures become harder to chart, even approximately.

But it also supports the general prediction that there will be many more, and perhaps more surprising technologies, in future. In one of his (carefully rationed) flights of language, Arthur says: “in its collective sense, technology is not merely a catalog of individual parts. It is a metabolic chemistry, an almost limitless collective of entities that interact to produce new entities – and further needs.”

He is careful not to equate this with progress, in any simple sense. But it does carry strong implication of a one-way path, I think. No back to nature or return to a simple life in this reading of history (which is fine by me). As he says, his theory gives “a sense of technology expanding into the future”. That is one of the reasons it’s going to be interesting.



Afterthought to the afterthought. I guess the next thing to read in this area is Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. My other key authors on technology are David Nye and Thomas Hughes. Who am I missing?

Futurists’ thought for the day – Desmond Bernal

March 31, 2011

Maybe ought to label this thought for the month, in view of declining frequency, but what the heck –

Just re-read the close of Bernal’s The World the Flesh and the Devil (1929). As usual, the temptation is just to quote the entire book. But this observation stood out…

all, even the least religious, retain in their minds when they think of the future, an idea of the deus ex machina, of some transcendental, superhuman event which will, without their help, bring the universe to perfection or destruction. We want the future to be mysterious and full of supernatural power; and yet these very aspirations, so totally removed from the physical world, have built this material civilization and will go on building it into the future so long as there remains any relation between aspiration and action.

The whole essay, of course, remains quite astonishing.

Optimism vs pessimism: er, no thanks (part 1)

February 3, 2011

While on the subject of reviews (see last post), a few thoughts which developed slowly from one I wrote about that other book with optimism in the title, Mark Stevenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future. I was fairly positive about the book, and even about the idea of cultivating an optimistic attitude – not always my temperamental inclination.

I’m still pondering some of the recent discussion of optimism though. It goes slowly as I mainly want to resist the implication that optimism vs. pessimism is a particularly useful way to discuss ideas about the future. I’m definitely with Bruce Sterling there – in terms of what will actually happen, optimism versus pessimism is beside the point. The future will be more history –  a mixture of good and bad, like the past. Lets turn up the gain a little. The future will most likely be a mixture of the amazing and inspiring and unspeakably dreadful, like the past.

Other reasons for not wanting to sign up to the idea that everyone is too damn pessimistic now, and we ought to do something about it:

1) I’m not sure what difference it makes. Is there any definite connection between being optimistic and trying to do stuff to make the future better than it might otherwise be?  One can imagine (and occasionally meet) optimists,  call them witless, who just think things will probably be OK and they can ignore any potential problems. On the other hand, taking those problems terribly seriously can lead to action of a kind. I suppose the author of the Transition Towns Handbook, whose take on the future could not be more different from Matt Ridley’s, is a kind of optimist, though I don’t personally find his vision of the future either optimistic – or, for that matter, remotely plausible.

2) As indicated above, the optimism/pessimism frame is a poor way of illuminating real issues. Look at the analysis in Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change, for example. That is a more thoughtful, more wide-ranging  and, I think, a wiser book than The Rational Optimist.

3) Obsessing about pessimism is culture bound – while there may be a fixation on gloom and doom in some quarters just now in the developed world, I have a strong impression that it is a minority view globally. Reports from China and India, for starters, suggest that in countries where life has got demonstrably better recently for many millions of people there is plenty of support for the idea that it can go on improving.

4) Obsessing about pessimism also tends to generate bad history, ignoring the fact that the opposites always co-exist. Indeed the optimistic tradition – from, say Francis Bacon, through Condorcet up to Herman Kahn – is well known. And it is, on the face of it, shared by most public leaders, at least in their public utterances. All politicians, all the time, more or less, assume that economic growth is the way of the future (assuming that that itself is optimistic…). For confirmation, see any newspaper reporting on the current state of the economy.

All that said, you have to admit that there is a fair bit of pessimistic sentiment around in the countries whose mediasphere I sample (as a monoglot Englishman). And some people seem very attached to their pessimism, to the extent that they treat any suggestion it might not be warranted with scorn or sarcasm. Not sure why that is. As I’ve said before, we’re not looking nuclear megadeath in the face week after week any more (are we?). Things may well get a bit worse for a lot of people, and – as ever – turn out terribly for some. And the slope of the curve does seem crucial, so that even a slowing of growth throws some people into a panic. Then again, I don’t get why the idea that material standards might decline is always seen as such bad news, either. Is it a by-product of capitalism’s own incessant self-advertisement, generating a conviction that a faltering growth machine means the end of all good things?  But  lots of the pessimists are also social critics of the sort who believe we’re all more unhappy than ever or even, like the reliably ridiculous Oliver James, that we’re all sub-clinically depressed by “affluenza”.

More to say on all this, but long enough for a single post, so I’ll save for part 2.

Pessimism, pessimism everywhere, I tell you! (

Surviving the future – with computers…

December 9, 2010

A recently aired documentary about the future from CBC is now accessible on the net (there isn’t a YouTube link to the whole thing which I can find, but someone cleverer than me has embedded it here).

Surviving the Future a fascinating document, beginning with a focus on the tension which grabbed me when I first started thinking about the Rough Guide to the Future – rather a long time ago. That is, isn’t it strange to live at a time when the two opposed discourses of apocalypse and utopia are both so prominent. Sure, they are both perennials, but in their current forms – climate catastrophe versus techno-optimism which will both solve global warming and usher in an age of abundance and, possibly, unlimited lifespan or even computer-mediated paradise – the opposition seem especially pronounced.

It is short (40-odd mins) and packs a lot in, so there’s plenty of TV-doc compression to make fun of. But to do these topics more justice you’d need something much longer, like a book (even). The first half, at any rate, does a pretty good job of laying out the futures landscape, emphasising the stark polarity of views, and with the likes of Jamais Cascio and Paul Saffo giving good soundbite – Cascio in particular on screen quite a lot.

Once it has you hooked, it even allows Saffo to say that “visions of the future are always more dramatic than reality”, which sounds hopeful in the context.

The narrative unravels a bit in the second half, I think. Having dealt rapidly with climate change, regenerative medicine, and in vitro meat (uncritically in all three cases – again no time), it turns to computers as both the harbingers of bad news and the potential saviours.

How does that work? Well, the computers, not the people who wrote the models, “began to bring us bad news” around the time of The Limits to Growth. Now, they have got more powerful, natch, so they can give us “ever more detailed models of the coming ecological catastrophe”.

We deal with “evidence gathered by the most powerful computers”, again – rather oddly – granting them agency – and this is what makes the “new futurism” all about survival.

There is a whole progamme here on the topic they canvas in brief, namely predictive simulation as an extension of the human mind. I’m sensitised to that because I’ve just been trying to write a feature piece for a UK newspaper on modelling and policy-making, and been reminded just how much of it is going on., But even without digging around in flood control, epidemic planning, climate models or even economics it is pretty clear there is a lot of computer simulationhappening in crucial areas of science and policy.

The doc then  takes a slightly odd turn, though, after a good bit on the Chevy Volt, by arguing that the change which will really matter is something called the “cognitive computer”. This will, apparently, “give us the best chance of survival”. And it will go along with sensor networks which mean “the planet itself will function as a computer interface”. That will just give us better information, surely? No doubt that is a useful adjunct to better handling of global problems, from managing ecosystems to more efficient agriculture and monitoring and perhaps charging for carbon emissions – maybe even a prerequisite, But here it ends up sounding like a straghtforward technical fix. I suspect that is because the demands of a major channel documentary in North America call for an upbeat ending rather than because there is any very persuasive logic to it.

Still, an interesting document, and well worth watching all through. I see the same outfit have just made one on geo-engineering but not sure if that is available outside Canada…