Over on Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow posted a 1981 TV report on early downloadable newspapers. But the post is more interesting for Cory’s conclusion:
Recently in Forecasts Category
The Edge has asked 150 people “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” There’s too much for me to read through all of them. I was going to pull out a few bits that caught my eye, but seeing as the Edge makes such a strangely big deal of linking to their press coverage you can just follow those links to read highlights picked by other sources, eg Guardian, Telegraph, NPR.
There’s a new website from my alma mater, the University of Houston, which looks at the future of the USA in 2028, particularly in relation to the forthcoming presidential elections.
Journalist Chuck Klosterman has written an entertaining timeline of the 21st century for Esquire. Some of it is fun, some of it is scarily plausible, all of it is well worth a read.
I try to avoid posting too much science-fiction material here. The internet’s not short of places for that and given how much there is, the non-fiction posts would be drowned out. But occasionally there are items which are either extra interesting or have the potential to be more influential than usual.
A new TV show from US channel HBO at least fulfils the latter criteria, simply by being a nearish-future scenario on mainstream television. Hollywood Reporter has a piece on Americatown:
Set 25-40 years into the future when the precipitous decline of the US leads to a mass exodus of its citizens, Americatown takes place in a cluster of newly arrived American immigrants in a big foreign city.
“By presenting Americans as immigrants in the near future, as both underdog and hero in the drama of global dislocation, we substitute a mirror for the rancor that informs much of the partisan debates on immigration,” [writer Bradford] Winters said.
In his research for Americatown, Winters had explored possible nightmare scenarios that could bring the US to a collapse decades down the road, like the price of oil skyrocketing and natural disasters reaching catastrophic proportions. Then suddenly oil hovered near $150 a barrel this summer, floods hit the Midwest and the South and Wall Street crashed under the weight of the mortgage crisis.
If we were looking for precedents for this kind of thing I guess we could look at two ares. First, close-knit communities of other kinds of ex-pats/immigrants, such as Chinatown, which Hollywood Reporter cites.
Second would be the little bits of America exported to the foreign camps of US troops. The military has become experienced at creating enclaves of home comforts in the most hospitable conditions. For example, in 2006 the Telegraph described the al-Asad airbase in Iraq:
…get “inside the wire” and this stretch of desert increasingly resembles a slice of US suburbia rather than the front line in a war zone.
Its restaurants include a Subway and a fast food pizza shop. There is a coffee shop, football pitch and even a swimming pool.
A cinema shows the latest films while the camp’s main recreational centre offers special dance nights — hip hop on Friday, salsa on Saturday and country and western on Sunday.
Last month, red “Stop” signs — the ubiquitous feature of American street furniture — went up at all road junctions.
Welcome to Americatown! (Via Kottke.)
To celebrate their tenth birthday Google’s official blog has asked ten of its “top experts” what’s going to happen in the next ten years. I must admit that the results are mostly underwhelming, as if these top experts find it difficult to look beyond their next quarter’s results and imagine what could possibly happen in ten years’ time. Brief summaries of each response below, with my thoughts in italics.
Science fiction writer Charlie Stross has written about how the world today is so interesting and so volatile that it’s currently impossible to write about the near future. Anything one might forecast for, say, 15 years ahead is, he suggests, more unlikely to occur than at any other time in our recent past.
Shell, the grandfathers of scenario planning, have a new set of scenarios that look at the world in terms of energy, through to 2050. There’s a PDF document that summarises the two scenarios — “Scramble” and “Blueprints” — and below is my summary of their summary. I must admit I’m not currently hopeful about our ability to cope with this stuff, given how poorly governments are able to handle other impending disasters… (Via City of Sound.)
Bruce Sterling recently gave the keynote address at the Game Developers Conference in Austin, Texas, on the subject of computer games thirty five years from now. It’s fairly long, and here’s a summary of a few of the more concrete bits:
"Naimark" (I can't see a real name on the site) posts about a predictions timeline s/he created for Ars Electronica in 2004. There are 500 predictions, each tied to a year over the next 25 years, and there are two lists of predictions ordered by votes. The votes only indicate how insightful, clever, funny or interesting a prediction is, so they're not as useful as votes along a single axis, but better than nothing. All good fun.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project completed a survey late last year in which they asked over a thousand Internet users (mostly long-term early adopters) how they saw the net changing. The full report is available as a free PDF.
A quick whizz through some links littering my desktop begins with 'Escape from the universe', an article from Prospect that suggests ways we could leave this universe for another, parallel, one before this universe expands to the point where it freezes.
Music critic Greil Marcus has written an obituary of George W. Bush from 2018. Articles and essays like this always read like bad science fiction to me, emphasising aspects that are pertinent now rather than things that would actually be mentioned when looking back from the future. But it could be this is just because I know they're not real, and either way, Marcus's is probably one of the more authorative sounding.
First up in a bunch of links I've been meaning to post: The Guardian had an article about a UN report that looks at the world's potential population over the next 300 years. Obviously, the paper's sub editor's mind was elsewhere when he/she came up with the unrepresentative headline "Population boom set to stabilise at 9bn by 2300":
Ted points to James Kunstler's "Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle" (on Kunstler's website) a weblog/diary of his comments on events and where they're taking us. (If you don't know Kunstler, he's written very readable books criticising modern America's (sub)urbanism.) There is also The Clusterfuck Nation Manifesto, in which Kunstler imagines what American life will be like when oil shortages begin to bite, a time that will come when prices rise, not when we finally run out.
I haven't been keeping up with news recently, but a few days ago the Observer reported that a Pentagon paper given to Bush "warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a 'Siberian' climate by 2020."
At the Royal Television Society's convention this weekend, attendees were asked to vote on which of five scenarios for 2010 they thought were most likely. The Guardian discusses the event, with the scenarios (created by Spectrum Strategy) at the bottom of the page. The most popular scenario was "Death of linear TV", forecasting that 40% of TV viewing is done using TiVo-like personal video recorders (so, not quite a "death" of conventional viewing then). I'm not sure what to make of the fact that the attendees' choice wasn't the "Base case" scenario, which is defined as reflecting "industry consensus opinion". (via Blackbeltjones)
Like Jones, Matt Locke has also been writing some mini scenarios. He found it difficult to come up with something he's happy with and has created two exam papers in an effort to avoid extensive exposition. I'm always up for unusual ways of presenting scenarios, but I'm not sure these quite work. It's a fun idea, and they subtly hint at events between now and 2018, but for a scenario to be useful you really want more than this heavily filtered glimpse. The questions read more like the framework for a scenario, and the student sitting the exam would be fleshing it out. Even then, one would be left with a description of the intervening years, rather than an evocative image of life in the future. But interesting reading nonetheless.
Accelerated Democracy begins with the widespread trend that fewer people are voting in elections as years go by. It then suggests four ways in which technology could get people more involved in the democratic process. Few people are likely to think all four are good ideas, but they're all interesting and nicely executed, with varied visual aids:
Matt Jones has written some mini scenarios for the BBC about technology in 2013 and put four of them online. They aren't full-fledged scenarios, attempting to describe the complete texture of life in ten years' time, but seem to be more about showing how people will regard technologies. Eavesdropping on someone's life for a few seconds while they contemplate a future gizmo. I like the writing too, without all the exposition that drains the life from too many scenarios.
When I read scenarios set in the future they often sound too dramatic and over the top to be believable, as if the author's going way overboard to get across what that world would be like. "Yeah, right," I think, "the world is never that dramatic."
The Guardian has an article titled 'A vision of Britain in 2020: power cuts and the 3-day week,' outlining an Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) report. From the article it sounds like one of two things happened. Maybe ICE produced some scenarios exploring the UK's energy future and the newspaper reported only the most dramatic and doom-filled scenario; the media's usual tactic. Or maybe ICE wrote a report predicting a single future, extrapolating from the present day; often a good way to determine what won't actually happen.
Oliver Morton reviews Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century? (Amazon UK) by Martin Rees who gives humanity only a 50/50 chance of surviving the next 97 years. Morton, though, while accepting many may die, is more optimistic of our chances as a race. While Rees sees catastrophic dangers from future terrorism, Morton sets the possible deaths against the relentless toll of the 20th century's wars: "In some situations, such as the war in Congo, it is possible to kill a million people without most of civilisation -- the urge for inverted commas here is strong -- even noticing, let alone ending." He also thinks humanity's ability to counter new threats will continue and save us or, at least, most of us.
Continuing the 'future images of London' theme, I saw 28 Days Later today because some friends recommended it. Set in Britain after a virus is released from a research lab, the scenes of a deserted London are chillingly eerie, particularly the familiar locations that are usually crammed with people and traffic. The website apparently has some good stuff on it but I waited what seemed like 28 days while downloading and displaying Flash before forcing my browser to quit. You could instead just watch the trailer.
The current issue of MacUser UK has a fantastic cover image: a doctored photo taken from the London Eye with impossibly tall sci-fi skyscrapers towering over Westminster. It's brilliantly done and is much more evocative than a written description of this aspect of a future would be. Unfortunately this is the best image I've found online, via Haddock.
The first session I attended today was Joseph "Crotchety Old Man" Coates's talk "The Next Thousand Years." It wasn't exciting or big on laughs, but it was still refreshing to hear thoughts about such a long-term future when the rest of the conference was rarely looking further ahead than 2020. The lack of excitement was partly due to the nature of the presentation but also the way Coates simply extrapolates the most obvious outcomes of current trends. This results in a plausible scenario (or, to be truthful, a prediction), but it doesn't do anything in the way of challenging assumptions. But anyway, he was in good humour and it was a fun whirl through the next millennium with some good ideas.
I've been reading the United Nations Environment Programme's Global Environment Outlook 3 which was released last week. It looks at the state of our world right now and what it might be over the next thirty years (the summary is a 1.6MB PDF). As well as a lot of current information, it features a set of four detailed global scenarios over 80 pages (the scenario chapter is a 2.5MB PDF). Three scenarios could be described as a continuum from a world where profit comes first to where the environment comes first (the latter unfortunately sounding the least likely). The fourth scenario focuses on the possibility that wealthy parts of the globe will attempt to insulate themselves from the poorer, more volatile societies. While the descriptions avoid almost any mention of specific countries they are very detailed and include many pages of charts and maps showing the implications of each scenario on different regions. The scenarios mention that some future events have the "War on Terrorism" as their cause and part of me wonders whether it's a good idea to base such long-term thoughts on something still so new. But, as the report mentions, most of the decisions have already been made that will affect our environment over the next thirty years and we need to look beyond that.
Finally got round to the current issue of Wired which includes an interesting article about Long Bets, set up by Stewart Brand and co, which encourages people to make long-term forecasts and bet US$1,000+ on their argument. Money is kept by Long Bets with half the interest accrued going to charity, half to operating costs. Famous names and their posturing aside, it's pretty interesting. Wired also has an article on the history of betting on the future. (Readers who liked Long Bets also liked The Foresight Exchange.)
I missed this a couple of weeks back. BT's futurist, Ian Pearson, keeps a timeline of developments expected to occur over the next twenty years. Here he elaborates on many of these, which are mainly technological. It's basically a list of predictions, rather than any kind of scenarios. The timeline itself is here and the following pages. He also has an interesting list of potential wild cards. (via FUTUREdition)
An interview with the sociobiologist on what the long-term future holds for humanity and the rest of the planet. He's optimistic that we'll collectively see sense before it's too late: "I think people are smart enough to act in the global interest when they see it is their own interest writ large."
Very short pieces by children who were asked to write something about the world in one hundred years time. Mostly sweet rather than illuminating. "I wish there was stunt bikes for younger children."
The winning essay from the competition is in the form of a letter from a Bangladeshi to an American. I must admit that it's rather dull to read. If I had to come up with a stereotypical letter from the future it would read like this, crammed with exposition. Not many interesting ideas in it either; I guess many people are familiar with directions in which technology, politics etc. seem to be heading and merely extrapolate from these trends.
Subtitled "A Dialogue About the Future With Nongovernment Experts" this is the USA's National Intelligence Council's look at what the world may be like in 2015, and the role of the United States within it. One criticism could be that its real purpose is merely to justify budget increases for the agencies concerned.
The author looks at a few potential wildcards, why we should be exploring space, and more.
A selection of features about the world twenty years hence, such as 'What You'll Need to Know in 2020 That You Don't Know Now' and '20 Ideas That Will Rule Research in the Next 20 Years.'
This page is just an excerpt from the full article (in Whole Earth Review, Summer 1993) that listed 80 sentence-long "unthinkable futures" thought up by Brian Eno (a musician, producer, artist, lecturer, etc.). Judging from the few listed here, I can imagine that they're not all entirely unthinkable now... (via Gorjuss)
A strange but fascinating site. It purports to be "a selection of material initially prepared for the catalogue of the Great Daytopia Exhibition scheduled for 2296 but abandoned early in 2295 after funding was withdrawn." Art, architecture, social customs, education, political movements... all very peculiar. (via Mike's Weblog)
Four scenarios from a report called 'Work in the Knowledge Driven Economy' produced by the Department of Trade and Industry. However, of the four, only the most optimistic two were presented to ministers and these are almost polar opposites: one where the economy has a large number of small companies and self-employed workers, the other where large companies dominate.
An annual series of lectures and discussions looking at the the world twenty years hence, taking place in America and London.
The New York Times has a large section on different technologies we can expect in the future: 'The Blind Date Who Is Your Destiny,' 'The Genetic Report Card That Will Tell You If Your Embryo Will Get Prostate Cancer,' 'The Mind That Moves Objects' and 29 more. From a quick glance there seems to be little about global issues of any kind, methods of environmental improvement being a noticeable omission. Maybe that's just not sexy. (via Slashdot)
Thoughts about the kinds of vehicles we might see in the future, and how usage patterns could change.
An interesting scenario, looking back on the lead up to 2035. "Okay, here's my bottom line: By your standards, my world is fantastically advanced, but it's also gray, sagging, increasingly conservative, and visibly running out of steam." (via Slashdot)
Raymond Kurzweil discusses the future of the brain and AI over the next century. By 2050 a $1,000 computer will equal the processing power of the world's human brains; nanobots in our brains will enable us to cut off real life and enter a perfect virtual world; can we call data scanned and stored from a human brain a human brain itself?; what if nanobots mutate, reproducing themselves far more than they should?; who will control the nanobots?; "Ultimately the earth's technology-creating species will merge with its own computational technology." (URL may break before long...) (via The Well's Future Conference)
January 2000 issue, 'The Future Gets Fun Again.' Featuring technologies which may become usable realities over the next century: head transplants, holidays in space, teleportation, new cars, nanotech, MEMS, etc. Some good, some dodgy.
Interesting look at how the 21st century could be extremely conservative compared to the largely liberal 20th. Mostly UK-centred. "One could imagine a next century that is dominated by self-righteous puritans, unprepared to pay general taxes to lift the rest of the population out of poverty, picky and suspicious of government action; where national governments are weaker economically but are required to be tougher in fighting crime and limiting migration; and where macro-economic management has moved so far up to the global level that it is hardly connected to national democracies at all." Also suggests conspicuous consumption could become unacceptable; people become less geographically mobile; scientific advances "could produce a reactive, traditionalist politics."
A look past the next 50 years to what our world could be like in hundreds of years time, and how little we currently understand about the world and ourselves. A ramble including robotics, disasters and how much longer homo sapiens will be around for.