July 2002 Archives

A New York Times article reinforces what the complacent WFS old-timer in yesterday's post was saying: reality is struggling to keep ahead of science fiction ideas such as cloning, teleportation, miniaturisation, etc. Worth it if only for this ludicrous quote from William Shatner:

If you analyse the word "impossible," you break it down into "possible" and "I'm." If I'm possible, anything is possible.

While the World Future Society conference last week was more enjoyable than the previous one I attended, this was due to meeting old friends, having more of an idea what sessions to attend, and having lower expectations, rather than a qualitative improvement. There's still something disappointing about the event in particular and the WFS in general. It could be simply because the WFS is more populist than I'd like, emphasising the effect of Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap). However, this issue aside, for me the problem boils down to three related factors: the average age; the "out-of-touchness"; and an undefinable yet cringe-worthy x-factor.

I've collected my posts from the conference in Philadelphia together on to one page for easy browsing. linking, reference, etc.

WorldView 2002: The final afternoon

The event seemed to tail off for me on Monday afternoon, with few sessions that grabbed me. I started in "21st Century Master Capacity Builders" but after 20 minutes of eloquent presentation I still had little idea what the session was actually about. So I headed down to "How is the State of the Future Changing?" which was packed. Jerome C. Glenn and Theodore J. Gordon from the American Council for the United Nations University talked us through their 2002 State of the Future publication which sounded kind of interesting but the presentation was a speedy sequence of bullet-pointed PowerPoint slides that all began to blur.

Andy Hines, Ideation Leader at Dow Chemical, talked us through ten questions a futurist working inside an organisation should ask themselves. For example, "Who is your audience?", "What's in your toolkit?", and "What are your purposes?". It was a valuable and thoughtful session. I've seen Andy talk about this kind of problem before and no one else seems as reflective about the difficult position of being an internal futurist, or have such useful things to say. Hopefully he'll be firming these ideas up even more over time.

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.

Sunday afternoon began with "A Future for Futurists," run by three founding members of the new Association of Professional Futurists (APF), Andy Hines, Richard Lum and Michele Bowman. It seemed to be an attempt to both launch the group into wider knowledge but also canvas opinion as to what it should be doing. The APF see themselves as "third generation futurists" -- the first generation being the founding fathers of the field such as Herman Kahn and Hazel Henderson, and the second generation those who started companies and brought the field to a wider audience: Jim Dator, Theodore Gordon, Joe Coates, Clement Bezold, et al. The third generation have mostly trained at the futures programmes in either Houston or Hawaii and worked as futurists for several years.

The second session Sunday morning session I attended was "Story Telling the Future" with Joseph Tankersley, a Disney imagineer. Things began well, with him talking about his perceptions of these conferences, as an outsider, a non-futurist -- very similar to my perceptions of everything being hopelessly old-fashioned. He also pointed out that too many scenarios begin with the technology, rather than emotions and interaction which is what the future and the stories should be about. No one pays attention to the technology because we've all been told so many times that we'll be wearing jetpacks any time now. He recommended The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations by Stephen Denning as a good read (Amazon US and UK). Unfortunately he then insisted the session should be a "conversation," resulting in a half-ballroom-full of people grinding their own personal axes, so I headed elsewhere...

WorldView 2002: Patent Data

Today was the first of the two main conference days and after joining the futurists queueing for breakfast at Starbuck's (this swanky hotel has little in the way of simple, inexpensive food) I joined my first chosen session: "Patent Data as Tools for Futurists" (search this page for "patent" to see the blurb). The relevance and value of the various speakers varied, but there was some good stuff. Denise Chiavetta spoke broadly about data mining bibliographic patent data to look for patterns, and the differing ways in which the number of patents filed in a domain over time can be enlightening.

WorldView 2002: Opening Plenary

This evening was the Opening Plenary, a collection of talks gathered under a "State of the World" banner. After the less than inspiring keynotes in Houston two years ago I wasn't wild about going and had made other plans. The blurb for one of the talks, Marvin Cetron's "Vital Signs and Generation X," only fuelled my doubts about the event as a whole (doubts the IAF session had done so well to temporarily dispel). It includes this sentence:

WorldView 2002: Wiser Futures

Today was my first day of the conference, acting as a volunteer for the pre-conference course "Wiser Futures: Using Futures Tools to Better Understand and Create the Future." The day-long session cost the 15 or so participants around $200 each and was run by the Institute for Alternative Futures (IAF). Clement Bezold, Robert Olson (that's an old photo!) and Marsha Rhea presented a rushed (but entertaining and fun) version of their two day course, outlining the IAF's techniques for scenario building and visioning. It was interesting to see a set of techniques I wasn't previously familiar with. (At some point I'm going to summarise all the scenario building methods I know of, including IAF's, as a couple of people have asked me for such a resource.) To be honest I was initially sceptical whether the pre-conference courses were worth the money, but on the basis of "Wiser Futures" my scepticism's faded a little.

This is the name of a report that suggests we should get the domains of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science working together to make the most of their possibilities and thus transform the human race's capabilities in the future. OK, it actually says "it is time to rekindle the spirit of the Renaissance, returning to the holistic perspective on a higher level, with a new set of principles and theories." This kind of talk always puts me off and although I've only had time to browse the overview rather than the full 400 page report, it's all rather hazily overly-optimisitc for my cynical tastes. But I guess someone has to be optimistic. (via Plausible Futures)

Going to Philadelphia?

I'm going to the World Future Society's conference in Philadelphia, USA, this weekend and, technology allowing, I'll do my best to post from the hotel. I hope I get more out of it than 2000's event which displayed the same earnest cluelessness as most WFS stuff (Part 1, Part 2). If you're going to be there, I probably look like this.

David Pogue has decided there is no point extrapolating future trends from present technology. His examples project progress to the point of ludicrousness: "Palmtops can't get much smaller without having smaller screens. ... How big would screens be by 2010 -- one inch diagonal?" So, it's largely an exercise in stating the obvious: immediate trends can continue, but they all have limits.

When predictions go bad

A light-hearted look at how predictions about the future are invariably wrong. Something any futurist worth their salt acknowledges of course. (via SciTech Daily)

Nanotech now

Business 2.0 has a brief roundup of where nanotechnology stands now and in the immediate future. Nanotubes ("Mitsui alone says it will soon begin producing 120 tons of them a year"), drugs using nanoparticles and nanocapsules in clinical trials, computer components, etc. (via SciTech Daily)

Richard A. Muller writes in last month's Technology Review about how we can survive this century's projected global population peak of 10 billion without running out of everything. We simply have to increase our rate of energy conservation from 1 percent per year (the average since 1845) to 2 percent. Not inconceivable when the US has managed 4 percent for brief periods.

Nuclear waste

Adjacent headlines at the Environmental News Network: After years of debate, U.S. Congress approves sending nation's nuclear waste to Nevada and Russia wins aid to clean up nuclear waste. Please bring your own irony to this post.

A disposable planet

An Observer article on an imminent World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report which says, as so many do, that humans are destroying the Earth faster than previously thought. The article quotes a WWF spokesman saying "If all the people consumed natural resources at the same rate as the average US and UK citizen we would require at least two extra planets like Earth," and this is the point played up in the article (who knows how much a part it plays in the report itself, if any).

A crisis of short-term thinking

In this Business Week interview Greg Blonder, ex AT&T Bell Labs boss turned venture capitalist sees a crisis of short-term thinking approaching in the world of American technological research. The dot com boom, he says, encouraged people to forget long term thinking which could lead to problems in the future ("The innovations making news today still stem from research that was done 15, 20, or 30 years ago"). He suggests encouraging foreign scientists and engineers to immigrate and reforming the patent laws, and expects increasing amounts of innovation to be dependent on computer simulation. (via Techdirt)

Phenomenal cell phone growth rates

Last week Clay Shirky produced an interesting essay on the well-used phrase "Half the world has never made a phone call." He reminds us that the rate at which increasing numbers are making their first phone call is the statistic we should be most interested in. Particularly astounding are the rates at which cell phone use is increasing. He draws on Interntaional Telecommunications Union statistics, which show there were 689 million land lines in 1995 and over 1 billion in 2001.

The world's worst volcano

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I'm a bit behind, but the January 2001 edition of Future Survey contains a fascinating summary of Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions (Amazon US, UK) which is a reminder of how devastating wild card events can be:

The Economist's recent 'Technology Quarterly' contains a useful round-up of wireless computer networking technologies that may threaten the coming 3G cellphone networks. Four technologies are discussed: smart antennas that effectively increase the capacity of an antenna site; "mesh networks" of users acting as signal relay points, around a central high-speed radio-based net access point; ad hoc systems of possibly mobile users who could act as a local communication network (for example, in remote areas); and ultra-wideband transmission that uses millions of bursts of information a second to send large amount of information over (currently) short distances.

"Princess Leia"-style holograms

I didn't realise how far holograms had come. Business 2.0 describes how Ford used holograms to create a prototype car that viewers could walk around. As the article and the Slashot thread say, the easiest way to imagine it is to think of the Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars rather than those glass "2D" holograms that used to be all the rage. Zebra Imaging is the company responsible for the technology and it sounds impressive (or use the Google cached version as their site is down right now).

Will the robots arrive at last?

According to this article a robot component manufacturer has announced that "the robot would emerge as the driving force of electronics this century, akin to computers and automobiles in the last century." Of course, they would say that, but it did make me think about how I view robots. We've been promised useful robots for so many decades that at the back of my mind I've almost dismissed them as something that will never materialise, overtaken in the I-want-it-now stakes by those trendy young upstarts genetics and nanotech. But maybe robots are almost here! At least they would be able to entertain us while we wait decades for our self-constructing home nano-gene-labs to ship. (via Generation5)

A few good stories on ENN... First, New York City is "susdpending" its plastic and glass recycling programmes for one and two years respectively. Mayor Bloomberg insists this is while the City works out if there's a more efficient way to do it. But if a scheme like this has taken ten years to mature I imagine a one year break will set things back much further. A reminder that steady trends, such as the spread of recycling schemes, can always hit unexpected setbacks.