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This Changes Everything

You have my permission to slap the next futurist (foresight thinker, scenario strategist, or trend-spotter) who uses the expression "this changes everything" seriously. Slap them hard. Maybe a shin-kick, too, if you're into it.

The notion that some new development -- usually a technology, but not always -- "changes everything" manages to combine the most uselessly banal and the most pointlessly wrong observations in the field.

At the top end, it's part of what I'm starting to call the "cinematic bias" in futurism: the need to describe future developments in ways that startle, titillate, and would probably look pretty cool on-screen. Quite often, the items that fall into this category are simply impossible, or so implausible as to make me struggle to avoid lashing out with Dean Venture's infamous "I dare you to make less sense!" I'm not shocked when people from client companies offer up suggestions like these -- cinematic science fiction is the common language of futurism right now -- but I'm boggled when I see people who get paid to do this for a living coming up with misfires like "teleportation eases traffic problems!" or "population pressure solved by Moon colonies!"

Sometimes, it's not just implausibility, it's an unwillingness to deviate from The One True Future. Logic is irrelevant, except for the narrow conjectural pathway that leads the futurist from Point A to Point Stupid. Complexity goes right out the window, as do any notions of co-evolution, competing drivers, mistakes, or push-back. This is the kind of thinking that tells us that we don't need to worry about global warming/hunger/poverty/ocean acidification/resource depletion because NewTechnology will fix all of our problems, for ever and ever amen.

I'm not saying this out of pessimism, or even realism. It's I'm-not-trapped-with-my-head-up-my-posterier-ism.

At the opposite end of the "this changes everything" spectrum are those people who use this cognitive abortion of a phrase to describe something that might merit a page 14 mention in Widget Fancy. No, a new form of text messaging does not change everything. A new teen language trend does not change everything. And the latest update to an MP3 player most decidedly does not change everything.

You might think that the people offering up such exaggerated praise for minor developments are novice marketeers, trying on their big hyperbole pants for the first time. You'd be wrong. More often, such an utterance comes from someone who should be paying attention to such things discovering a new toy or trend that half the people sitting around the table already knew about (most likely the underpaid under-30 interns & employees). Simply put, saying that a new widget will "change everything" is just one step more articulate than holding up a napkin drawing and saying "ZOOM! WHOOSH! PEW PEW!"

What frustrates me most about the ascendence of the "this changes everything" meme is that its implicit opposite is "this changes nothing." Left out are the changes that really matter: the widgets and methods and practices and ideas that change the little parts of our lives, the everyday decisions, offering us new perspectives on old problems -- not solving them with a wave of the hand, but letting us see new ways to grapple with old dilemmas. This doesn't change everything -- in the real world, like it or not, we change everything. The longer we wait for magical technology or new MP3 players to do it for us, the sorrier we'll be.


..This maybe helps change a few things? (like how to pitch a projection?;-)

As Clarke put it 'if you believe me you will go broke. If your children do not believe me, they will go broke'.

Or, to paraphrase Lennon: "[the future]'s whatever happens to you when you've got other plans."

Somehow, this post reminds me of Stephen Fry's latest 'Dork Talk' post. Ostensibly a review of the Sandisk Sansa (an MP3 player... that's probably the link!), it's more like a reminiscence of how he and Douglas Adams used to gleefully compare the latest digital marvels and speculate on how the house of the future would be controlled by new technologies and how this would mean everyone would require increased levels of engineering/computing literacy...

...before looking at reality and concluding that the exact opposite happens.

Well, man, the central dogma of environmentalism IS that everything changes everything. So the least dropping of the sparrow that falls reverberates to the mystic edges of the Emersonian universe.

Your post has changed everything.

I'm all for non-cinematic futurism, yet wondering how it differentiates itself from common or garden market forecasting.

9-11 changed everything!

Bruce, Patrick, consider yourselves kicked in the shins.

Bruce, I know what you're saying here -- and, yes, everything does change everything. But that doesn't tell us much. It's better (it seems to me) to take that as a given, and to look for the surprising ("cheeseburgers!") and the profound.

As for non-cinematic futurism vs. garden variety forecasting, that's worth a post in and of itself, I think. In short, though: cinematic futurism (and One True Future futurism) assume the outcome, and don't care much about the process of how we get from here to there. Non-cinematic futurism doesn't just mean forecasting minor trends and incremental changes -- non-cinematic can be big and provocative and way too hairy, but it also lays out how something like that comes about in a way that makes sense and feels (to steal a phrase I've used elsewhere) "plausibly surreal."

"Ommutability" seems related to "Apocophilia." Both are essentially adolescent.

Recognizing emergent properties is different, for the reasons you've eloquently expressed, Jamais.

But where do you categorize ideas like "The Singularity?"

And to make this completely circular; http://snipurl.com/3oq4c

Jamais, you've said it much more concisely, and with added comic violence (the shins). Well said.

And yet, they switch on the LHC tomorrow. Any bets on whether it changes anything (in the quantum sense...)?

"I think that the future doesn'™t exist. what we think of today as the future isn'™t the future. People are always afraid of the future, and the future has always been a disaster, like the present is a disaster. But rhetoric about the future bothers me, because almost everything we do today we say we'™re doing for the future. The future is here now, let'™s try to get organized now. I don'™t care about the future at all."-Ettore Sottsass

Fords that recharge off alcohol poisoning cases (in use) change everything. Education (I am thinking awesome AJAX or just javascript) that queues up where it's needed changes everything once it rolls. There are Solar Cities (ad minimus, solar tea and shower setups in each home) in every province, with some great electric motor literacy thanks to dicky water pressure when the bearings (etc; but usually brushes) fail.

The cinematic view's fine; you know, an appropriate pinch of Designers, a Choreographer, Directors and Producers who get along, and you're freaking Golden People.
Hopefully you don't need to explain (nee' Aaranofsky) the oil dye immersion tank effects so much.

"More often, such an utterance comes from someone who should be paying attention to such things discovering a new toy or trend that half the people sitting around the table already knew about."

Hear hear! (And hilarious post, btw.) Everyone is somewhat blind about their own failings, but it's far worse in a monoculture, where there are often several elephants roaming freely while a roomful of people live their lives oblivious until a tree crashes across the table.


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