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November 30, 2009

New Fast Company: Futures Thinking: Scanning the World

...And just now my latest Fast Company piece popped up on the site. "Futures Thinking: Scanning the World" is the third in the occasional series on thinking like a futurist.

In my opinion, it may actually be the hardest step of all, because you have to navigate two seemingly contradictory demands:
  • You need to expand the horizons of your exploration, because the factors shaping how the future of the dilemma in question will manifest go far beyond the narrow confines of that issue.
  • You need to focus your attention on the elements critical to the dilemma, and not get lost in the overwhelming amount of information out there.

You should recognize up front that the first few times you do this, you'll miss quite a few of the key drivers; even experienced futurists end up missing some important aspects of a dilemma. It's the nature of the endeavor: We can't predict the future, but we can try to spot important signifiers of changes that will affect the future. We won't spot them all, but the more we catch, the more useful our forecasts.

It boils down to this: keep reading, keep asking questions, keeping looking for outliers... and if you think you have enough, you don't.

Foreign Policy 100 Top Global Thinkers

About two months ago, I was notified by the editors at Foreign Policy magazine that they had selected me as one of their "top global thinkers," to be announced on November 30. I was asked to not say anything about it until then, and, frankly, I wouldn't have had much to say. A search of the FP archives showed no previous iteration of this list, so I had no idea if it was just a list of people who had interesting articles in an issue over the last year or some such.

So when the new issue of Foreign Policy went live on the web on Sunday Nov 29, I was stunned to discover that it was a list of the 100 "most influential" thought leaders shaping 2009... and that I was #72. Even more surreal was what they said:

72. Jamais Cascio

for being our moral guide to the future.


Climate change is coming, and geoengineering -- the prospect of artificially manipulating the world's climate -- may seem like an easy save. But in fact it's threatening and ethically complex, putting a literally earth-shaking power in the hands of a few, says Cascio in his new book, Hacking the Earth, the most subtle analysis so far on the subject. This year, Cascio, guru of all things on the horizon and founder of the website Open the Future, agitated to strengthen the global financial system through decentralization; argued passionately that resilience, not sustainability, must be the new goal of environmentalists; and has become a leading thinker on robot ethics.

"Our moral guide to the future." No pressure.

It's a very odd list, mixing the usual institutional suspects (e.g., Bernanke, Obama, the Clintons, Cheney(!), Petraeus, Friedman) with a much more interesting (to me) group of more obscure scientists, writers, activists and thinkers. It's a list of "most influential," not "best," so there's a healthy mix of "yay!" and "no way!"

As part of the process, FP asked the listed folks to answer a set of questions about the world; about half did so (you can do it, too). The more personal items show up with the entries (and you can read mine there), but the more global issues got added up as survey results. But in the spirit of full disclosure, my answers to those questions can be found the extended entry.

But thank you to the editors at Foreign Policy for putting me on your list. I'll try to live up to those expectations.

In your opinion, is the worst over for the global economy?

b) No

If no, how long will it take for the global recession to end?
a) Less than a year b) 1-2 years c) 2-5 years

Global recession: (a) Less than a year (technically)
Structural weakness, leading to further problems: (c) 2-5 years (or more)

2) What is the most significant underreported story from 2009?

Somali pirates consider themselves a “coast guard,” to defend against illegal fishing by non-African states and illegal dumping of toxic wastes in Somali coastal waters. It’s not just a “piracy” story – or, rather, there are two piracy stories there, but only one is being reported.

3) What will be 2010’s “unknown unknown” – in other words, a global game-changer such as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or Iran acquiring nuclear weapons?

It’s rarely possible to predict these, but a few plausible candidates:

  • major (and unusual) weather event in densely-populated area crystallizes public demand for action on global warming;
  • another pandemic flu, this one hitting even harder than H1N1
  • violent unrest in China

    4) Who are the three most influential global leaders outside the United States?

    1. Hu Jintao
    2. Kofi Annan
    3. Whoever is running Pakistan ISI’s Taliban desk.

    5) On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 signifying the highest rating), how would you rate U.S. President Barack Obama as a leader after one year in office?


    How would you describe Obama’s contribution to the global marketplace of ideas?

    I believe that Obama has been more effective internationally than domestically; he has returned subtlety and strategic thinking to the world of US-led diplomacy. On international issues, he clearly seems to be thinking several moves ahead of most observers (still accustomed to the more blustery Bush admin practices).

    6) The future of the world will be better if we listen to what one person's ideas?

    Dr. James Hansen, NASA

    7) Did anything happen in 2009 that caused you to fundamentally change how you think about the world? If yes, what was it?

    Not in 2009, no.

    8) What is the most dangerous country in the world? (Pakistan, Somalia, other)

    Neither Pakistan nor Somalia can actually threaten the survival of the Earth’s civilization. However, the United States and China each produce enough anthropogenic greenhouse gases individually to tip the planet into a climate catastrophe. India is heading up there, too.

    9) Which country will emerge as the world's next powerhouse:

    b) India (Arguably, China is already a global powerhouse.)

    10) What is the world's most serious military conflict right now:

    a) Afghanistan/Pakistan

  • November 21, 2009

    On the (Augmented) Media

    "Sixth Sense," my interview with NPR's On the Media, talking about augmented reality, went live this weekend. Here's the audio:

    (MP3 download also available.)

    November 19, 2009

    New Fast Company: The Meowtrix


    My new Fast Company essay is now up, looking at the news that IBM researchers have produced a cortical computing system with the connection complexity of a cat's brain. (My original title is shown here on the illustration; the replacement title is a bit inaccurate and I've suggested a replacement, so let's just move along.) It's a follow-up to the research from a couple of years ago on a mouse-scale brain simulation; we're still on-target for a human-level brain connection simulation by 2020.

    All of the stories about this, including my own, have emphasized the cat brain aspect, but in reality the truly nifty development is the improved ability to map brain structures using advanced MRI and supercomputer modeling.

    Ultimately, this is a very interesting development, both for the obvious reasons (an artificial cat brain!) and because of its associated "Blue Matter" project, which uses supercomputers and magnetic resonance to non-invasively map out brain structures and connections. The cortical sim is intended, in large part, to serve as a test-bed for the maps gleaned by the Blue Matter analysis. The combination could mean taking a reading of a brain and running the shadow mind in a box.

    Science fiction writers will have a field day with this, especially if they develop a way to "write" neural connections, and not just read them. Brain back-ups? Shadow minds in a box, used to extract secret knowledge? Hypercats, with brains operating at a thousand times normal speed? The mind reels.

    The phrase "shadow minds" should be familiar to anyone who read the Transhuman Space game books -- this is almost exactly what the game talked about, and on an even more aggressive schedule!

    November 18, 2009

    Radio Silence

    Talk Talk

    Sorry for going quiet for the last few days -- I've been in Vienna, Austria, giving a talk at the "Future Space" event. That bit is done, but now I'm off to another project.

    The trip included the surreal experience of being interviewed by Die Presse, Austria's newspaper-of-record -- an interview which, of course, included photographs. And the photographer got a bit... artsy.

    Posting will pick up again next week.

    November 15, 2009


    Superfreakonomics author Steven Levitt has been fighting against the myriad critics going after him for the many, many mistakes in (at least) the global warming section of the book. Interestingly, a phrase that keeps coming up in his rebuttals is "I'm not sure why that is blasphemy."

    Blasphemy. Hmm.

    What strikes me as interesting about the use of this term is that it (along with the use of "belief" and explicit references to "global warming religion") changes the frame of the discussion of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) to something for which faith overrides analysis. By claiming that AGW scientists are simply pushing their beliefs, AGW critics can position themselves in front of the general public and the traditional media as simply having differing beliefs, in a social milieu in which multiplicity of faiths is a Good Thing (™). Attacking them for not believing in AGW is akin (in this framing) to attacking them for being Presbyterian. You may disagree with their beliefs, they say, but they have every right to believe what they want.

    The parallel here is with scientific subjects such as evolution, the biological origins of sexual orientation, and the age of the universe, all of which have opponents who insist on framing all sides of the argument in terms of beliefs (you can probably add vaccinations to that pile, too). It's not just that they're faith based -- they insist that everyone else in the discussion is, too.

    There's some utility for them in this. If the discussion around AGW (or evolution, or vaccinations) was solely scientific -- with the use of relatively objective evidence, open analysis, and a willingness to learn from mistakes -- the disbelievers would quickly lose all standing. The scientific evidence for AGW is simply so overwhelming that the only way to perpetuate a "debate" is by playing the belief card. As long as AGW deniers and "skeptics" can keep the framing religious, they can maintain their perceived legitimacy.

    As far as I know, Steven Levitt does not adopt an explicitly religious view of the issues discussed in his book, and might even take offense at being lumped in with anti-vaxxers and creationists. But he's the one who has decided to frame his arguments in the language of faith and belief. The lesson is here is simple: pay attention to language. The messages and meanings underlying the terms chosen by interest groups can say more about them than they might intend.

    November 11, 2009

    The Singularity, In Five Slides

    The Singularity, in Five Slides from Jamais Cascio on Vimeo.

    Three minute excerpt from the New York talk.

    (Warning -- about halfway through, somebody bumps the camera, making a loud noise.)

    Biopolitics of Pop Culture -- Updated

    sw55.gifLots of new speakers joining the Biopolitics of Popular Culture event on December 4. Here's the latest info:

    Biopolitics of Popular Culture Seminar
    Friday, December 4, 2009
    EON Reality, Irvine, CA, USA

    This is your chance to learn firsthand from artists, writers, filmmakers, and culture critics whose work plays an important part in shaping our modern society.

    Come and explore with us the biopolitics that are implicit in depictions of emerging technology in literature, film and television. Take notes, ask questions, watch video clips, and have your say in the discussion.

    Speakers include:

  • David Brin
  • Jamais Cascio
  • Brian Cross
  • RJ Eskow
  • James Hughes
  • Richard Kadrey
  • Michael LaTorra
  • Alex Lightman
  • PJ Manney
  • Michael Massuci
  • Edward Miller
  • Jess Nevins
  • Annalee Newitz
  • Jeannie Novak
  • Matthew Patrick
  • Kristi Scott
  • Mike Treder
  • Natasha Vita-More

    Be sure to register BEFORE November 15th and save 33% -- just $99, which includes continental breakfast and lunch. After November 15 or at the door it's $150. Get all the information at this page and mark the date on your calendar now.

  • I'm happy about this mix of people for a few reasons. The first is that it's not just the same "usual suspects" -- there are folks from a fairly wide array of fields with something to say on the subject. The second is that, atypical for a futures-focused event, the proportion of women on the speaker list is fairly high -- just under a third.

    The agenda for the event should be posted soon. I've seen a draft, and it looks like it's truly going to rock. Hope to see you there!

    (Image from Diesel Sweeties, by Richard Stevens, which you had better be reading daily.)

    November 9, 2009

    New Fast Company: Multifractals in the Sky, With Power-Laws

    My latest Fast Company essay is now up. "Is the Atmosphere Simpler Than We Thought?" takes a look at some recent research claiming that the atmosphere demonstrates a multifractal power-law structure.

    McGill University physicist Shaun Lovejoy kept coming back to the idea, though, and he and his team found suggestive indications that there was a multifractal process at work. (Standard fractal systems involve a single exponent defining the "fractal dimension" of a system; multifractal systems involve a range of exponents, given the label "singularity exponent." Seriously.) The available data weren't clear though, because the readings were muddied by the effects of the very aircraft and instruments used to gather them. So Lovejoy looked up--to satellites. And digging through data from 1,200 consecutive orbits of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, the team came up with something pretty remarkable: very strong evidence that the atmosphere follows power laws and shows fractal behavior, visible at scales from under 10km to over 20,000km.

    When translated into climate system models, this would allow for modeling of behavior at millimeter scales -- a hundred million times more precise than current models, according to New Scientist. Woah.

    Putting the Human Back Into the Post-Human -- The Motion Picture

    The talk I gave at the New York Future Salon is now available!

    The entire video runs about 98 minutes; my talk starts after a couple of minutes of intro, and I finish up right at the one-hour mark. The remainder of the video is the Q&A period, which has some good stuff, too. When I get a chance, I hope to pull out some short clips as stand-alone videos.

    The sound quality is surprisingly good, considering that I wasn't mic'd. The lighting is such that some of the slide images are a bit hard to see; if you're curious, the entire deck (sans nifty Keynote transition effects) is available at SlideShare.

    You can get a high-quality MPEG (.m4v) version at the Internet Archive page for the video, if you're eager to download just under a gigabyte...

    My thanks to Kevin Keck and Ella Grapp for inviting me to give the talk, and to Robert Wald for dealing with the video stuff.

    As always, please let me know what you think of the talk.

    City in the Clouds

    November 6, 2009

    Lights, Camera, Talk!

    Consider this something of an aside to the "basic futurism" series over at Fast Company.

    As video becomes an increasingly important part of how organizations construct their internal and external narratives, those of us who work in the broad field of consulting will frequently find ourselves plopped down in front of a camera. One-on-one interviews have aspects of both formal presentations and casual conversations, but a few twisty elements all their own.

    Much to my surprise, I've done quite a few on-camera, one-on-one interviews over the past few years. It's not something I sought out, but is very much a growing part of what consultants, writers, or other knowledge workers should expect as part of their jobs.

    Here are some hard-learned tips for the novice interviewee, based on my own experiences -- I've broken all of these rules at one point or another, and learned quickly why they are worth following.

    • How to Look: Solid, muted colors and grays work best. Black clothing is generally not recommended, and white clothing is even worse. Stripes are right out. A suit jacket is usually a good addition, especially if it's not the same color as the shirt. When possible, tug the back of the jacket down and sit on it -- it helps to keep the collar from bunching up as you move.

      You're also much better off wearing something that buttons down the front, so that a small microphone can be attached to the placket and the wire dropped down inside your shirt and into a transmitter.

      In addition, if you know that you're prone to shiny skin under bright lights (foreheads in particular are awful for this), see if you can get a light coating of pancake makeup applied. For those of us who don't wear makeup regularly, it can feel a bit odd at first, but makes a big difference in how you look.

    • How to Act: Ask the camera operator ahead of time what kind of framing they're giving you -- a close-up of your face, a full-torso, chest-up, etc.. That will help you to know just how much you can move around. If you -- like me -- tend to talk with your hands, you'll want to warn them as they set up the framing. You'll also want to be conscious of it during the conversation; it can look really weird for bits and pieces of your hand or arm to suddenly pop into and out of frame.

      Nine times out of ten, you'll be asked to not look at the camera, but instead to look at the interviewer seated near the camera (I once had an interview where the actual interview took place over the phone, so I had to look at an empty spot near the camera the whole time). The challenge will be to avoid glancing over at the camera while you speak. If you're in the habit of looking around the room while you talk, to make eye contact with the audience, you'll have to train yourself to avoid that when doing on-camera interviews.

    • How to Speak: I won't tell you to go slow or fast -- that will depend on your own style. But there are three tricks to keep in mind that will help you to make sure that what you're saying is coherent and clear.

      When possible, speak in short sentences. Most video interviews get edited pretty heavily, so speaking in brief, pithy sentences makes the editor's job easier, and you're more likely to come out sounding like you know what you're talking about.

      Put the question into the answer. In nearly every interview, the questions asked by the interviewer get cut out. It's up to you, then, to weave the question you've been asked into the structure of the answer, so that your quote can stand alone. If you're asked, for example, how the dinosaurs died out, "Current science says an asteroid impact" is less useful for an editor than "Currently, the most popular scientific theory says that the dinosaurs were killed off by an asteroid impact."

      Don't be afraid to stop and start over. Unless your interview is being shown live, or completely uncut, you should feel free to stop in the middle of a convoluted or mangled phrase, pause for a beat, then restart, preferably at the beginning of your answer or a self-contained part of your answer. This also applies if you have a sudden burst of background noise, a sneeze, or any other brief interruption. You and the editor are both interested in you coming across as knowledgeable and clear.

    This isn't a complete list, but these are the items that stood out in my mind when thinking over my last set of interviews. Please feel free to speak up in the comments if you have other tips to add.

    November 2, 2009

    Resilience Fail (updated)

    Quick question: where does this URL go to?


    How about this one?


    Would you have guessed that the first goes to a Computerworld article about business-appropriate avatars, and the second goes to the previous post on Open the Future?

    The use of URL-shortening services is a classic example of short-term need trumping long-term resilience. Shortened URLs:

  • are not human-readable, and even the versions with user-generated mnemonics are little better than crude tags;
  • they don't provide contextual clues, which would offer a way to find the information later (if the article has expired, for example) by looking up relevant keywords or related concepts;
  • they rely on the continued presence of the particular shortener - any downtime or disappearance kills potentially millions of links.

    That is, URL-shorteners violate three key principles of resilient design: they offer no transparency, no redundancy, and no decentralization. They're classic single-points of failure.

    As a result, shortened URLs have little or no reference or archival value. A dead short URL is far worse than a dead standard URL, in fact, because (a) you have no way of getting contextual meaning, and (b) you can't even go look up the address on the Internet Archive. This is a real problem for those of us who think of the Internet as a tool for building knowledge. For better or for worse, services such as Twitter have gone from being ephemeral conversation media to being used as tools of collaborative awareness about the world. We can no longer assume that a link in a short message is of only transient value.

    Yet many of us (including me) rely heavily on shorteners when using URLs "conversationally," such as on Twitter or in an instant message chat. They take far fewer characters than a typical URL; in length-limited media such as Twitter, that's a critical advantage.

    So, in the immortal phrase, what is to be done?

    Given that the need for URL shortening will remain as long as we use character-limit media such as Twitter or SMS, I can think of a few steps that would help to return some of the information resilience to the system:

  • Embed shortening "behind the scenes" in Twitter and the like, so that senders just enter a full URL, and recipients see the full URL whenever possible. The full URL should show up on the web version, so that the real address gets archived.
  • Google, Bing, Yahoo, and the other search engines should auto-translate any shortened URLs they stumble upon when indexing pages, so that at the very least the cached version contains the full address. The Internet Archive should definitely be doing this.
  • All URL-shortening services should agree to make the records of short URL -> full URL links available to search and archival sites, under appropriate privacy conditions (e.g., all names/IP addresses of users stripped out, data only available if the company goes under, data only available after five years, users can choose to allow the URL link to expire).

    Any of these would be an enormous step forward, and the combination would make for a much more resilient system. Admittedly, all of these steps require a bit of coding work, and aren't going to be implemented overnight. However, nobody said resilience was easy -- just necessary.

  • November 1, 2009

    Carbon Footprint T-Shirts (& Stuff)

    414625691v8_350x350_Front_Color-White.jpgWarren Ellis' new "t-shirt a week" project, using Cafe Press, reminded me that, waaaay back in the early days of Open the Future, I tried out a Cafe Press shop just to get a couple of items of OtF stuff for myself. That stuff is all gone -- it used the logo from two iterations ago -- but the shop remained. It only needed new content.

    By far the most popular item I've ever done here is the Carbon Footprint of a Cheeseburger, and I still get requests to use the graphic that I made to accompany the piece -- a mockup of a "carbon facts" chart mirroring the common "nutrition facts" found on nearly every food item in the US. As a result, I had little hesitation about which image would go on a new Open the Future shirt.

    At this point, the Open the Future storefront has the Carbon Footprint image on organic t-shirts (both "male" fit and "female" fit), as well as on a tote bag (perfect for shopping at the local organic food market), a large coffee mug, and -- I couldn't resist -- on a barbecue apron.

    If anyone decides to pick one of these up, please send along a picture of yourself wearing the shirt/apron (or holding the bag/mug).

    Jamais Cascio

    Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

    Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

    Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

    Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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