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February 24, 2010

Time Enough

I've been blogging for over six years. (Yes, blogging about blogging is a sin; I am aware of all Internet traditions.)

My first post, at WorldChanging, was on October 2, 2003, linking to a BBC story about an "Earth Simulator" computer system in Japan. In fact, you can look at the handful of posts I put up that first month and see the early moments of a set of interests that have remained with me: nanotech, biotech, green tech, open source, social networking, ethics... These first posts were mostly just pointers with excerpts, and without much analysis, but these are the seeds from which larger things grow.

Although my six-to-nine months of blogging had a pretty sporadic pace, by late 2004 I was on a much more frequent schedule, and in 2005 I don't think I had much in the way of a day off of any kind -- if I was healthy enough to pick up a laptop, I was blogging. After I left WC in April of 2006, and started Open the Future, I went back to a less-frequent blogging calendar. And in recent months, the emphasis has definitely been on the "less" rather than on the "frequent."

This isn't an announcement that I'm stopping now, nor is it a promise to post more frequently. It's more of an acknowledgement that Open the Future isn't as lively as it might once have been, and is largely pointing to Things I've Done. I have this vague feeling that I should apologize for that, but OtF has always been a place for my brain to get some exercise. I do still need to play with ideas, and I'm glad I still have this platform. I'm not going to stop doing that, and -- as I finally get this damn book proposal rewrite finished -- I hope to use it much more actively while writing my next book.

So there we are.

Futures Thinking: Mapping the Possibilities, and Writing Scenarios

(tap tap... this thing on? There's dust and cobwebs all over the place.)

My most recent three Fast Company pieces are all of a set, part of the Futures Thinking series. Mapping the Possibilities (Part One, Part Two) give some practical advice for coming up with differing scenarios as part of a futures thinking project. Writing Scenarios offers up a set of real-world scenarios as examples of different styles.

Part One offers some advice as to how to think about what you're going to do:

Foresight exercises that result in a single future story are rarely as useful as they appear, because we can't predict the future. The goal of futures thinking isn't to make predictions; the goal is to look for surprising implications. By crafting multiple futures (each focused on your core dilemma), you can look at your issues from differing perspectives, and try to dig out what happens when critical drivers collide in various ways.

Whatever you come up with, you'll be wrong. The future that does eventually emerge will almost certainly not look like the scenarios you construct. However, it's possible to be wrong in useful ways--good scenarios will trigger minor epiphanies (what more traditional consultants usually call "aha!" moments), giving you clues about what to keep an eye out for that you otherwise would have missed.

Part Two lays out the basics of world-building:

World-building is, in many ways, the mirror-opposite of a good science fiction story. With the latter, the reader only needs to see enough of the world to make the choices and challenges facing the characters comprehensible. The world is a scaffolding upon which the writer tells a story. Clumsy science fiction authors may over-explain the new technologies or behaviors--where they came from, why they're named as they are, etc.--but a good one will give you just enough to understand what's going on, and sometimes a little less than that (trusting that the astute reader can figure it out from the context).

Scenarios, conversely, are all about the context. Here, it's the story that's a scaffolding for the scenario--a canvas upon which to show the critical elements of the world you've built. A good scenario doesn't make a good science fiction story--but it's a setting within which a good science fiction story might be told.

And Writing Scenarios looks at the different styles that can be employed to tell a scenario story:

In Scenario-as-Story, the presentation is similar to that of a work of fiction. Named characters operate in a lightweight plot, but in doing so engage in behaviors that display key aspects of the scenario. [...]

The advantage of the Scenario-as-Story approach is that fiction is a familiar presentation language for readers, and they can more readily grasp the changes to one's life that emerge from the scenario. A story model lets you describe some of the more nuanced aspects of a scenaric future. The disadvantage is that, generally speaking, scenarios are lousy fiction. Even the best-written scenario stories generally wouldn't pass muster with a fiction editor.

The examples I use are from the project I did with Adaptive Path (for Mozilla) in 2008, looking at the future of the Internet. The full set of scenarios can be downloaded here (PDF).

February 11, 2010

Homesteading the Uncanny Valley

An audio recording of my talk at the "Biopolitics of Popular Culture" meeting in December is now available, so I've gone ahead and uploaded the presentation to slideshare.

It's a ~25 minute talk, and it should be relatively easy to follow along while listening to the audio.

Audio: MP3

February 10, 2010

Hacking the Earth (Without Voiding the Warranty)

The talk I gave at the State of Green Business Forum last week is now available on video.

Runs about 22 minutes.

(There are some inexplicably lengthy shots of the static presentation images, but other than that, it looks pretty decent.)

February 9, 2010

Translating Opacity

Andrew Revkin asked what I thought about his arguments for greater development and use of automated language translation technologies. In his piece "The No(w)osphere," Revkin writes:

As the human population heads toward nine billion and simultaneously becomes ever more interlaced via mobility, commerce and communication links, the potential to shape the human journey — for better or worse — through the sharing of ideas and experiences has never been greater. [...]

But language remains a barrier to having a truly global conversation...]


Automated translation remains clumsy, at best, these days. (One perfect illustration is the website "Translation Party," which translates an English phrase into Japanese, then translates it back to English, then back to Japanese, until it reaches "equilibrium" -- a point where the English and the Japanese auto-translate back and forth precisely.) Linguistic accuracy is a much harder problem than technology pundits of a few decades ago had expected. Nonetheless, as Revkin points out, there are a number of projects out there that suggest that a future of relatively useful automated translation is probably fairly near.

Here's the twist: I suspect that a less-than-perfect system would be better than an idealized perfect translation. Why? Because an imperfect system would require us to speak more simply and in a more straightforward fashion, with fewer culture-specific idioms and convoluted sentences, as we do today with our current tools. Working with people for whom English is not their primary language, I know that I need to speak and write in a way that doesn't lend itself to unintended ambiguity or confusion. If I knew that an automated system could be tripped up by overly-complex language, I'd be as careful and precise as possible.

But in everyday conversation, we don't tend to speak carefully and precisely. Correspondingly, an effectively perfect system would let us slip into the kinds of discussion and writing patterns that we use with other native speakers. I suspect that, counter-intuitively, this would lead to more confusion and friction, as meaning is culturally-rooted. A perfect translation of the denotation of a word or phrase may not carry the correct connotation; moreover, the translated word or phrase may have a very different connotation in a different culture.

In other words, translation technology that offers results that make sense linguistically, and carry the proper surface meaning of the words and phrases used, could well be close at hand. But translation technology that offers results that have the same meaning in both languages, especially with complex or idiomatic phrasing, probably awaits the arrival of relatively strong machine intelligence. Simply put, it would require software that understood what you meant, not just what you said.

We should be careful not to get these two outcomes confused. The more that we expect our translation tools to convert meaning, not just phrasing, the more likely we are to be unhappy with the results.

February 8, 2010

"Inflection Points" Presentation

For those folks who are interested, here's the Slideshare version of the presentation I gave last week at the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute annual meeting. I was asked to talk about foresight thinking, as the event theme was "The Big One of 2056: What Went Right?" a look at a fictional 7.8 quake in the SF region that was handled as well as they could imagine possible.

My goal was to offer a bit of reassurance to the audience that there is some real utility to thinking about the future, and to spell out (in a cursory way) the kinds of big picture issues they should keep in mind while looking ahead forty-six years.

By and large, it was a successful talk. The post-talk questions were engaged, with little push-back, and I'm told that the overall response from the audience was quite positive.

The talk was video recorded, and I'm told will eventually be available to the public. I'll link when that happens.

February 2, 2010

Living On (and Hacking the) Earth

Last month, I was interviewed for the syndicated "Living on Earth" program (typically heard on NPR stations) on the subject of geoengineering. That interview was run this past weekend, and is now available -- with transcript -- at the Living on Earth website.

(Direct link to the MP3.)

YOUNG: What do you think is the likelihood that we might need a geo-engineering approach?

CASCIO: I think it's more likely than not, unfortunately because...

YOUNG: Now wait a minute, you spent all this time telling me how it's a disaster, now you're saying we might have to use it?

CASCIO: Well, yes. It's because over the past few decades we simply have been ignoring the problem of global warming. We're in a situation where we simply no longer have the best option available to us. The best option would have been to deal with this 20 years ago.

And so, what we're stuck with [is] a selection of less good options. Are we talking rapid decarbonization and what that's going to the economy? Are we talking about making major changes to our energy infrastructure? Useful, but again, disruptive. These other alternatives are so seemingly unpalatable. It's very likely that we're going to be stuck in a situation where we will feel ourselves forced to take radical action.

Emphasis in that last paragraph on the "seemingly," btw.

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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