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March 29, 2013

Bots, Bacteria, and Carbon: My Talk at ENSIA

Floating Head

The talk I gave earlier this month at the University of Minnesota is now viewable at the Ensia website, on YouTube, and embedded below. (Wherever you watch it, I encourage you to open up a full-screen view window, for reasons illustrated by the image above.) It runs about 36 minutes, and covers three different scenarios of a sustainable future.

As always, questions and comments are more than welcome.

A Dragon, a Black Swan, and a Mule Walk into a Future...

My latest piece at Fast Company's Co.Exist site is now up. I gave it the title "A Futurist Bestiary", but they went with the more informative title of "3 Reasons Why Your Predictions Of The Future Will Go Wrong." (I've really got to get them to stop using the "P" word.)

Futurism is a richly metaphorical body of thought. It has to be; much of what we talk about is on the verge of unimaginable, so we have to resort to metaphors for it to make any kind of sense. Not all of the metaphors we use are complex: It struck me recently that there are several common futurist metaphors that take a relatively simple animal shape: the Dragon; the Black Swan; and the Mule.

[...] These days, “here be dragons” is a broadly-understood metaphor for something both dangerous and uncertain. And it seems that the future is full of dragons, considering how frequently I’ve heard the term.

Dragons are things we should know about, but don't want to -- questions that we should ask, but we're afraid to hear the answers. Black Swans are, as you probably know, things we could know about, if we asked the right questions -- but we probably won't. And Mules are... well, if you've read the Foundation trilogy, you know who the Mule was.

If you haven’t, here’s a quick recap (and a spoiler for a set of novels published in the early 1950s): a brilliant “psychohistorian” named Hari Seldon--essentially a futurist with above-average math skills--successfully plots out a way for the dying galactic empire to get through a dark age much more quickly than it otherwise would. But after a couple of hundred years, Seldon’s predictions, which all along had been completely accurate, suddenly start going wrong. The reason? The emergence of a mutant able to control human minds, a mutant who called himself the Mule.

In this short essay I've made the Mule a metaphor. Fear me.

March 20, 2013

Futures of Human Cultures

My friend Annalee Newitz, editor at io9.com, asked me a short while ago for some thoughts on the possible futures of human cultures. The piece (which also includes observations from folks like Denise Caruso, Maureen McHugh, and Natasha Vita-More) is now up, and is a fun read. And while I captures the flavor of what I said, here's the (slightly edited to fix typos) full text of my reply to Annalee:

A hundred years, hmm.

I think that for many futurists the default vision of social existence a century hence is one of expanded rights (poly marriage, human-robot romance, that sort of thing), acceptance of cultural experimentation, and the dominance of the leisure society (robots doing all of the work, humans get to play/make art/take drugs/have sex). Call it the "Burning Man Future." With sufficiently-advanced biotech, people can alter or invent genders & genital arrangements (think KSR's 2312); with sufficiently-advanced infotech, people can run instant simulations of social and personal evolution (think the last chapter or two of Stross' Accelerando); with sufficiently-advanced robo/nanotech, class and work-related identities are of dwindling or no importance. Social divisions likely to still be around are those around politics (power still matters), art (aesthetics still matters), and the legitimacy of choices (the Mac/PC religious war writ large).

A more nuanced version of the Burning Man Future would allow for the establishment of sub-communities with radically different norms, able to isolate themselves either physically or informationally. Systems of abundance mean that any kind of social configuration is at least plausibly sustainable, while the kinds of interfaces we'd be using (engineered/upgraded brains, etc.) would mean that any level of filtering or reality manipulation is possible, too. Imagine a city street where not one of the hundred people around you sees the same version of reality, the interface systems translating the physical and social environment into something interesting and/or culturally acceptable. (This would also be a remarkable tool for mind control in a totalitarian regime.)

The more extreme version of that would be one where all experiences are market-driven, where everything (including hearing music playing in a building or the appearance of a designer outfit) would require a micro-transaction to hear or observe.

There's also the question of how pervasive Gossip/Reputation Networks will be; my gut sense is that they'll be all over the place by mid-century, but seen as ridiculous and dated by the early 22nd*.

That raises a larger point: it's not just that by 2113 we'll have gone through another three or four human generations (depending on how you count them), by 2113 we'll have gone through a dozen or so technosocial-fashion generations. Smartphones give way to tablets to phablets to wearables to implantables to swallowables to replaceable eyeballs to neo-sinus body-nanofab systems (using mucous as a raw material) to brainwebs to body-rentals... and those are increasingly considered "so 2110." And with all of these (or whatever really emerges), there are shifting behavioral norms. Don't look at your phone at the dinner table. Don't replace your eyeball in public. Don't reboot your neo-sinus in church.

At the same time, many of the Big Socio-cultural Fights we're having now will seem as ridiculous in 2050 as the cultural angst in the 1960s over hair length, or the performance of an expressionist orchestral concert in 1913 leading to a riot in Vienna. Gay? Bi? Trans? Cis? What does it even matter? What *really* pisses people off these days is the use of real meat instead of fleshfabbers... Barbarians.

All of this strikes me as plausible assuming that we don't run into major catastrophic downturns, which tend to push us towards more tribal behaviors and demand strict adherence to norms (where threatening community stability also threatens community survival). So there's your choice: Burning Man or Walking Dead.

[And that's the extent of my "Walking Dead" reference, btw. No zombies here. :) ]

*Thanks, Adam!

March 19, 2013

Where's Waldo? (and by "Waldo" I mean me)

This has already been a busy year, and it's just getting more hectic.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've talked bioterrorism near DC and sustainability in the snows of Minneapolis. I'm now immersed in the Institute for the Future's annual Ten-Year Forecast production. A couple more quick talks (non-public, sadly) are on the calendar for the next month or so, too.

The Minneapolis talk was for ENSIA, the new environmental media project from the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. I spoke about different scenarios of what a sustainable future could look like -- one driven by politics and control, one driven by community and resilience, and one driven by experimentation and technology. There will be a video of the talk real soon now, and the audio will be made available by Minnesota Public Radio. Links to come.

In the lead-up to the talk, I was interviewed by Midwest Energy News (one of the sponsors of the ENSIA Live! events); it's a brief but good conversation, with (unsurprisingly) a bit of a focus on energy. It can be found here.

[MWEN:] When many of us think about the future, we extrapolate out from today’s conditions. But if you look back over the last couple of decades, you can see numerous events that few people expected, such as the Internet boom, smart phones, or the natural gas boom. How do you, as a professional futurist, go about predicting the future better than the rest of us?

[Jamais:] Actually the term "prediction" has become something of a dirty word in the futurist community because of the implication it has of telling you the one thing that will happen. The term most of us tend to use these days is "forecasting," which is a parallel concept, but the implications are less precise. You hear about a weather forecast, and you know going in that it’s not telling you what will happen, but that it’s a best estimate based on everything that we know.

More critically, most professional futurists these days talk in terms of scenarios, of multiple possible futures. It’s irresponsible to say, here’s the one thing that you know will happen—end of story. You can only talk about multiple possible futures because of this potential for surprises, for complex interactions of disparate dynamic forces.

In addition, a few months ago the comic book author Brian Wood asked if I'd be willing to write an introduction to the trade paperback collection of the first six issues of The Massive, his new graphic novel series taking place after a global environmental catastrophe. It's an intense story, and worth reading. The collection will be available April 2. My intro essay, "Life After the Apocalypse," is available now as part of Wired's interview with Brian. Here's a taste:

The Massive gives us a different, and essentially unique, take on the story of the end of the world. It doesn’t revel in destruction; when scenes describing the planetary crisis show up, they make clear that this was a true disaster, not a disaster movie. Millions have died, in dirty, tragic, and decidedly noncinematic ways. Instead, The Massive is a story of the necessity of resilience. While it leads us through the catastrophic aftermath of the Crash, we soon see that survival here is not the purpose in and of itself -- it's survival with the hope of making things better, even while recognizing that the old world's legacies (in materials and ideologies) yet remain.

But it’s a hope of making things better, not a guarantee[…] The old ways will fight to retain a stranglehold on civilization, no matter how pathological their effects. While Ninth Wave reminds us that this isn’t the only option, it too has to contend with a world coping with collapse. Compromises are inevitable— but compromise isn’t the same as surrender.

Lots of fun stuff on the horizon, including a (likely) trip to Kosovo!

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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