A World in Which
(This is the full text of a talk I gave at the Institute for the Future on 21 October 2015, as part of the "New Body Language" workshop on wearable/"body area network" technologies for the Technology Horizons program.)
Why do we think about the future?
This may seem an odd setting in which to ask this question. We're all here tonight because we're interested in big changes that seem to be thundering ahead in technology, in politics, in the human experience. But there has to be more than "interest" An organization like the Institute for the Future wouldn't be around for nearly a half-century if it was really just the Institute for Idle Curiosity About Tomorrow.
No. We think about the future because we believe two fundamental things: 1), that the future matters; and 2), that we still have a say in the future we get. The shape of tomorrow arises from the choices we make today. Or, to twist that around, we can make better decisions now if we consider the different ways in which those decisions could play out. The scenarios I will present tonight are examples of one tool we can use to undertake that consideration of consequences. Scenarios are stories that offer us a lens through which we might see our lives in a new world.
We're not accustomed to thinking about longer-term futures. We evolved to reach quick, reasonably accurate conclusions about near-term risks and outcomes -- is there a saber-toothed tiger in that cave? Will that plant poison me? There's even some evidence that the part of the brain that lights up when we think about the future is the same part active in ballistics, that is, hitting a moving target with something. So when Wayne Gretzky talked about skating to where the puck will be, he was actually offering up a bit of futurist wisdom.
One important rule for thinking about the future is remembering that what we may imagine as a massively disruptive, distant horizon is an everyday, boring present for those who live there. They aren't entirely different people in an alien environment, they're us, a generation from now. They've gone through -- we've gone through -- all of the upheaval and have adapted. Their lives then may not be the same as our lives now, but they are the descendants of our lives.
It's because of this clarity of connection that I believe it to be important to think about the future in generational terms, not just as a count of years. If, as LP Hartley claims, "the past is a foreign country," so too is the future -- but it's a foreign country that we'll never quite get to. Our vision of the future is a destination, but our lived experience of it is as a journey. We walk an unbroken pathway from today to tomorrow.
If that pathway was linear and obvious, however, figuring out what we might face and how we might adapt would be a fairly straightforward task. Sadly, that's not the case. All too often we're blindsided by surprising developments, unexpected combinations, and unintended consequences.
We can't predict every twist and turn the path to the future will take. We can, however, develop our instincts to pick up on the early signs of big changes. Recognizing these signs can give us more time to consider our response, and to figure out what our options may be as the world transforms. In short, we think about the future because doing so helps us to notice the subtle clues today about the shape tomorrow can take, to act appropriately and, one hopes, to act responsibly.
But foresight work isn't just a checklist of Things to Come. It's not inherently quantitative or precise. It's much more akin to the study of history than the study of, say, economics.
Moreover, foresight work isn't aimed at academic cabals that communicate through peer-reviewed journals and passive-aggressive blog posts. We have to articulate our thoughts to audiences that may not have considered that the future might be a journey rather than a destination. Consequently, futurists need to be storytellers. We employ narrative to make sense of and to give structure to the chaos of what we might call anticipatory history. We use story to give meaning to our depictions of change.
Many foresight specialists dislike this particular observation. Storytelling seems too unserious. There's much more gravity in saying that we're doing "strategic wind-tunneling" or "contingency analysis" or "preference-agnostic outcome projection." I feel like I'm wearing a tie just saying that last one.
But there's no shame in telling stories. Human beings have been using narrative structures to illuminate subtle, confusing, or distant aspects of the world for quite some time. We create myths to make sense of the ineffable. We use a narrative of the imaginary to explain the deep structure of the world.
Foresight scenarios are just another iteration of myth-making, intended to explain the deep structure of the coming world as it emerges from the present. They're explicitly stories of how the world works. This becomes especially blatant in the introduction, the incantation, that begins many written scenarios: This is a world in which...
This is a world in which... is the futurist's version of "once upon a time." It's a phrase that reveals the storyteller's intent: you're about to hear the tale of another reality, one that builds a new tomorrow based upon our understanding of today. It's a fairy tale, at least of a sort. It will likely have more logic and sensibility, but the fantastic elements are unmistakable -- not in the shape of giants and beanstalks, or grandmother-devouring wolves, but as wristbands that know us better than we know ourselves, internal monitors that reveal every insult to our bodies, and devices that take the metaphor out of "shared feelings."
I first started writing scenarios two decades ago. It quickly became clear to me that this is a world in which... is a useful tool for scenario construction, because much as it puts the reader in the mindset of a whole new world, it forces the writer to adopt that perspective as well. All assumptions about the way of things come under scrutiny. What do I want this world to be? How does this future differ from the here and now? What is the story of this new reality?
I still call upon that magic phrase, sometimes, when writing scenarios, even if I don't always use that exact wording. Tonight we'll see a world in which a traveler's desire for convenience dovetails with a government's desire for oversight. A world in which our bodies reveal secrets, no matter how well hidden. A world in which intimate connections can travel along a path of ether and bit just as much as whisper and touch. A world in which we can see our own lives, reflected as in a funhouse mirror.
There is an unsurprising overlap between scenario writers and science fiction writers. Both professions require the ability to articulate a path from "now" to some version of "then." You'll find many science fiction writers taking a stab at doing scenario work, and many scenario writers seeing themselves as science fiction writers in (metaphorical) business suits. There's enough in common between the two professions that the skills of one often translate reasonably well into the skills of the other.
But scenario futures and science fiction aren't the same; in an important way, they're actually opposites. For the science fiction writer, the world in which is a scaffolding, a fundamental structure within which the actual story transpires. Every part of that future world is intended to support the characters and plot, and many elements of the imagined future live solely in the writer's mind to give solidity to the narrative. In fact, science fiction writers often try to show only the barest minimum necessary gears and mechanisms of the world, trusting the reader to figure out the larger structure.
With scenarios, the larger structure is kind of the point.
With scenarios, revealing the world in which is the very heart of the narrative, and characters or plots that may show up do so entirely to highlight important parts of the world. Scenario writers leave as little hidden as they can, including everything that the allotted space will allow to explain how the world works and why it works in such a way. A scenario narrative may sometimes tell a single story, but the scenario world contains multitudes.
That observation gives us a little hint as to how to best listen to or read scenarios. Each of the three scenarios I'll be offering tonight stands on its own. But this doesn't mean that they're all entirely disconnected. One of my favorite futurist sayings comes from the author William Gibson, who noted that "the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed yet." People living in the same world have radically divergent experiences. The same tools or technologies can lead in very different directions for different cultures. We too easily forget that our technologies are fundamentally cultural artifacts, and that their creation and use are manifestations of our values, beliefs, and intentions.
Useful foresight scenarios need to be about people, our desires and our fears. This is especially true for scenarios about technological developments -- such as the ones we're looking at tonight. These need to be stories of how we live our lives, not just a catalog of inventions lightly sprinkled with global events. They should ask us, how do we grapple with the challenges presented to us by a world in which?
Tonight's scenarios will be talking about Body Area Networks. For those of you just joining us, Body Area Networks are bits of information technology carried in, on, or around a person's body, communicating with each other and with the outside world. Deeply intimate technologies, to be sure. Body Area Networks are, in a fundamental way, interzones between our human biology and our social technologies. They're intended to be both translators and armor. They link the body to the world, and in doing so, become the mechanism of tension between the two.
Each of the three scenarios of Body Area Networks is about a different kind of friction between humans and our technological environment, as mediated through our bodies. If I've done my job well, none of these scenarios should seem to be either utopian or dystopian. That's not how the world works. Every tool we make can both delight us or infuriate us. We use our artifacts to commit crimes, to find lovers, to reinvent ourselves over and over again. These scenarios try to reflect that complexity. The worlds they present may make you uncomfortable in some ways, but you should also be able to see that twisty pathway between the present day and the scenario's future.
The first scenario, Papers, Please, asks us to consider who exactly owns our body's information, in a world in which body networks serve as a ubiquitous platform of communication and awareness. The networks are windows through which we see our world and, critically, through which our world sees us. Can privacy be possible here? Can you ever be alone in this world? Or maybe the question is, what risks might you run seeking to be by yourself?
In this scenario, Body Area Networks are commonplace and diverse, but with different rules and affordances in different parts of the world. As they start to encompass a role combining personal information system and personal identification system, some nations may begin to require their use by all citizens... and even all visitors.
When I finally got a chance to visit Scotland, everyone joked about the weather and the food. Nobody mentioned the passports.
That's not what the newly independent Republic of Scotland calls them for citizens, of course -- that's a bit too reminiscent of a 20th century dictatorship's "internal passports." But everyone in the RS, citizen or visitor, needs to carry one of these little widgets on their person. I'm told that locals prefer an earpiece or ring, but a tourist like me gets a simple wristband.
Like lots of things these days, it immediately wanted to partner with my mobile, only there was no "would you like to..." involved -- it just did it. I guess it used some kind of government-only backdoor. My malware monitor app immediately traced where it connected, but it appeared only to be piggybacking on the GPS and crypto-identity functions, at least at first.
I will say that the passport made it much simpler to be a tourist in Scotland than I've ever experienced anywhere else. Doors opened automatically for me, both literally and figuratively. The passport pulsed on my wrist to give me directions, so I never got lost, and I could pay for things just by waving or nodding my acknowledgement of the purchase, so currency exchange wasn't a problem. It also gave me a haptic signal when I was putting myself at risk, and while that took me awhile to get used to, I did manage to avoid one of the anti-war marches that way.
Far and away the most useful -- and worrisome -- bit was when I was overcome by heatstroke. Edinburgh is still not fully adapted to regular 35Â°C summers, and the lack of air conditioning (and my own failure to drink enough water) left me on the verge of passing out. Because I hadn't recognized that the passport had been buzzing warnings at me, it took action on my behalf. By the time I realized that I was feeling dizzy, medical responders had found me, my doctor back home had been updated, and my emergency contacts had been messaged, twice. I knew that the wristband included some basic bio-monitor functions, but I was a bit startled to find that the RS tourist passport did that forced-connection thing to my health implants, too.
I've never really liked the "all in one" body network systems that assume you want everything to talk to everything else. I like being able to mix up the kinds of technology I have on me (and in me), and more importantly to be able to decide on my own what can connect to what. I intentionally keep my healthware isolated from my mobile, my clothing, and my homeware -- there have been too many cases of hackers and viruses attacking implanted systems. I may be paranoid, but I grew up in the Age of Anonymous -- I know that everything can be hacked.
After I got home, I checked the malware monitor's forensic records. Apparently, the passport only began to search for standard healthware devices when my body temperature and heart rate started to increase. I suppose I should be glad that it waited until there was some sort of need for that information before taking it without asking. But it does make me wonder what else the system might have decided on its own that it needed, and whether I'd ever be allowed to say no.
As I said, Body Area Networks are deeply intimate technologies. They'll know more about us than our parents or spouses. As such, many people, especially those who can remember what it's like not to be so fully revealed, will take steps to minimize risks of exposure. We know from sometimes harsh experience that no technology is completely secure, and that one of the dangers of creating government-only backdoors is that they don't remain government-only for long.
So our character here seeks self-protection, with encryption, system monitors, and attempts to isolate components. But these are technologies that are built to be connected -- to each other, and to the broader world. Who owns that connection? Who controls the off switch?
The second scenario, X-Ray Vision, shifts the point of view from the personal to the societal. This scenario shows us a world in which the body area networks (here known as "selfies") are commonly used to know ourselves better, but offer up surprising insights into the nature of civil society, as well.
Selfies -- the body networks in this scenario -- are universally Internet-connected, uploading to the cloud real-time data, such as health, location, and environmental conditions. Although the information is private, it may still be accessible by families, by governments, or by the device manufacturers. There's a saying used frequently by government transparency advocates and anti-corruption activists: "sunlight is the best disinfectant." Setting aside the questionable epidemiology, the question remains: Is it possible that the best outcome might be if nobody controls the off switch?
The Hayward Fault earthquake swarm of 2026 wasn't the first time health monitor data could be used to analyze a big event, but it was the one that everyone noticed. Hayward Alpha, the first big quake of the series, hit at 4:40 in the afternoon, when most people were heading home from work or chores. Heart rates jumped when the 6.3 quake hit, staying high throughout the 90 seconds of shaking. Unsurprisingly, the pattern of racing hearts matched the propagation of seismic waves from the quake's center, racing north up the fault line, moving more slowly through the Oakland hills.
Interesting enough on its own, but it was the readings from Hayward Omega an hour later that really got people's attention. The 7.8 was terrifying in and of itself, but coming just as the initial fear from Alpha and its smaller aftershocks was settling down pushed residents to new levels of panic, triggering hundreds, possibly thousands, of fatal heart attacks. Omega knocked down pretty much every sizable building in the region that hadn't been brought up to the latest earthquake codes, trapping over forty-two thousand people when they collapsed. Looking at the heart rate data from immediately afterwards is gut-wrenching: spikes of panic, followed by ongoing waves of heartbeats dropping to zero.
Selfies were fairly primitive in the 2020s (I think they were still called "wearables" back then), but while today's richer sensors and stronger analytic systems offer us much more information, we still (fortunately) haven't duplicated the visceral shock of watching the heart rates after Hayward '26.
The crackdown on the Climate Marches in Sao Paolo comes close, however. Although most of the post-industrial world has moved to new models of civic authority, Brazil is one of the countries that still holds onto its police-based law enforcement system, with all of its faults and legacies. The demonstrations in April of 2038 brought out the worst in people, both civilian and police. Nearly three dozen citizens died in custody, but (as intended) flying eye microdrones documented everything. Video archives of the events of that evening matched the police reports exactly (and in retrospect, that alone should have raised suspicion). Family members claimed that the arrestees had been killed by the police, but there was literally no evidence to support those assertions.
Until somebody started looking at the selfie biodata, that is. While the Sao Paolo police hackers had done an outstanding job of altering the video, they couldn't (or didn't think to) alter the data collected by the selfie implants and digital ink tattoos. Although the video recordings from multiple perspectives seemed complete, victim health data captured and stored by the sensors told a very different story.
Within three weeks, the Sao Paolo Police claims had completely fallen apart, as every impact, every electric shock, every choke-hold had been meticulously documented by the victims' bodies themselves. Some of the victims had newer systems, able to track body posture, limb position, and motion, allowing investigators to construct painfully life-like simulations of the events of the night of April 13, 2038. Evidence of the deliberate alteration of the video material soon followed.
While the Sao Paolo violence didn't approach the sheer scale of Hayward '26, the complexity, the completeness, and ultimately the intimacy of the selfie data gave it nearly equivalent emotional weight. By the end of 2038, people around the world knew what had been done, the names of the accused, and the faces of the victims. Because their bodies could remember what happened, the world could remember, too.
The use of personal mobile technologies as silent observers has been in many ways the biggest revolution of the mobile technology era. We no longer readily embrace the official story, looking instead for the multiple simultaneous perspectives that will -- seemingly -- reveal something closer to the truth. I first called it the "participatory panopticon" when I wrote about the possibility in 2004, but I see now that it's even bigger than watching the watchmen. These are tools for understanding ourselves as well as how we fit into our societies.
It's the self-observation aspect that led me to re-appropriate present-day term "selfie" in a new way. In the real world, familiar items often have informal labels, and meanings can evolve as the world changes, outliving the original usage. Will commonplace body area networks be called "selfies?" I highly doubt it. Will they be called in everyday use something other than "body area networks" or "wearables?" Almost certainly.
The first two scenarios tell stories of taking a slice of your body's information. The last scenario, Memory, is a world in which we share that information both completely and willingly. After all, privacy isn't about just keeping everything secret, it's about deciding for yourself who gets to see.
In this scenario, personal area network devices and accessories -- PANDAs -- are most widely used as health and biology monitors, keeping close watch over numerous physiological functions. This would be just a minor step above a Fitbit or smart watch, except that the detail of available information goes far beyond anything we see in wearables today, and a new generation of device has even made it possible to "write" as well as to "read" biological responses. While this may seem far-fetched, the steps needed along the path from today to this scenario future are clearer than you might expect.
My doctor wants me to get rid of it. My meditation group wants me to release it into the wild. And I swear to God that I've been repeatedly asked to sell it. But it's the last I have of her, and I'm going to keep it for as long as I can.
Isabella -- Izzy -- loved toys, romantic gestures, and travel. I suppose that's not altogether unusual, but it did mean that she was a very early adopter of the Heartwave mod for our PANDAs. She said it was so that she could feel my love for her when she was out of the country, but at the time I suspected it was more because it was a piece of tech that nobody else around here had. No matter now, and after the first time we tried it when she took a trip we knew we'd never want to get rid of it.
I'm still not even entirely sure how it works. It ties into the bioreaders everybody wears, and tracks the various body signals of emotion (heart rate, adrenalin, dopamine, and the like). It also can induce those same signals, at least in a limited way (using some kind of direct neuro-magnetic stimulation, I think). It's kind of an odd sensation at first, familiar yet foreign, deeply personal but clearly externally-generated. But the instant when you know with certainty that this sudden emotional wave you're feeling is coming from someone you love is mind-blowing.
Izzy described it as half-waking up in the middle of the night and feeling your partner's toes touching yours in bed. Gentle contact, but unmistakable and present. We even played with the recording function, layering playback over the real-time emotions.
If you've ever tried a Heartwave, you know that it doesn't just send warm fuzzy feelings. I've read that the number one reason people get rid of a Heartwave setup is that they can't stand feeling someone else's anxiety or passing moments of anger. With me and Izzy, it was different; rather her feeling my anxiety, sending anxiety in response, and each of us making the other feel worse, we seemed to read each other's complementary disquiet as a reminder that we'll always be here for each other. We'd calm each other down. It's not an unusual response with a Heartwave, but unfortunately it's not universal.
When the... thing... happened, Izzy was halfway around the world, riding back to her hotel, and I had just gotten up for the day. We could feel each other, that gentle contact, rewarding and calming. I could tell she was tired, somehow, and just beginning to doze off in her seat.
The fear spike was so strong it knocked me down. My own anxiety shot up both in response to and in alignment with hers. Then, just as fast as it rose, it came down, leaving us both feeling a dizzying warmth and love. For five long minutes I could feel that love, holding on as tightly as she could, then finally fading. Well before the authorities contacted me, I knew what had happened.
I replay those last five minutes every morning, always starting with the fear spike. It's as much hers as the love. It's not because I can't let go. It's because I don't want to.
Intimacy. When we use our technologies to peer inside ourselves, we see more than heart rates and temperatures, more than body chemistry and sleep cycles. These are technologies that let us divine meaning and understanding from chaotic phenomena. In short, they tell us stories.
This is a body in which...