Karl Schroeder: August 2011 Archives

Well, Charlie should be shambling away from the airport sometime around now, ready to take up the yoke of piloting his unruly ship of ideas once again, so it's time for me to say goodbye. Thanks to everybody who contributed to the fractious and interesting discussions around my postings, and for everybody who just read 'em.

John, it's been a pleasure sharing the stage with you, and Charlie, thanks again. I now turn back to finishing my thesis, working on three new novels, and kayaking around Lake Herridge, where I have been sunning myself between bouts of blogging these past several weeks. Wish me luck. I wish you all the same.

I suggested in an earlier post that foresight is not so much about prediction as it's about designing against surprise. Key to this is the exploration of multiple futures, which is why scenario-based foresight is so commonly practiced. Scenarios are rarely developed in isolation, but are usually created in decks(generally of four, when one uses the common 2X2 matrix method of generating them). These are then intended as snapshots taken in different points of a complex space of possibilities.

The opposite of scenarios is the default future, which is what everybody assumes is going to happen. If life is what happens to you while you're making other plans, the real future is what happens to you after you've planned for the default future. A classic example of what you get when you plan for the default future is the Maginot Line.

In a 1998 article in the journal Futures, "Futures Beyond Dystopia," Richard Slaughter critiques science fiction's default futures. He accuses SF of oscillating between naive techno-optimism and equally naive apocalypticism. Late 20th century SF lacks the necessary spectrum of intermediate scenarios, according to Slaughter, which may explain its decreasing hold on the public imagination. What we are left with is two default futures, and no societal capacity to plan for a third. This is an idea worth serious contemplation by those of us who write the stuff.

Sometimes, too, our scenarios grow so elaborate that they become more than scenarios--they're complete paradigms. They become default modes of thinking, and come with associated cultures, champions and institutions. At this point, presenting alternatives becomes increasingly difficult; one must present, not just new scenarios, but an entirely new paradigm to complement the reigning one.

May people, particularly in the foresight community, believe that a shift from scenario to paradigm is what's happened to the idea of the Technological Singularity. It's become the new default future--no longer the shocking, thought-provoking alternative to an orthodoxy, but the very orthodoxy itself. Against this, it's no longer sufficient to simply present different scenarios. We need an alternative paradigm (or two, or six).

I've been working on some.

Imagine a future where the most revolutionary changes in our world have not come from nanotech, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence or even space development--but from cognitive science and a deepening understanding of how humans function (or not) in groups. What would such a future look like?

We're all familiar--maybe too familiar--with one model of such a future; it's exemplified by stories like Brave New World and 1984. Those books were direct reactions to the last great cycle of research into human nature. That was the era when Freud seemed to have a true model of human nature, Marx a true model of economics (or not) and when eugenics still seemed like a good idea. (If you want to read an excellent horror/slipstream novel about eugenics run amok, try David Nickle's Eutopia, which is available from Chizine Press). These and related theories were used to justify the great 20th century human engineering efforts such as The Great Leap Forward, Soviet collectivization, and so on. The problem wasn't just that ended up being harnessed for evil purposes, but that they were wrong or incomplete. But what would a correct theory of human nature look like, combined with the principles of self-organization and collective intelligence that are emerging right now? What would a cogsci singularity look like?

I think it would look like good manners.

What do we do about wicked problems? --That is, problems that we can't all even agree exist, much less define well; problems that have no metric for determining their extent, or even whether our interventions mitigate them? I don't have answers, but will venture to suggest a direction for us to look.

The internet has exposed a flaw in our grand plan to unite humanity: it turns out that increasing people's ability to exchange messages does not, by itself, increase their ability to communicate. The Net has developed a centripetal power: for every community it brings together, it seems to drive others apart. Eli Pariser's idea of the Filter Bubble is an expression of this phenomenon. This problem arises because it is easier to communicate with people who share the same understanding of the meaning of a given set of terms and phrases than with people who have a different understanding of these meanings. Automatic translation is not an answer to our diverging worldviews, because each person and social group has their own private grammar. It takes work to learn it and that work can't be offloaded to an automated system. At least, not entirely.

In an earlier post I talked about prediction vs. preparation as different ways of approaching the future. Also foresight, which is the systematic study of trends and possibilities for the near future. When you do foresight, you quickly begin to realize that our ideas about the future are highly distorted, both by optimism and pessimism, as well as propaganda, ideology, and all the various things that various people and groups are trying to sell us. How do you cut through all of that to get some sense--any sense--of where we're really going?

One annual effort to do just that is the Millennium Project's State of the Future. This annual study of trends and drivers is grounded in research by hundreds of people in dozens of countries around the world. The full report comes with a CD or DVD containing 7000 pages of data, analysis, and background on the 15 years' worth of methodological refinement and legwork that have gone into the project. The pdf version of the executive summary is free to download here, and if you do look at it you may be shocked to discover something:

The 2011 State of the Future report is optimistic.



About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries written by Karl Schroeder in August 2011.

Karl Schroeder: July 2011 is the previous archive.

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