Category Archives: World

Notes: Future Shock

In 1970, Alvin Toffler (and his wife Heidi, they wrote as a couple but used only his name) published a book that took the world by storm, selling millions of copies and introducing a phrase — “Future Shock” — that soon earned a place in the dictionary.

Future Shock was not just a book about what was likely to happen, based on trends and patterns (though it did plenty of predicting). It was a book about how human beings were reacting to a feeling that the future was arriving faster than they could prepare for it. The principal thesis of the book is preserved in its dictionary definition: “the physical and psychological distress suffered by one who is unable to cope with the rapidity of social and technological changes” (Merriam-Webster).

The Tofflers (Alvin died in 2016) were surprisingly skilled at extrapolating from the trends of the 1960s into the world that later emerged, accurately predicting personal computers, the Internet, “Information Overload,” the sharing economy, telecommuting, the role of artificial intelligence in the workplace, and the rise of informal and less-hierarchical organizational structures. Their famous “errors” look wise in hindsight: Heidi predicted throwaway paper clothes, which did not happen; but the throwaway society certainly did. Today’s “fast fashion” garments may not be made out of paper, but they are not much longer-lasting.

Future Shock was not the first book to claim that “This lifetime is … different from all others because of the scale and scope of change,” nor was it the last. But it was the first to bring the speed of change into global public discourse as a topic of debate, and to highlight the counter-intuitive features of exponential growth — a topic that would stand at the center of another mega-bestseller that followed just two years later, The Limits to Growth. The Tofflers noted that accelerating economic expansion — Japan was the China of their day, its GDP growing at an average of 9.8% per year — translated into “a doubling of the total output of goods and services in the advanced societies about every fifteen years.” The individuals coming of age in the 1960s might live to see a world 32 times as “big” in economic terms (after five doublings) because of the compounding impact of exponential growth.

As it happens, the world economy has doubled in size more than four times since 1950. Graphs of that growth resemble rocket launches.

The Tofflers were not the world’s first futurists — the term had emerged during World War II, in connection with US think tanks — but they were the first to popularize the profession on the world stage. Alvin even taught the first known university course on the subject of “future studies” in 1966.

In introducing the systematic study of the future to a mass audience, they were careful not to let it be reduced to mere trend-spotting and prediction. Instead, they gave the popular understanding of future studies a decidedlhy philosophical and analytical character. Here they are writing on the advancement of technology, in words that seem to presage the significantly more developed and coherent theories of contemporary thinkers such as W. Brian Arthur (The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, 2009):

“[T]echnological innovation does not merely combine and recombine machines and techniques. Important new machines do more than suggest or compel changes in other machines — they suggest novel solutions to social, philosophical, even personal problems. They alter [humanity]’s total intellectual environment — the way [we think and look] at the world.” (Future Shock, p. 29)

The Tofflers noted that for humans to avoid the “shock” part of “future shock,” they would need to become more adaptable, flexible, and ready for the unfamiliar and unpredictable. It was wise advice then, and it also seems to have anticipated the emergence of an entirely new area of scientific inquiry, which is today called “resilience”. Becoming more resilient was imperative, wrote the Tofflers, because the advancement of technological civilization “offers no surcease from change. It offers no return to the familiar past. It offers only the highly combustible mixture of transience and novelty.”

While the Tofflers are usually remembered as cheerleaders for the future, their agenda was far more radical. In their book’s final pages, they called for a massive slow-down in the pace of economic, industrial and social change in order “gently guide our evolutionary destiny.” Their diagnosis of where “this wild growth, this cancer in history” was leading reads less like a prediction, and more like a hauntingly accurate premonition of the early decades of the 21st century:

“[B]efore we can build a humane future, [we must] halt the runaway acceleration that is subjecting multitudes to the threat of future shock while, at the very same moment, intensifying all the problems they must deal with — war, ecological incursions, racism, the obscene contrast between rich and poor, the revolt of the young, and the rise of a potentially deadly mass irrationalism.” (Future Shock, p. 486)

Today’s “ecological incursions” are happening at the scale of planetary ecosystems. The global “contrast between rich and poor” is wider and more obscene than ever. Phrases like “climate change” or “mass migration” or “school shooting” were not even in our lexicon when “future shock” was invented, nor was “social media,” which has become the most powerful technology ever known for spreading “mass irrationalism” in the form of conspiracy theories and fake news.

Today the “runaway acceleration” of human history appears to be speeding up rather than slowing down. The ever-faster arrival of “the future” may have become less and less shocking to us since the Tofflers’ time. It may even be that the majority of humanity is not just accepting, but even desiring, of the “novelty and transience” they worried about.

But that does not mean that we have solved the problem of collaboratively making the future that we are creating more humane, more livable, more sustainable. In fact, we appear to have just caught up to the Tofflers’ vision of how we might start.

In the closing pages of 1970’s Future Shock, the Tofflers laid out a suggested program of activity that bears a striking resemblance to something that finally occurred, at the international level, in the years 2012 to 2015. They called for “a movement” that would “broaden and define in social, as well as merely economic terms, the goals of ‘progress.'” They imagined gatherings happening “in each city, in each neighborhood” whose purpose was to “assign priorities to specific social goals for the remainder of the century.” They even proposed the use of large-scale, participatory simulation games, involving thousands or even millions of people at a time, to help us “formulate goals for the future.”

In 2015, the largest-ever gathering of heads of state convened in New York City, at the United Nations headquarters, to formally approve a document that had been developed with the input of hundreds of thousands of people, from all around the world. Called “Transforming Our World,” the document included 17 broad “Sustainable Development Goals”, and 169 prioritized sub-goals, to guide global development through the year 2030.

It was not exactly what the Tofflers had in mind. But it was astonishingly close.

 

Additional sources to review:

Future Shock at 40: What the Tofflers Got Right (and Wrong)

https://www.fastcompany.com/1695307/future-shock-40-what-tofflers-got-right-and-wrong

Future Shock on Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_Shock

“Future Shock” Documentary Film on YouTube (starring Orson Welles):

Notes: Science-Based Targets

“Setting greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in line with climate science is a great way to future-proof growth.”

Science Based TargetsThis headline from the first page of the website for the Science-Based Targets Initiative sums up their approach succinctly. It involves (a) using scientific methods and existing scientific consensus (b) to determine an organization’s fair share of greenhouse emissions reduction, on a timeline that also aligns with  science-based international climate agreements, while (c) maintaining something close to business as usual — “growth” in this case means steadily increasing revenues, profits, and market share — in the process.

Here is the formal definition:

Targets adopted by companies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are considered “science-based” if they are in line with the level of decarbonization required to keep global temperature increase below 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures, as described in the Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

[Applies to the 4th or 5th AR (Assessment Report) of IPCC as well as modeling of the IEA (International Energy Agency).]

The technical note in brackets is part of the formal definition. While this specificity makes the definition seem extremely robust, it is important to keep in mind that that the IPCC’s work is based on numerous climate models, which in turn rely on both past scientific data and a great many assumptions about the future. One of those assumptions is how much carbon dioxide will be removed from the atmosphere in the future, by technologies that either have not yet been developed or that will be scaled up to enormous proportions in the coming decades. If those technologies do not materialize, the “level of decarbonization required” is likely to be much higher.

The Initiative, run by a consortium of prominent global organizations, also presents science-based targets — “SBTs” — as the best way to minimize uncertainty (i.e. “future-proof”) with regard to business prospects. Predicting future business success is much less certain than predicting future global temperature rise, so this promise of future business success, implied by the SBT Initiative, is not based on similarly scientific methods.

The concept of SBTs does not just apply to the operations of a company, but to its core products as well. The SBT Initiative has even described how oil and gas companies can participate, by setting science-based targets and timelines for steadily reducing their production of fossil fuels and replacing these products with other, renewable forms of energy products and services.

Note that the phrase “science-based targets,” used in connection with climate change and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, has been around since at least 1992*; but it only began to gain serious traction after the Paris Agreement of 2015, which established a broad international consensus around the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degress C or less.

* See, for example, “Convention on climate change: economic aspects of negotiations,” OECD, 1992, p. 22-23.

Notes: The Viridian Design Movement (1999-2008)

In 1999, science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling gave a speech in which he called the growing problem of greenhouse gas emissions “an aesthetic problem.” Our reliance on fossil fuels and other pollutants was creating an ugly world, even though it was largely invisible to our senses. He believed the best hack for starting an environmental revolution was not technical or political, but artistic.

“We’re in trouble because we live in filth and we can’t see it,” said Sterling. “We’re like eighteenth century people who lived before germ theory. We’re ignorant of the squalor that surrounds us, and we have bad taste.”

Sterling determined to attack the problem head-on, and he single-handedly launched a new design movement to “Change what people see. Change how they see.” Sterling wanted to use art and design to help people visualize a future that was a brighter and more attractive shade of green — and start making it real.

He called the movement “Viridian” because that was the name for a shade of green that was slightly unnatural — cool, techy, and  environmentally friendly without being predictably so.

Sterling’s initiative was bold and quirky, and he was well-known in sci-fi and futurist circles, so he immediately attracted a following. He wrote a manifesto and a set of design principles, and he declared himself the Viridian Movement’s “Pope-Emperor.” Then he appointed a “Curia” of friends, advisors and fellow-travelers, to help spread the word. (I was lucky enough to be one of these.) The Viridian Movement, operating through Sterling’s email list, quickly spawned a number of design competitions, whose purpose was to call into being the kinds of design innovations Sterling felt to be lacking — things like spore-based ink to help people “embrace decay,” or a graphic symbol to highlight the fact that we were already in a state of “greenhouse disaster.”

Being on the slightly more practical side, I decided to organize an international Viridian Design Competition around one of Sterling’s best-loved ideas (conceived with colleague Stefan Jones): an electricity meter that was actually fun to look at, and that would tell you clearly when you were destroying the climate, and when you were saving it.

With a $10,000 grant from an enlightened philanthropist, I ran the contest though Donella Meadows’ Sustainability Institute (where I was the unpaid Director of Arts & Culture) and in partnership with a prominent international sustainability network known as the Balaton Group. That group’s global experts in climate science, modelling, renewables, and energy efficiency were the judges. And our winner, Inci Mutlu’s “Wattbug”, went on to receive media exposure in the New York Times and Wired magazine.

So did the Viridian Movement help create the future — that is, the present in which we are living now? Did it “introduce something new into the probability stream” as Elon Musk puts it? Or just accelerate what was bound to happen anyway?

Today, “smart meters” that provide immediate visual feedback on energy consumption are everyday items in the world’s electricity grids — though none are as cute as the Wattbug, and they would have arrived, eventually, anyway. Sustainable design is an increasingly normal part of life, though not in the radical ways described by Sterling at the end of the 20th century. New, more mainstream-friendly design movements for sustainability have emerged such as the one I helped launch with the Norwegian government’s Center for Design and Architecture, organized around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. (It’s called the Oslo Manifesto.)

In 2008, Sterling himself seemed to sense that the Viridian moment was over and abdicated from his self-appointed overlord position,  four years ahead of the movement’s scheduled “Expiration Date.” Having an expiration date was itself a Viridian idea; but the zeitgeist was also changing. Al Gore and the IPCC had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which reduced the need for specialized awareness-raising on climate change. The economic meltdown now called the “Financial Crisis” was hitting its peak, which reduced interest in flashy new design ideas for a time. Sterling had just published a thoughtful book on design, called “Shaping Things,” that he considered “very Viridian without coughing up that fact in a hairball.” (Sterling, who is from Texas, has both a large personality and a penchant for colorful metaphors.)

Meanwhile, both the ideas and many of the people from the Viridian list had been absorbed into a then-new thing, called a “blog”, that went by the name of Worldchanging and promoted the alternative phrase “bright green.” (I was part of that, too.)

So in his final “Viridian Note” — the epistles that Pope-Emperor Sterling had been regularly sending out to the masses for nearly a decade — he gracefully admitted that “the world has become a very different place,” and that the growing calls for change in finance and politics went a bit beyond the design focus of Viridian. But his parting words were still a broadside against traditional green thinking or the notion that we should just consume less, an approach that he disparagingly called “hairshirt-green” (after the very uncomfortable goat-hair garments that Christian penitents and ascetics used to wear).

“Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism. Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn’t do or say anything conceptually novel — nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.”

Sterling challenged his readers, in a more open-ended, less green-authoritarian way, to simply “re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.” You spend a lot of time with your stuff, and it takes up space. So acquire quality. Ditch what you don’t need and don’t use. This was ultimately far more important, opined the author of the Viridian Manifesto, than whether the object in question was “green.”

From this future vantage point, I can see the “streams of probability” that Viridian touched, as it tried to create a certain quirky vision. It lifted the topic of green design out of the environmental muck and into flashy, digitized lights of Silicon Valley. It was a brilliant act of conceptual art, the impacts of which are impossible to measure. I know it affected a certain moment in my life, inspired certain of my actions, and that it did that for hundreds of other people, who then went on to affect (or infect) other people, with the idea of making “green” more attractive, cool, and relevant. It probably “accelerated the inevitable.”

But the boldness of Sterling’s vision — his willingness to just write a manifesto and launch a movement, armed with nothing but an email account and some name recognition — inspires me still today. I doubt, for example, that we would have thought up the Oslo Manifesto in 2016 if my Viridian memories hadn’t been lurking, quite unconsciously, in the background of my mind.

So hats off to Viridian! It may have expired — but like true design classics, it never actually went out of style.

Quote: A branching stream of probabilities (Musk)

I look at the future from the standpoint of probabilities. It’s like a branching stream of probabilities. And there are actions that we can take that affect those probabilities, that accelerate one thing, or slow down another thing, [or] introduce something new into the probability stream.

— Elon Musk, TED interview, April 2017

Notes: Elon Musk’s vision of the future

Screenshot of Elon Musk’s 2017 TED interview. Click to view.

It is widely known that Elon Musk — founder of Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company (for revolutionizing tunnel technology), and most recently Neuralink (for developing computer-mind interfaces) — wants humans to live on Mars. Why?

Intellectually, he describes the reason this way: if we “stay on Earth forever, there will be some eventual extinction event.” [1] Apparently his biggest worry is “World War III”.[2] Musk and others believe that spreading humans out into the solar system is the only real insurance against these existential risks to humanity’s survival.

But that’s just the intellectual rationale. Musk’s most powerful motivations for heading to Mars appear to lie a bit deeper in his psyche.

In a revealing 2017 interview [3] on the TED channel, Elon Musk often seemed to be searching for the most efficient and effective words that would convey his thoughts clearly but in an entertaining fashion. As you watched him parse the interviewer’s less-than-clear questions, which were laced with hero worship (“Yeah,” Musk would say, in a disappointed tone that suggested he was thinking, “I guess you felt you had to ask that question that way, but you could have asked it much better”) one could easily imagine why he wants to create brain-computer interfaces. There was often a methodical jerkiness to this delivery, as though having to squeeze his big, fast thoughts through the slow, cumbersome instrument of an ordinary voice, in a body, on a stage, was just so damn slow.

Musk in public is one of the most future-focused people I have ever seen, though his passion for vision is deeply influenced by his sense of the past. He reminded the TED audience that past civilizations built up impressive technologies only to forget them later (the ancient Egyptians, the Romans). He summarized the history of the US space program in a few sentences:

“If you look at the progress in space, in 1969 you were able to send somebody to the moon. 1969! Then we had the space shuttle. The space shuttle could only take people to low Earth orbit. Then the space shuttle retired and the United States could take no one to orbit. So that’s the trend.” He made a gesture with his hand, slicing downward from left to right. “The trend is down to nothing.”

This trend greatly disturbs him. “People are mistaken when they think that technology automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.” Without that continuous focus and effort, says Musk, technology often degrades.

Musk often appears in the media as a single genius, reshaping the future, but of course the greatest part of his accomplishment resides not just in “dreaming big,” as the TED interviewer kept insisting, but in building companies around those visions, hiring brilliant talent, and motivating them to “work very hard to make it better.”

But what motivates Musk, at least as he reports in this interview, is not a messianic urge to save humanity. It is his inability to live without the possibility of realizing his vision of the future.

“It’s important to have a future that’s inspiring and appealing,” he says. “There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning, and you want to live.” And what makes Musk want to live? He does not wake up in the morning torn, as E.B. White famously wrote, “between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” Improving the world is absolutely what matters most to Elon Musk. Because Elon Musk is in love with the future. 

“What do you love about the future?” he said to the audience at TED, though he was referring to himself, and to the question he wakes up with in the morning. “If we’re not out there — if the future does not include being out there among the stars, and being a multi-planet species — I find that incredibly depressing.”

Elon Musk is not trying to save the planet, or save humanity. “I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”

[1] Elon Musk, “Making Humans a Multi-Planet Species,” New Space, June 2017.

[2] Olivia Solon, “Elon Musk: we must colonise Mars to preserve our species in a third world war,” The Guardian, 11 Mar 2018

[3] TED.com, “Elon Musk at TED: The Future We’re Building – and Boring“, April 2017

Notes: China intends to take the lead on AI

“In July, China unveiled a plan to become the world leader in artificial intelligence and create an industry worth $150 billion to its economy by 2030.”

As China Marches Forward on A.I., the White House Is Silent,” New York Times, 16 Feb 2018

Artificial Intelligence may be the technology that is currently most linked, in the public mind, to expectations about the future — even though there are many other technologies that are likely to change our lives just as much, or more. The announcement of an “AI Race,” much like the “Space Race” of the 1960s, suggests that the public hype around AI will only increase in the coming decade.

Film: A Beautiful Planet

Screenshot from the website for “A Beautiful Planet” (click to visit)

When these breathtaking views of our planet begin to fill the domed screen of an IMAX theater, filmed at the International Space Station by astronauts living there, it is difficult not to be moved. (Although the young students all around me in the theater, at Stockholm’s Natural History Museum, had no trouble not being moved. At lunch, some of them confessed to falling asleep.)

“A Beautiful Planet” begins with a simulated faster-than-light trip into the Milky Way galaxy and its hundreds of billions of stars, which underscores the absolutely non-special status of the star we know as the Sun.

But somehow, all this stellar ordinariness only enhances the planetary uniqueness of Earth — covered with glittering water and air, just warm enough for life, protected from solar radiation by a magnetic field, which reveals itself in the shimmering green curtain of the northern lights.

Familiar and unfamiliar places float by — Paris, Florida, massive lightning storms over the Congo, the enormity of the ocean, Arctic icescapes, great river deltas — and the message digs deeper and deeper into your consciousness: this planet is alive. We are part of that life.

By the end of the film, the astronauts whose pictures and voices have filled one’s head and heart have begun to speculate about whether another “Goldilocks Planet” (a planet where everything is “just right”) might host life as we know it, or at least something similar. Of course, given the vastness of space, that is very statistically probable.

But without real (as opposed to simulated) faster-than-light travel, we are not likely to find out. And until then, there is only Earth — Gaia — our spaceship, our extraordinarily beautiful home, captured in all its glory in this wonderful film.

Object: The Antikythera mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism, used in ancient Greece to predict the movements of celestial bodies. Photo: Wikipedia

The Antikythera mechanism is considered the oldest known machine for accurately predicting the future based on scientific observations and mathematical calculations — in this case, the positions of the stars, the orbit of the moon, the four-year cycle of the Olympic Games, and astrological features that were important to the Greeks.

Computer-generated reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism’s display face. Image: Wikipedia

Discovered in an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece in 1902, the mechanism dates to approximately 100 BCE. A complex set of 37 gears powered the mechanism, like a clockwork, and a display face indicated when future events would occur (see the computer model reconstruction).  The knowledge of science and technology that are reflected in the Antikythera mechanism were lost to the Western world for well over a thousand years, only reappearing again in Europe during the 14th Century.

Notes: The city as a symbol of the future

King’s Dream of New York – Book Cover by Moses King, 1908

The city has been a visual symbol of the future for well over a century, and the “futureness” of it is always reflected in the same way: by increasing the density, verticality, and mobility. From “King’s Dream of New York” — the book cover from 1908 pictured here — to science fiction icons such as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, popular culture places us in a future vision by showing us a city that holds more people that we imagine possible, housed in gigantic buildings that dwarf any current city, flitting about in vehicles that do not yet exist (usually flying ones).

Although urban visions are changing to accommodate the needs of climate change, and green urbanism is a mainstream feature of both past and future city planning, people still think of the future as being “more of the same” in these classically urban terms: dense, vertical, mobile.*

And of course, we must add the word technological, for the city is the opposite of our agrarian, low-tech past. Agriculture and rural life is, in fact, a symbol of the past, just as the city is a symbol of the future — except when agriculture involves hydroponics powered by solar cells in a modern, urban building. This expanding practice is sometimes called “vertical farming“.

 

* With thanks to Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod who points out these qualities in Inventing Autopia: Dreams and Visions of the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age, University of California Press, 2009