Blog Archive for the ‘Futures’ Category

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Francis Gavin On the Use (and Misuse) of History in Political Decision-Making

Posted on Monday, February 20th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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Policy-makers wrestling with foreign policy decisions that will have very long-lasting repercussions often turn to experts to inform them of the likely outcomes.

Through the lens of the current international dilemma over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, foreign policy historian (and former SALT speaker) Francis Gavin offers his thoughts on the relationship between policy-makers and experts in an article for Foreign Policy written with James B. Steinberg.

Crafting policy requires a certain amount of implicit prediction about the future, which is – to put it lightly – notoriously difficult to do right:

“In fact, as Philip Tetlock demonstrated in Expert Political Judgment, a 20-year study that looked at over 80,000 forecasts about world affairs, self-proclaimed authorities are no better at making accurate predictions than monkeys throwing darts at a dart board, and they are rarely held accountable for their errors.”

While exploring some of the past decisions made as part of US nonproliferation efforts, he shows that historians can easily choose individual precedents that belie the larger portfolio of issues faced during their time and the broader strategy into which they may have fit. Taking the full context of the time, the issues and the decision-makers is necessary to properly extracting any useful historical knowledge from past events:

“If Vietnam is understood at least in part as a function of the Johnson administration’s successful efforts to encourage nuclear nonproliferation, seek détente and cooperation with the Soviets, and manage the German question, the policy — if still disastrous in its consequences — makes more sense. The difficulty inherent in assessing U.S. foreign policy is made clear by the fact that all three policies were crafted by the same policymakers in the same administration at the same time.”

But, rather than simply taking “experts” down a peg for ignoring the broader range of issues policy-makers must consider, he suggests a way to make better use of their specialties:

“We believe that if different types of experts — the best strategists and historians, for example — were brought together with statesmen in an environment that encouraged honest debate and collaboration and not point-scoring, where participants were encouraged to acknowledge how little anyone can actually know about the future effects of U.S. actions, the possibility to achieve both greater coherence and greater humility in the U.S. foreign-policymaking process would be greatly enhanced.”

Envisioning the Future of Technology

Posted on Tuesday, January 24th, 02012 by Alex Mensing
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Long Now Research Fellow Stuart Candy brought to our attention this visualization, which shows projections of what sorts of technologies will be available in the future, how soon, and how important they will be. It was created by London-based designer Michell Zappa, who leads a ‘technological trend bureau’ called Envisioning Technology. Their website explains that they seek to describe “where society is inexorably heading in the near future.”

Our research facilitates understanding the field for those who work in technology by painting a bigger picture of where the landscape is heading. In this, we try guide both corporations and public institutions in making better decisions about their (and society’s) future.

The Future According to Films

Posted on Tuesday, November 15th, 02011 by Alex Mensing
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We found this wonderful visualization of future events from the world of film on infographipedia, courtesy of Tremulant Design. Most of the occurrences on the timeline take place during this millennium, though a few producers have ventured multi-millennial forecasts.

Simon vs. Ehrlich, Round 2

Posted on Thursday, October 13th, 02011 by Alex Mensing
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Roger Pielke Jr. made an observation on his blog recently regarding the past decade’s rapid increase in commodity prices and the classic debate between optimistic Cornucopians and pessimistic Malthusians. In 01990 ecologist Paul Ehrlich – who has spoken at The Long Now Foundation’s SALT series – lost a decade-long bet to economist Julian Simon. In 01980, Simon had predicted that prices (of just about everything) would continue to fall as the human population increased. They tracked the price of five metals over the course of the next ten years, and they all became less expensive.

Since the beginning of the millennium, however, prices have risen fairly steadily. In August of 02011, The Economist noted that current prices of the five metals chosen for the Ehrlich – Simon bet exceeded 01980 prices. Had the bet lasted for three decades, rather than one, Ehrlich would have won.

What Pielke points out, however, is that if we zoom out even further and look at The Economist’s records since 1845, the last decade’s spike in prices could be interpreted as one more blip in a long-term trend of Cornucopian price decreases. Or is the global economy showing the first signs of a long-in-coming collapse, as predicted by Malthusians?

Long-term bets such as the $1,000 wager between Simon and Ehrlich can place people’s predictions about the future out in the open for public scrutiny and comment – encouraging those who would speak to think carefully before they do so. One project of The Long Now Foundation, Long Bets, provides a forum for long-term bets and discussion. On the site, you can view current bets, place your own, or challenge someone else’s prediction.

Beyond 10,000 AD

Posted on Thursday, September 29th, 02011 by Austin Brown
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Long Now encourages a 10,000 year perspective, but if that just isn’t enough zeroes for you, check out, a site that literally goes Beyond 10,000:

Welcome to the future! Here you will find a speculative timeline of future history. Part fact and part fiction, the timeline is based on detailed research that includes analysis of current trends, projected long-term environmental changes, advances in technology such as Moore’s Law, future medical breakthroughs, and the evolving geopolitical landscape. Where possible, references have been provided to support the predictions. is intended to be an ongoing, collaborative project that is open for discussion – we welcome ideas from scientists, futurists, inventors, writers and anyone else interested in the future of our world.

As a resource for science, technology and futures thinking, the site is chockfull of links and ideas. Just as an example, did you know that in about 3,000,000,000 AD, our own Milky Way may begin to merge with Andromeda?

Charles Stross: Network Security in the Medium Term, 2061-2561 AD

Posted on Thursday, August 25th, 02011 by Austin Brown
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Earlier this month author Charles Stross gave a lecture in San Francisco for the USENIX Security Symposium. He called his talk “Network Security in the Medium Term, 2061-2561 AD” and in it he took the concept far beyond keeping your email password private or your WiFi from being hacked.

Network security, according to Stross, will slowly work its way down to a basic need for everyone until it resembles the right to personal safety.

With increasingly pervasive networked sensors, knowledgeable genetic tests, and falling data storage costs, our online identities become more and more just our identities. Trade-offs and double-edged swords abound:

Is losing your genomic privacy an excessive price to pay for surviving cancer and evading plagues?

Is compromising your sensory privacy through lifelogging a reasonable price to pay for preventing malicious impersonation and apprehending criminals?

Is letting your insurance company know exactly how you steer and hit the gas and brake pedals, and where you drive, an acceptable price to pay for cheaper insurance?

But the value in storing and selectively sharing this data is there, as anyone who’s searched for an old email to absolve themselves of some minor (or not so minor) blame can attest. A short story, Nanolaw with Daughter, by Paul Ford hints at this same issue:

Then would come the game. Cameras in the phone of every parent. Sensors on the goals; sensors in the ref’s whistle; in the ball; in the lamps that light the field. Yellow cards, goals, offsides, all recorded from many angles and tagged with time, location, temperature, whether for the memories or to limit liability—the motion of 22 bobbing ponytails transformed into lines of light.

And so, if one is compelled to record as much of their life as possible, even just as a means of refuting those who would accuse them, network security becomes a highly personal long-term archiving project:

But some forms of personal data – medical records, for example, or land title deeds – need to remain accessible over periods of decades to centuries. Lifelogs will be similar; if you want at age ninety to recall events from age nine, then a stable platform for storing your memory is essential, and it needs to be one that isn’t trivially crackable in less than eighty-one years and counting.

Your very assertion of who you are will become dependent on the reliable and secure functioning of a vast infrastructure: “Robustness and durability are going to be at a premium in the future,” Stross emphasizes.

You can view video of the talk or read the full text.

Life is better after World War III?

Posted on Saturday, July 9th, 02011 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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The folks over at Good put together an info-graphic on survey results of what Americans think the world will be like 02050.  Click on the picture above to see the big version.  It is interesting that while overall optimism seems to be on the decline (since the last survey in 01999), the majority of Americans are optimistic about their personal future, while also believing that World War III and a terrorist nuclear attack are all likely.  Where do you land on these questions?  Will 02050 be better or worse that 02011?

China’s Unthinkable Population Problem

Posted on Wednesday, June 22nd, 02011 by Austin Brown
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In his post earlier today, Bryan Campen mentioned Kevin Kelly’s 02019 Unthinkables – a set of predictions he made in 1999 that were specifically meant to be outlandish or – eponymously – unthinkable.

With 12 years of perspective on the predictions, Kelly concludes his post by saying that he doesn’t think any of them will come true.

As it turns out, however, one of them isn’t too far off the mark:

The fertility rate in China drops below the replacement level, and nothing the government can do can get Chinese couples to have more than 1.5 kids each. For the first time China encourages immigration to keep its huge economy going.

The first part of this prediction has happened. On China’s latest census, The Economist reports:

The data imply that the total fertility rate, which is the number of children a woman of child-bearing age can expect to have, on average, during her lifetime, may now be just 1.4, far below the “replacement rate” of 2.1, which eventually leads to the population stabilising.

The Chinese government, despite calls by many academic demographers, continues to stand firm on the one-child policy enacted in 1980.

Impact Lab points out that this demographic trend will lead to China’s workforce – the country’s primary economic advantage – beginning to shrink within 5 years. In order to mitigate potential economic problems from this change, the government is trying, “to develop technology- and innovation-driven industries that need fewer workers.”

If those industries don’t develop quickly enough, the government may have to look to immigration to supply the labor China’s economy needs and the second part of Kelly’s prediction won’t seem so unthinkable, either.

Jesse Schell Launches The Crystal Ball Society

Posted on Wednesday, June 22nd, 02011 by Bryan Campen - Twitter: @bryancampen
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Jesse Schell interviews gaming legend Bob Bates, who predicts that we will be having emotional vocal conversations with game characters by 2021.

There’s really no one more fun to watch predict the future than Jesse Schell,  so it’s our good fortune that he just launched The Crystal Ball Society as a space to place predictions on the future.

(From his SALT talk): “…The prediction threshold is creeping in, it’s made a lot of people give up on prediction. They’ve become future blind. That’s ridiculous because if you put some energy into it you can make some predictions about the future. *You can look into your crystal ball and you can figure it out.* But it takes practice… If you practice predicting you will get better and you’re going to get feedback fast. But if you’re future blind and you don’t bother, you’re going to continue to suck at predicting the future.”

Practice sucking less by sending predictions here: crystalballsociety[at]gmail{dot}com

Also of note, an exceptionally relevant post on 2019 Unthinkables by board member Kevin Kelly, that made me daydream this afternoon about an Amazon Bookstore by 2015.

Check out lots more debatably-thinkables at Long Bets.

Featuring: The Future

Posted on Thursday, April 7th, 02011 by Alex Mensing
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The second season of FUTURESTATES has been released, a film series featuring visions and stories of the “not-too-distant future.” Participants imagined narratives based on scenarios such as extreme climate change with environmental refugees, gated communities that regulate the genetic makeup of their offspring, and the proliferation of software that charts our likes and dislikes, “creeping into the human heart and soul.” J.P. Chan’s “Digital Antiquities” tells the tale of a man with a cryptic old device (a CD) that his mother left him and the woman who helps him retrieve its data. The story takes place in a time when all information is constantly uploaded to ‘the cloud,’ rendering nearly all of our present media obsolete. Interestingly, this time is fast approaching: the year is 2036. Chan writes:

My own experience with data loss made me think about how easy it is to lose digital memories and what it might mean for our culture — and ourselves — when that loss happens billions of times over. What memories will be preserved of our era, when the media itself is so fragile? Stone tablets survive millenia to tell us stories of civilizations that left few other traces. If the far-more-frail hard drive is the stone tablet of our times, we’re in big trouble.

In the future, virtually all of our lives will be recorded and presumably stored safely online somewhere. Recovering data from personal media like floppy disks, hard drives, optical discs, and memory chips will be an extinct business. But right now, we’re creating lots of digital memories on these media but only haphazardly preserving them. How will we feel about this in a few decades when much of it is gone?

You can watch “Digital Antiquities” here, and also check out FUTURESTATES’ Predict-o-Meter where you can weigh in on the future and see other users’ predictions.