Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Future of things

A well-known Chinese curse goes like this, "May you live in interesting times". Today, people are so occupied with themselves and their things, that you might be lured into believing the future is not interesting enough. While I am no no futurist, but the promise of technology is not as fantastic as it used to be before - unless someone finds a way to 'beam me up', cure cancer and Aids, on the cheap.

The rich are getting richer, people are as unhappy as before and money can't do anything about it. Technology made some young people billionaires and millionaires but a major part of the working world is sweating it out in the hotels, restaurants, resorts, Starbucks, Walmart Stores, and the Call Centers everywhere.

Peter Drucker used to say that the majority of humanity will always struggle.
So, on some bleak days, I am persuaded to question my party line - concluding that 'the future will be better' tagline is plain out of whack.

Sci-fi writer William Gibson who is credited with coining the term “Cyberspace”, now says that he has given up on trying predicting the future. His latest novel is set in recent past. How do you explain this?

To start, the glut of information and discussion coupled with the general disenchantment with our world seems to be taking its toll on the creative minds. Our senses have been dulled by the deadly duo of video games and digital effects.

Gibson says in an interview with Silicon.com:
'We hit a point somewhere in the mid-18th century where we started doing what we think of technology today and it started changing things for us, changing society. Since World War II it's going literally exponential and what we are experiencing now is the real vertigo of that — we have no idea at all now where we are going." "Will global warming catch up with us? Is that irreparable? Will technological civilization collapse? There seems to be some possibility of that over the next 30 or 40 years or will we do some Verner Vinge singularity trick and suddenly become capable of everything and everything will be cool and the geek rapture will arrive? That's a possibility to.

Great trend-deconstruction books are few and far between. The best books on the future, not counting science fiction, were written in the last quarter of the 20th century -Alvin Toffler’s trilogy (Future Shock, Third Wave and Power Shift), John Neisbitt’s “Megatrends”, Faith Popcorn’s book, Drucker’s “The Age of Discontinuity” and "The New Realities", Frances Cairncross’s “Death of Distance”, Michael Dertouzos’s “What will be”, Negroponte’s “Being Digital” and maybe a few others.

In this decade, all we got so far are "Freakonomics" and "The Tipping Point". Maybe, “The World is Flat” too – but these three books are more concerned with human behavior and economical realities than trendspotting.

Whatever Thomas Friedman might say, Globalization has been 'ON' throughout the timeline of human civilization.

Is this a trend that we are seeing, where people seem not that enthusiastic in the future?

It has been said: 95% of all scientists who ever lived are alive now.

In this first decade of the 21st century, this age of ‘futuristic’ video games and make believe Digital Effects, ennui has set in on us.

Programs on Future are part of our regular Media Diet.
The latest Internet thingy grabs our immediate imagination.

Living in an unprecedented ME age, driven by the urge for instant gratification, we are too busy consuming and experiencing the latest in-thing to be thinking about the future.

In many ways, we are already living the future – the internet, social networking, user generated video as the modern pen, user generated content which is shifting power from the silos away from the gatekeepers, some might say, wikipedia, Google Earth, spam, phishing, hacking, cyber-terrorism, digital divide, instant messaging, citizen journalism, robots in hospitals, cloning, genetic testing, virtual worlds, object replicating machines, biometric/facial recognition, school shootings, pollution, climate change, rising energy costs, rabid consumerism, corporations richer and more powerful than governments, non government organizations, global terrorism, private armies contracted by governments, alternative energy...

How many of these were on our minds back in 1995? It is safe to assume that the pace of change is too daunting for even the most die-hard of thinkers.

I hear that thanks to modern science, our kids will live longer. Fine, but I don't want to live for 200 years in a fossilized version of myself - it would be like Homer's Dad watching his great great great grandson having all the fun.

There is a different breed of futurist in town - the best futurists of today are the hedge fund managers who rely on complex mathematical formulaes to determine price movements, the consumer trend spotters barging in on every imaginable teen hangout, the pollsters working on the politician's payroll. Gallup and SMS polls are all we are interested in.

There is more to our disinterest in future.

Our enthusiasm for the future is not the same after the all the sci-fi movies we have all seen. I have yet to see a sci-fi movie without the dystopian feature set. I mean no offense to the late and great sci-fi writer, Philip K. Dick.

Where is the 'good future'?
It is lost in an environment of fear- some real, some created.

Blow-hards who revel in meaningless fear-mongering are increasing in circulation. Back in the 20th century, the world was supposed to end in 2000. Nostradumas and the religious scriptures are responsible for the livelihood of a wide variety of people - moviemakers, evangelists on TV figuring prominently among them.

Our Nuclear bunkers are still there.
For ultra-nationalists in many countries, the Nuclear Club is the place to be seen at.

Then there is the ghostly shadow that the events of 9/11, 7/7, and 11/7 have cast on our minds. Governments are paranoid. Citizens are harassed. Editors are busy dissecting the latest government action/inaction.

We are not alone in not thinking about our future. It comforts us to know that our leaders are as clueless hacks as ever.

Our pastime - our literature, our music and our movies are influenced by these events like never before.

We seem to want to know more about why things happen the way they do, than how things will be.

Witness the popularity of non-fiction books covering history and human behavior, documentaries, realistic movies...

The best sci-fi TV series of our times “Battlestar Gallactica” is a rumination on a post-9/11 Islam-centric world.

Doc said in “Back to the Future”, “Your future is what you make of it”.
I like to think Doc meant that Technology doesn't make the future, people make the future.

So, there are things we must do to make a better world for generations after us:
- We must fight inequality of wealth, knowledge and rights
- We must fight the global warming/ climate change demon and create a clean and sustainable world.
- While it is fine and dandy that China, India, Brazil and a clutch of other countries might outrun the U.S. and other economies, we must seek out better models of democracies.
- We must be hopeful

The age of exploration is not over.
There are ocean depths (the hedal zone) to be explored, habitable planets to be found and settled...

These are exciting goals and surely they will make for an exciting future.
A future that we still haven't shaped.

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At 7:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice read.

At 10:33 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good debate on natural development theory with a new perspective...


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