A Boring Future

I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring.” J.G. Ballard; Interview (30 October 1982) in Re/Search no. 8/9 

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In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke postulated what became one of his “three laws” about predicting the future. In an essay titled “”Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” he wrote: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”1

I was recently reminded of Clarke’s admonition when The New York Times ran a piece called “A Scientist Predicts the Future.” It was written by Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist based at the City College of New York. Born in California in 1947, Kaku’s 1972 degree was from Berkeley and his early publications dealt with quantum and string theory (his personal website says he’s a co-founder of “string field theory”); the SAO/NASA database lists some 70 articles to his name. But it’s as a popularizer of science that Kaku can claim the most fame.

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Captain Kaku

Besides regular appearances on the Discovery Channel, et al. Kaku has written several bestselling books on physics, especially on fantastical topics such as time travel, wormholes, and the like. A strong interest in the future and futurism runs through his work, most notably in his 2011 book Physics of the Future.

Screen shot 2013-12-10 at 10.33.31 AMKaku’s NYT piece was essentially a reprise of his 2011 book and gave “a glimpse of what to expect in the coming decades.” So far a predictions go, it’s a pretty banal list: ubiquitous computing, virtual reality, brain-electronic interfaces, robots, and genetic engineering. It’s the sort of list that wouldn’t have been out of place back in the heyday of Omni magazine. This wasn’t unexpected; a review of Kaku’s book by physicist Neil Gershenfeld in Physics Today said the book described “a kind of future by committee” populated by “science-fiction staples”.

Kaku’s list got some attention via social media…my favorite response to his predictions came from English sci-fi writer Tim Maughan who tweeted: “If you want to know about the future the last person to ask is a scientist. Especially a fucking physicist. Ask a banker.”

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There are three things worth noting about Kaku’s NYT piece. First – his prognostications seem to conform to Clarke’s first law. If you want to know about the future, maybe asking a sixty-something physicist isn’t the way to go. Especially one engaged in a little “propheteering” that might help sell some books.

Second, Maughan’s barb hits a vital spot. Interspersed among Kaku’s imagined futures was his prediction that “capitalism will be perfected.” This paean to the power of the free-market claimed that “the laws of supply and demand become exact, because everyone knows everything about a product, service or customer. We will know precisely where the supply curve meets the demand curve, which will make the marketplace vastly more efficient.” I think this year’s contradictory Nobel prizes in economics suggest otherwise. Kaku’s prediction that “intellectual capitalism will replace commodity capitalism” might carry some weight in Silicon Valley but not for the 100,000s of workers actually building the stuff that makes cloud computing, etc. real and tangible.

Third, when Kaku’s 2011 book – the basis for his NYT essay – came out, it was likened to the future-musings of another physicist. The Telegraph compared it to Gerard O’Neill’s “deliriously technocratic vision of space exploration.” Now I wouldn’t go so far as to call O’Neill’s future-thinking technocratic but it certainly had a fair amount of the “technological fix.” But the key difference between Kaku and O’Neill lies not in their respective visions for the future but in the amount of work they put into making those futures happen.

To the first order, Kaku appears as the classic arm-waving futurist of the “we’re going to have flying cars and robots and virtual sex and…and…and…” sort. O’Neill, on the other hand, actually put some labor into trying to advance his vision – and it was a very personal one at that. He got some grants to build a mass driver, he attracted students and other like-minded followers, he helped build a small community of devotees, et al..

Where other future-tellers just offer descriptive speculations, O’Neill and other visioneers deployed physical models, detailed designs, and actual calculations to develop a more rigorous foundation for imagining the future. This is why O’Neill’s vision for the future – even though it didn’t happen as imagined – is far more compelling and credible than Kaku’s desiccated description of tomorrow.

  1. from the book Profiles of the Future, 1962, revised 1973, Harper & Row []

Psycho-Historicizing the Future

One of my favorite Internet mini-memes that circulated this past week has been Paul Krugman’s confession that his decision to become an economist was shaped in part by his reading of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. For Krugman, Asimov’s depiction of “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon’s ability to chart the future of the galaxy was both compelling and inspiring. So it must be gratifying to the Nobel Prize winner to have written an introduction to a new edition of Asimov’s classic sci-fi novels.

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Cover of Asimov’s Foundation, first published as a book in 1951

In Asimov’s stories, “psychohistory” is rigorous field of study in which mathematicians, sociologists, historians, and other scholars can predict how society changes and the ways in which it can be encouraged to move in certain desired directions. As Krugman says, Seldon and company “discover that a carefully designed nudge can change that path. The empire can’t be saved, but the length of the coming dark age can be reduced to a mere millennium” – sort of what Krugman and the Federal Reserve have been trying to do for the world economy.

I was reminded of Krugman’s reflections when I read a New York Times article about a recently completed study titled Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds undertaken by the U.S. National Intelligence Council. As the report’s web page says, the goal of the exercise was “not seek to predict the future—which would be an impossible feat—but instead provide a framework for thinking about possible futures and their implications.” Among the study’s many conclusions are that China will supplant the U.S. as the leading global economic power before 2030; terrorists may be able to launch a computer-network attack that disrupts the lives of millions; and the growing economic importance of the developing world. More interesting to me was the identification of several core “disruptive technologies.” These included a certain form of transhumanism in the guise of the “enhancement of human mental and physical capabilities and anti-aging.” I’ll be coming back to this topic in a future post. But, all in all, not terribly shocking or surprising sorts of stuff.

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Cover of the new Global Trends report

Two aspects of the report caught my eye though, albeit in different ways. One of these was the report’s conclusion that there would be a “more fragmented international system” in which there is less cooperation and more competition. One result of this might be “increased resource competition, spread of lethal technologies and spillover from regional conflicts” which “increase the potential for interstate conflicts.”

This prediction reminded of the results from similar studies that were done by the Global Business Network in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now part of the Monitor Group, GBN was a small but influential Bay Area-based consulting firm started in 1987. GBN offered what it called “survival insurance” to an expanding roster of “companies who wanted to be smarter.” To do this, GBN used “adaptive scenarios” which it described as “creative tools for ordering one’s perception about possible alternative future environments.”1 A legacy of the Cold War, researchers such as Herman Kahn had prepared scenarios to game nuclear war simulations. Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell had also used similar stories of “possible futures” to survive the energy crises of the 1970s. Futurist Peter Schwartz had worked at Shell and known Stewart Brand – famed for starting The Whole Earth Catalog in 1968 – since the early 1970s. After joining with Jay Ogilvy, a research manager at the Stanford Research Institute, the three men launched GBN.2

GBN started its work at a propitious time. With the end of the Cold War looming – indeed, the “end of history” if one believed Francis Fukuyama – there was a market for organizations that could provide business leaders and policy makers with some sense of the future. Corporate clients like AT&T, Volvo, as well as numerous energy-related companies hired paid upwards of $7,000 a day for GBN’s consulting services. GBN boasted an eclectic roster of business executives, artists, academics, and technologists who mingled with each other and GBN’s corporate clients at well-orchestrated events. For an annual fee of $25,000, clients could formally join the GBN network and get access to these experts and celebrities. Within three years, GBN was profitable.

To guide discussions with corporate clients, GBN prepared three “mental maps of the future” which covered a wide range of possibilities. The first of these, dubbed “Market World,” envisioned that expanding free market forces and neoliberal economics would create “a virtuous circle of technological innovation in an increasingly interactive and prosperous economy.” At the other end of the spectrum, “New Empires” predicted protectionist nation-states banding together to create competitive regional clusters and trade barriers. Finally, if “turbulence and volatility seem to be the only constant,” then a scenario described as “Global Incoherence” would dominate.3

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Cover page of (draft) GBN scenario book

GBN and its clients clearly favored the triumph of “Market World” with its enhanced trade opportunities and favorable geopolitics. But, in all the forecasts GBN made during its early years of operation, it was technology that figured as one of, if not the most prominent force for social, economic, and political change. Although not quite as prominent in Global Trends 2030, technology “will continue to be the great leveler.” The report lists “four technology arenas” which will shape “global economic, social, and military developments” – information technologies (no surprise); new manufacturing technologies including 3-D printing (?!); resource-related technologies i.e. those which allow leaders to meet the food and energy needs of their populations; and finally advances in healthcare.

How does this stack up with what GBN saw roughly two decades ago? Its list isn’t that surprising – GBN co-founder Stewart Brand had been spending a lot of time of MIT while doing the research for his 1987 book The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT and all of the technologies had ties to MIT in some fashion. In the first draft of its “1990 Scenario Book” it listed “massive parallel computing” (Danny Hillis, an MIT alum had started Thinking Machines which made parallel supercomputers) “interactive mass media” (Nicholas Negoponte ran MIT’s Media Lab) and “nanotechnology” (Eric Drexler, another MIT alum, popularized nano) as the areas to watch for the future. Who prepared the technology sections for the Global Trends 2030 report isn’t entirely clear.4 But it would be interesting to know to what degree personal and professional experiences shaped its visions of the technological future.

The second aspect of the Global Trends 2030 report that stirred my thoughts was its claim that the future is “malleable.” This idea resonates with some recent scholarship – including my own – that makes the case that the future is not a neutral space. Rather, we should view the technological future as a contested rather than neutral space.5 In this “predictive space,” the future exists as an unstable entity which different groups vie to claim and construct through their texts, their artifacts, and their activities while marginalizing alternative futures.

I am, of course, fascinated by the unrealized visions of the technological future that litter the past. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a proliferation of futuristic visions about technology coincided with a larger wave of concern, even obsession, about the future. In a golden age of research and writing about technological tomorrows, professional “futurologists” became well-paid celebrities sought out for their glib advice. Hugely popular books such as Future Shock, Alvin Toffler’s 1970 bestseller, advised readers to brace for wrenching social changes as an old economy based on heavy industry gave way to a new one founded on information. The future also became an object of serious scholarly inquiry as economists, computer scientists, and sociologists attempted to understand – much like Asimov’s Hari Seldon – the future more “scientifically” and proposed ways in which society might navigate toward alternate, more desirable futures.

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Then, as now, people didn’t just look toward the future – they looked at it. Global Trends 2030 is a continuation and a legacy of this Cold War “future thinking.” As we move into 2013, one can only hope that the future can be as cheery as Krugman’s reminiscences about how he once wanted to think about tomorrow.

Followup: Since I first posted this, a few colleagues have directed me to some other related things on the web. One is a take on how Asimov’s Foundation series is “historical materialism distorted into cyclical psycho-history.” Another is a link to a PDF of Kugman’s introduction to the new edition. An on-line article picked up the thread about the “transhuman future” the Global Trends 2030 report describes. Finally, here is a 2008 post from Krugman with an early acknowledgment of his Foundation fetish.

  1. January 6, 1988 memo from Peter Schwartz; Folder 1, Box 68 of Stewart Brand’s papers at Stanford Archives i.e. SB/SA []
  2. There is a nice section on GBN in Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006) as well as in W. Patrick McCray, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013 []
  3. Described in December 1988 issue of GBN publication The Deeper News as well as the “1990 Scenario Book;” Folder 1, Box 66 and Box 75, Folder 7, both SB/SA []
  4. The report credits input from two people at Strategic Business Insights []
  5. Ideas presented in several of the essays contained in Nik Brown, et al. Contested Futures: A Sociology of Prospective Techno-Science(Aldershot, 2000) and Marita Sturken, Douglas Thomas, and Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach, eds., Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears That Shape New Technologies (Philadelphia, 2004 []