I am extremely proud to present the first monthly column by Futurismic’s new regular contributor, the esteemed Jamais Cascio, a co-founder of Worldchanging.com as well as a prolific writer, blogger, public speaker and pundit. In it he discusses futurism as a way of thinking, and whether our current focus on the material products of science and technology is the best approach.
Futurism is as much a way of thinking as it is a business process. It’s a recognition that the present has consequences, and that decisions we make now can have unexpected results down the road. Futurism forces us to look at the big picture, the interplay of myriad actions that may not appear related in the moment, but could cross paths in the weeks and years to come. Futurism is most assuredly not prediction; instead, it’s an attempt to inject a bit of wisdom into our choices, be they personal, political, economic or environmental.
At least, that’s what we hope.
Most of the time, unfortunately, popular futurism seems to be about stuff: new technologies and toys that undoubtedly shape our day to day lives, but typically impart very little meaning. Talking about gadgets is easy, and safe; futurists can muse about digital video players and 3D printers and space elevators in ways that can be engaging without being perceived as partisan. Moreover, since technology evolves fairly quickly, and can be a part of big social changes, it’s not surprising that it takes a prominent position in the minds of many popular futurists. There’s an evident problem, however, with technology being effectively the sole focus; many (arguably most) of the significant drivers of change in the world today have more to do with religion, or economics, or the environment than with technological toys. Looking only (or primarily) at new gadgets misses out on the big picture.
The deeper problem is more subtle and, in my view, more important. A preponderance of focus on emerging technologies leads one to start thinking of technology as a neutral driver of change, rather than as a material manifestation of social values. More often than not, the emergence of new forms of technology is less a catalyst for social change than a result of it. As a result, technology is not neutral. It embodies — and is biased by — the underlying values of the cultures in which it is developed.
How can an object be biased? By being a human creation. We embed cultural values in our devices through our choices about how we make them and what we want them to do. No technology is developed without tradeoffs, and the decisions we make about which aspects to retain and which to discard reflect the values and norms we carry with us, People who do not share those norms can find the resulting technology confusing, upsetting or meaningless. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is an obvious example of values manifest in technological form. So is Free/Open Source Software (FOSS). So are the sophisticated social networking tools built into handheld mobile devices. Most of the controversy surrounding these technologies has to do with what they mean — that is, the values they embed — not how they work.
This is a more important issue than you might think. If you doubt the relevance of social values when thinking about the future, ask yourself: how would an intelligent machine built by computer scientists in China differ from one built by computer scientists in the United States? Or, perhaps more pointedly, how would one built by Microsoft differ from one built by FOSS programmers? How would the design decisions going into a molecular manufacturing system vary if it came from a university program rather than a government lab? Or an electric car design coming from computer industry veterans rather than a Big Three carmaker?
It’s not just culture that can guide the course of technology and the future. Global warming and the politics of oil will shape the kinds of transportation and energy production technologies we adopt. The migration of employment opportunities will reflect urban planning and water availability as much as telecommuting systems. An aging population will influence the R&D decisions made by pharmaceutical companies — we might expect to see more dollars going into vitality treatments for aging libidos than into more effective contraceptives for young men and women, for instance.
In all of these cases, technological change is a second-order effect of social (or environmental, or cultural, or demographic) change. Knowing what kinds of technological developments are possible in these arenas is valuable, but will tell us little about how these developments will manifest and how they will be used. If we are to understand how the world is changing — really understand it — we need to be able to do more than fixate upon the gadgets.
My point here is simple. Young futurists need to think beyond the latest update to Engadget or Gizmodo, and to remember to ask why new technologies look the way they do, why the designers made these choices. At the same time, foresight hubs like Futurismic — a site that I’m very happy to join as a regular columnist — need to track social, cultural, political, economic and environmental changes with as much alacrity and diligence as they now track biotechnology, energy production, and Web 2.0.
Futurism is evolving. Once the sole province of think tanks and strategists, foresight tools are becoming democratized. We are seeing futurism remade by the same dynamics of collaboration, distribution, networking and openness that have transformed so many other creative and information fields. Sites like Futurismic, BoingBoing, WorldChanging, Open the Future and so many more are part of that evolution.
I can’t wait to see how it turns out.