An Exercise in Trend Recognition

For this edition of Future Imperfect, Sven Johnson has been grasping towards something which may or may not be there to grasp.

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

If you spend any amount of time straining through global news and pop culture, you’ll probably have had a similar sense of unseen patterns waiting to be discovered. But, Sven asks, what exactly occurs the moment before trend recognition?


For the better part of a week I’ve been attempting to assemble a series of thoughts and observations into something which doesn’t yet – and perhaps cannot yet – exist, except as a collection of subjective and difficult-to-connect dots. There’s no distinct, perceivable thread which joins them yet; just an intuition that when all the pieces are identified and their relevance understood, a series of statistical likelihoods will align, behaviors will more clearly fit a pattern, and an easily recognizable high-level trend will be identified.

I hesitate to call this process “pattern recognition”, because I’m not even sure one exists. I don’t yet consciously perceive any patterns and in fact, I’m not even sure why I’m looking for one; it’s just a feeling I have that there’s something potentially significant forming just beyond my cognitive threshold. In any event, as I struggled to force the issue to resolution, a completely new and intriguing thought came to me: what exactly occurs the moment before trend recognition?


Now, apart from being a long-time trendspotter and having read Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, I know nothing of the science involved. So of course the first thing I do is google the phrase, do a bit of research and read this on Wikipedia:

An intriguing problem in pattern recognition yet to be solved is the relationship between the problem to be solved (data to be classified) and the performance of various pattern recognition algorithms (classifiers).

Well, that sounds relevant, except as I’ve already stated, I’m not consciously trying to solve a problem. Furthermore, the “relationship” problem mentioned above appears to be specifically directed at “a priori” methodologies, which may or may not be relevant to my situation. In addition, googling “non-a priori pattern recognition” doesn’t appear to return any worthwhile search engine hits, so I’m basically at a dead end, since what I’ve stumbled upon will require significantly more time to both research and (hopefully) comprehend.

However, rather than leave it at that, I thought I’d list my “dots” and see what connections other people make of them; it might prove to be an interesting and informative exercise. Plus, I like the idea of introducing a different set of unexpected inputs.

So, here are the inputs to my classifier. The only thing I’d suggest is that since I tend to think in terms of design trends (products, fashion, etc.) it’s best to look for patterns with that in mind.


Okay, I’m looking for a non-obvious trend, and the general category is “global warming”; specifically widespread flooding (aka, the “aquapocalypse”).

  1. There were two triggers. The first is news that yacht sales are booming, and the second is Warren Ellis’ FreakAngels web comic (specifically, episode 19, first page).
  2. Two potentially related entertainment properties which keep coming to mind. The first is a relatively unknown comic book story called “Freakwave“, and the second is the movie Waterworld. Beyond the difference in narrative approach, I’m focused primarily on what I personally perceive to be a significant, visceral difference between the two: a toxic, hallucinogenic fog in “Freakwave”.
  3. News coverage of the recent Mississippi River flooding; in particular a common refrain from displaced residents returning to retrieve valuables that their homes reek of disease and decay.
  4. The similarities and differences between recent images of the Beijing Olympic bird nest and the giant lilypad city concept.
  5. A collection of “sustainability” links:
  6. A few other bits swimming around my gray matter:
  7. A number of relevant personal experiences, but most especially:
    • swimming in the ocean off the northern coast of South America and learning that raw sewage was being pumped into the water (1984)
    • being anchored off the the coast of a heavily industrialized city in SE Asia and being unable to purify the water due to high levels of toxic waste (1988)
    • eating dinner at a restaurant in a developing country and joking about the level of manufacturing waste in our meal (1998)
    • the relatively recent flooding of my car and the stench of the interior afterwards.


Sven JohnsonSven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the U.S. military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.

[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]

4 thoughts on “An Exercise in Trend Recognition”

  1. There’s an interesting, and similar, point in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Fifty Degrees Below. In the book, one character is told he is under passive surveillance by some agency, which uses market models as predictors for technologies and events.

  2. As I was struggling with this a few days ago, I discussed my impasse to an acquaintance who mentioned her former instructor, Mr. Robinson. I now have another reason to read his books. Thank you.

Comments are closed.