Consequences

Paul Raven @ 12-03-2013

I do keep saying that futurism isn’t about making predictions, don’t I? Well, that’s because I really believe it. Prediction — in the sense of declaring with great certainty that [x] will come to happen — is a waste of time, because you have no way of accurately determining whether or not the prediction will be validated until the moment at which it is validated (or not). Stick to gambling on horses or stock prices, if gambling’s your thing.

I’m increasingly starting to think of futurism — or at least the sort of futurism I’m interested in doing — as being first and foremost about looking at consequences. This is an extension of the standard technological forecasting methodology, which tends to draw a temporal line through recent, current and projected technological developments in order to conclude that — at some point, however loosely defined — there will be a marketable technology that achieves a (seemingly) desirable goal.

Thing is, the desirable goal isn’t the end of the story. On the contrary, it’s only the beginning.

Example: driverless cars! Think how wonderful the driverless car revolution will be: you’ll be able to read a book or eat your breakfast during your commute! No more traffic jams! It’ll totally revolutionise personal transportation!

See the problem? This sort of thinking makes one exciting extrapolation against a freeze-framed status quo, and then extols the revolutionary change thus achieved. And much as there are days when I wish with all my heart that the world only changed in one measurable and discrete way at a time, it just ain’t so.

I can’t take credit for this particular insight, at least not independently; the redoubtable (and, even by my standards, prolix) Dale Carrico did a great job of shredding driverless car boosterism from his gadfly pulpit in the draughty towers of the White World Future Society. The critical point is this: making cars driverless doesn’t actually solve any of the biggest pressures on the private vehicle sector at all; it just ameliorates (or promises to ameliorate) some of the more unpleasant social side-effects attendant on the inescapable necessity of using what was once extolled as a technology that would improve lives by reducing journey times. (Oh, the irony.)

Making your car driverless doesn’t remove or reduce your need to be sat in the damned thing for hours twice a day; it won’t make your tanks of gas any cheaper or less environmentally damaging; it won’t roll back decades of suburban sprawl and expensive freeway infrastructure; and it’ll be a long time before the technology is cheap enough to make an impact on ordinary people, ie. those who would benefit most from reduced costs and more free time. By the time they’re widespread (if they ever are), the steady increase in the number of vehicles on the road will have countered any significant change in traffic loading; furthermore, those changes will be held back by the necessity of sharing the road system with manual ‘legacy’ vehicles.

The driverless car is not a revolution in personal transportation. It is merely a reinvention of the wheel, an iterative development — and a way of selling more new cars. Driverless cars may well change the world — but not for you, or at least not for your benefit.

This is what I mean about consequences; this is where futurism needs to make a point of bringing people — real, ordinary people — into the frame where the Brand New Shiny is being considered.

If you go and look at Carrico’s burner linked above, you’ll see a comment from Yours Truly where I did exactly that — shifting the predicted “disruption”* away from the average (and increasingly mythical) consumer and relocating it in those realms where big budgets and and slim margins make the cost of investing early look tempting. Driverless cars will only be available as commercial products to the super-rich, at least at first; driverless technology, however, will fit just as well into the trucks of the long-distance haulage industry, who have a whole laundry list of reasons to jump all over it at the soonest possibility: as fuel costs continue to rise, the prospect of a fleet of truck drivers who a) only require a one-off upfront payment at hiring time [ie. installation outlay cost], b) don’t need sleep, biobreaks or union representation and c) can drive around the clock with no drop in alertness is going to give haulage companies the biggest boner the poor bastards have had in years.

And hey, would you look at this?

Via Fast Company; OK, so these road trains still require one human driver in the lead cab, but I’ll bet my shoes and socks that’s more to do with allaying legislative (not to mention public) fears about the technology failing than a genuine necessity.

Ella Saitta once said to me that “the internet eviscerates everything it comes into contact with, and then turns it into something more like the internet”. The internet is all about cutting the need for human activity out of any commercial transaction, and about minimizing the length of supply chains.

If you think driverless technology is going to make your life better in the near future, you’re either a haulage company owner, or not paying attention.


* — The mutating semantics of the word “disruption” in the context of the tech-start-up scene is more than a little worrying to someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how language gets used; disruption is increasingly seen as a positive, a desirable thing, an opportunity to make a profit by eviscerating an existing industry that can’t compete with your new way of doing things. Which not only ties in with Ella’s observation, but also allows an insight into how some tech CEOs think: that collapsing a market is acceptable if you can then seize it wholesale.

Sounds a bit like US foreign policy during the Noughties, no?


Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths

Jonathan McCalmont @ 02-03-2011

0. A Tendentious History of Strategy Games Leading Up To A Question

All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.

– Chuck Palahniuk

Some video games require greater imaginative leaps than others. For example, games like Pong (1972) and Space Invaders (1978) were so graphically primitive that the gap between the things on the screen and the things they were supposed to represent could only be crossed with the use of a rocket-cycle; this collection of squares over here is an alien. That collection of squares over there is Earth’s last line of defence. The little squares moving up and down are particle weapons… or possibly missiles… or shoeboxes filled with explosive. It was difficult to tell. Continue reading “Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths”


Fast Food

Sarah Ennals @ 07-09-2008

Fast food - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the archives.


The game of consequences

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2008

Simulated reality Science fiction is all about asking “what if?”. Singularitarian blogger Melanie Swann has come up with a hefty crop of questions that are as yet largely unasked by the authors who have chosen to write about post-Singularity societies:

“It could be interesting to look at how society redesigns and reorganizes itself in an upload world. Different subgroups may edit their utility functions in different ways. What are the reproduction norms? Do types of gender proliferate? Which memeplexes would arise and predominate? In the Post-Scarcity Economy, what will be societal organizing factors?”

Speculating slightly less far into the future (and, one assumes, with tongue more firmly in cheek), io9 wonders what the pros and cons would be of having a “Google implant” fitted to your brain:

“PRO: Ability to “remember” many details about a person or issue in the middle of a conversation, so that you can marshal facts quickly and check the accuracy of what other people are saying.

CON: The person you’re talking to could much more easily pretend to be somebody they are not by googling information and feigning expertise.”

That last one wouldn’t be so much of a CON as long as I had that ability too … which I would never use for nefarious purposes, naturally. Ahem. [Image by Felipe Venâncio]

But it raises another question – what place will expertise (as defined by memorised knowledge relating to a particular field of interest) have in a world of ubiquitous computing? Think Phil Dick’s “Variable Man”, but displaced into a knowledge economy …


Ten-fold longevity expansion

Paul Raven @ 22-01-2008

Sunset on a beach A group of scientists have managed to extend the lifespan of baker’s yeast by ten times, using genetic tweaks and a special diet. They believe that they will be able transfer the same processes into small mammals like mice, and that ultimately this may be a viable pathway for longevity treatments in humans:

Longo’s group next plans to further investigate life span extension in mice and also is studying a human population in Ecuador with mutations analogous to those described in yeast.

“People with two copies of the mutations have very small stature and other defects,” he said. “We are now identifying the relatives with only one copy of the mutation, who are apparently normal. We hope that they will show a reduced incidence of diseases and an extended life span.”

Longo cautioned that, as in the Ecuador case, longevity mutations tend to come with severe growth deficits and other health problems. Finding drugs to extend the human life span without side effects will not be easy, he said.

An easier goal, Longo added, would be to use the knowledge gained about life span “in a fairly limited way, to reprogram disease prevention.”

It’s interesting to see that there inevitable consequences to longevity – everything comes at a price, even in biology. But what about the social consequences?

Sure, if I could even double my lifespan, think of how many more books I’d be able to read, or stories I’d be able to write. But I’d need to work for twice as many years to support myself … and if the majority of people were living twice as long, there’d be some rather serious logistical issues with basic resources.

But then again, maybe that would provide the impetus for us to think more efficiently, and/or escape the gravity well and colonise local space? [Image from Image*After]

One thing’s for certain – if my longevity was increased significantly, I’d have a lot more time for sitting around and speculating wildly on the consequences of things … 😉

[tags]biology, longevity, consequences, speculation[/tags]