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?


Making a game of disruption politics

Paul Raven @ 22-06-2010

More from John Robb: rewiring agitprop and non-violent protest movements as open-source games.

… in modern western societies, this elite group and their specialists are able to dissociate themselves from jobs when it comes to their private lives.  They live unencumbered within our impersonal society.  This window of vulnerability creates a yawning opportunity for innovative forms of disruptive non-violent protest.  One that pierces the organizational and societal veil of anonymity for these individuals by turning them into systempunkts (vulnerable nodes within the targeted organization’s network that would cause the most damage if disrupted).

Essentially, if you can successfully deter/coerce individual decision makers in this decision making group, you will win (and quickly).Early work on this type of protest can be seen in the work of 4Chan’s Anonymous and China’s human flesh search engine. Both of these open source movements have shown to be surprisingly powerful at targeting single individuals (and poor at disrupting organizations).

An aside: I find Anonymous fascinating, because (whether deliberately or not) they’ve created a fluid non-identity that can be picked up by anyone anywhere for any purpose. It’ll be one of those names that haunts the sidebars of news sites for decades, if not longer… and there’s always the possibility of a schism or interfactional split, which should be fascinating (and doubtless horrific and hilarious) to watch from the sidelines.

But back to Robb:

… any online group of sufficient size could launch an effort like this.  However, to really zoom the effort and turn it into a coercive tool, one modification should be made.  It should operate as an online game.

Well, pretty much everything else operates as an online game, even democracy itself. [/snark] More seriously, though, using the reward structures of games to entice people toward certain real-world behaviours has been proposed (and put in to action) by others, and has a certain resonance not only with the times we find ourselves in, but also our nature as homo ludens. Indeed, Robb himself proposed a kind of real-life Farmville to spread permaculture farming, but I suspect the amount of real physical work needed to achieve those sorts of goals will deter all but the most tenacious.

That said, science fiction writers got there first: Stross’ Halting State, and Walter John Williams’ This Is Not A Game, for instance. Maybe human society was always a game, and we’re only now waking up to a fact that politicians and uber-entrepreneurs have always understood instinctively?


Post-postal: is the Iceland volcano the death-knell for physical mail?

Paul Raven @ 19-04-2010

Jeff Jarvis suspects that the ongoing and aviation-distressing plume of volcanic ash currently drifting over Europe may accelerate the demise of good old-fashioned physical mail networks:

Right now, it is impossible to get a document to or around Europe with speed. People can’t fly. Mail can’t fly. Even when the air clears, there’ll be diminished faith in the ability of the post office — not to mention FedEx, DHL, and UPS — to make speedy delivery of documents. Any company or agency with an ounce of strategic sense is creating a plan now to convert to digital. It is speedier (instant!) and more certain (guaranteed) and cheaper (free) and even earns green points (no dead trees, no fuel, no fumes). What’s not to love?

[…]

So what does this do to the post office? In Europe, it’s going to be deadly expensive. The first-class mail that supports postal services around the world will be bound to shrink. Prices will then have to rise, forcing demand to shrink more.

Meanwhile, without air freight — or with the risk of it disappearing for days, weeks, months, even more — more goods will have to be moved by train and truck, raising demand there and thus raising prices of ground transport for the mail.

[…]

When first-class mail declines, the horrendous losses at our U.S. postal service will accelerate, forcing decisions that the government — as is its habit — would like to put off for a few years. There will be less first-class profit to subsidize the delivery of media (another nail in the coffin of magazines) and advertising (another reason to jump to digital) and parcels (opening up more opportunities for private competitors).

The delivery industry could be disrupted as profoundly but much more quickly than media. I’d sell stock in FedEx. If I thought the postal service would collapse, I’d buy it in UPS. I’m not sure about Amazon. You might think that Cisco would be a big winner but I’ll bet on Skype and hope it goes public soon. Of course, short every airline. That sound you hear is dominos falling.

Hmmm. Time to start up that peer-to-peer distributed delivery network?

It’s not just a big disruptive factor for the mail industry, either: all of a sudden, Brits are being reminded uncomfortably of just how dependent on air travel they’ve become. Their response? Start comparing the “rescue” plans (mobilise the Royal Navy!) to Dunkirk, of course. How better to cope with staring down the barrel of continuing economic decline than harking back to World War Two’s fading sepia-tinted glories, right?

More seriously, this is a great time for people everywhere to start thinking hard and pressuring their governments (or themselves) to invest in sustainable mass transit infrastructure that can’t be knocked out of kilter by clouds of dust… or shortages of fuel, for that matter (different cause, very similar effect). If you wanted a sketch or case study of what encroaching Peak Oil might look like from an economic, social and political perspective, watching the UK headlines right now is the closest you’re going to get without burning your fingers. Don’t just sell your UPS shares – sell all the ones you have in airlines, too. Reinvesting in transcontinental high-speed rail might be an option, and dirigibles are very Zeitgeisty (if only in fictional worlds)… but the future don’t got a lot of (civilian) contrails in it no more, mister.

I’ve got five bucks and a slightly-broken swivel chair that says John Robb is grinning a huge I-told-you-so grin right now. Does anyone want to open a book on the odds of the UK government bailing out the aviation sector? Because they’ve got their caps in their hands already


What will reading look like in 2010?

Paul Raven @ 31-12-2009

Well, it’s been a lively year for changes in the publishing industry, hasn’t it? This time last year, I wrote a post titled 2009 – the year the physical bookstore lays down and dies? – and over here in the UK, Borders has just gone into receivership, a few days before Amazon claimed to have sold more Kindle ebooks over the holiday period than dead-tree books. The times, they are a-changin’.

I still don’t have an ebook reader myself, because I’ve not seen one that’s open enough for my tastes – I don’t want to be tied to one retailer (same reason I don’t have an iPod), and I want to be able to read multiple formats without jumping through hoops. But 2010 looks like the year that the tablet computer makes its presence felt (if Apple are going to release one, you can bet your boots that cheaper and more open devices will follow close on its heels), and that means all we need is a decent platform for reading ebooks.

Enter inventor and Singularitarian Ray Kurzweil, who has a track record of disruptive developments in an assortment of industries; his new company knfb Reading Technology (a cooperative venture with the National Federation of the Blind) is set to debut an ebook software platform called Blio at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show next week. It’s already available for free download, with versions for PC, iPhone and iPod Touch, and (according to the linked article) it trumps pretty much all of the competition on features and accessibility. Blio may well turn out to be the grenade in the ebook punchbowl… I’m hoping an Android-native version appears pretty soon.

And what of the humble magazine? Distribution and print costs are killing off all but the most tenacious print publishing niches at a ferocious rate, but there’s plenty of people trying to find a new paradigm for the format – here’s a video demo of Mag+, the result of a collaboration between a Swedish publisher and BERG, the London-based design outfit [via MetaFilter]:

Of course, you may be thinking that all these developments are attempts to saddle a horse that has already fled the stable… after all, no-one reads any more, do they? Well, actually, they do – the consumption patterns and preferred media have changed rapidly, but a recent University of California study shows that the amount of text consumed by the average American has actually tripled since 1980, and social networks like Facebook have ordinary people writing more regularly than ever before (although the quality and nature of the material they write is admittedly pretty variable).

The one thing we can probably say for certain is that people are still going to be reading in 2010, and for a long time afterwards. The challenge for writers and publishers (of fiction or otherwise) are to find the channels that work best for the material they produce, and then to find a way to leverage that channel to make it a viable business model.

Interesting times ahead, don’t you think? 🙂


Welcome to the 3D economy

Paul Raven @ 06-08-2009

Rep-Rap - self-replicating fabberJamais Cascio appears over at Fast Company once again, this time talking about the desktop manufacturing revolution, which seemingly becomes a less science fictional prospect by the week. The shift in plausibility is noticeable in the concerns raised: consider a still-distant technology like nanoassemblers or sentient AI, and you’ll get the species-killer existential risks – grey goo, say, or a hard unfriendly singularity. Ubiquitous fabbing is inevitable enough to be raising more realistic and (by comparison) small-scale concerns… like what the hell it’s going to do the economy. [image by Zach Hoeken]

Technologies that shift production from being atom-dominated to being bit-dominated tend to follow similar trajectories. With both laser printers and, later, CD/DVD burners, the first wave of “creative destruction” came when the prices dropped to the level where the devices were affordable by small businesses; the second, bigger wave came when the prices dropped to a level affordable by general households. Now, laser printers and CD/DVD burners are just about free in a box of cereal–and, for many of us, the production and consumption of text documents and music has moved to entirely digital formats.

If 3D printing follows a similar trajectory, we may not be likely to see a massive shift to entirely digital “products” any time soon, but we could well see a shift to more local–even desktop–production. There’s no guarantee, of course, that 3D printing system prices will crash in the exact same way as laser printers, or that individual households will decide that desktop manufacturing is appealing. Local manufacturing seems a good bet, however, for a variety of reasons. There’s a particularly strong sustainability argument around local manufacturing, from the rising tide of “localism” philosophies (from food to media), to the ability of 3D printing to extend the useful life of manufactured goods by making new parts (as Jay Leno does for his vintage cars). The sustainability argument will become especially powerful once cheap overseas-produced goods reflect rising costs for fuel and carbon. And local manufacturing via 3D printing, even if limited to simple consumer items, has the potential to disrupt incumbent manufacturing, shipping, and retail industries.

If we do see 3D printing follow the footsteps of laser printing, however, the results could be profound. Desktop manufacturing offers the potential for the ultimate “maker” culture, where commercial products are bought off of iTunes-like online stores and printed at home, while eager hardware hackers play with design tools and open-source hardware systems to make entirely new material goods. Lurking in the background, of course, is the potential for design piracy — what one writer termed “napster fabbing,” back in the era when Napster was scary.

It remains to be seen what actually happens, but severe disruption of the status quo is pretty much a given. What do you think – will ubiquitous fabbing usher in a utopian future of happy people making interesting stuff, or a world crammed with cheap and poorly-made junk?