Sunday, October 16, 2011

How Can We Change the Future? The Tomorrow Project

It turns out that Intel, the giant chip maker, employs a full time futurist. His name is Brian David Johnson, and he actually gets paid to go around asking people what the future might be like. Intel says they're the "Sponsors of Tomorrow", so I guess they want to have a clue about what they're sponsoring. When I worked at Intel in the early 80's, we could have sponsored a thousand futurist studies, and not one of them would have predicted that Intel would someday employ a "Chief Futurist" leading a "Tomorrow Project".

None of those futurists would have predicted that over a hundred thousand people would show up at New York Comic-Con, either. But it's happening. The show is completely sold out. Jacob Javits Convention Center is packed to the gills with zombies, otaku, wood nymphs, transformers and girls with blue, purple or red hair- i don't know the word for them.

Many of them packed a very serious session hosted by Johnson featuring Cory Doctorow, the science fiction writer, blogger, and activist. The session was entitled "Sci-Fi Prototyping: Designing the Future Panel". No on in the audience was disappointed not to hear about the future of the panel, and we also did without Doug Rushkoff, whose appearance was scheduled to make the panel a panel, but who failed to predict his future schedule well enough to participate.

Doctorow, Johnson, Rushkoff, and, who was accurately predicted to not be present, have contributed to The Tomorrow Project Anthology which had its launch today. Nostalgically enough, this is a book. Less nostalgic, but perhaps just as dated, it's a 1.8MB PDF file. Made available for free, by Intel. Doctorow's contribution is a novella by Doctorow called The Knights of the Rainbow Table which so far (I'm on p.17), is a fun read. It's about the nano-apocalypse that will occur in the near future when it's easy for a group of grad student low-lifes to crack everybody's website password security.

Johnson framed the session as a discussion about the ways in which science fiction can provide a narrative to steer the future. I'm a bit skeptical. I don't think that the "narrative" of Star Trek communicators caused Motorola engineers to create the flip-phone, even if they were fans of the show while growing up. Doctorow had a really interesting analogy, though. He said a science fiction story was like a Petri dish that lets an microscopic idea grow into a huge colony of micro-organisms visible to the naked eye. That strikes me as a really useful way to think of how fiction influences the world.

The problem with ascribing power to narrative is evident if you look at the world around us. Narratives compete with other narratives, and their relative power derives not from their truth or their skill, but rather from their fit. Narratives warning about the death of privacy, for example, have scant power compared to the offer of a free movie, or even a free PDF download. No one pays attention to a narrative unless it fits with what they want to do today.

Before the panel, Doctorow expressed to me his strong commitment to making his works available with Creative Commons licenses; He'll certainly release The Knights of the Rainbow Table that way. But let's work on Intel to change the future a bit. Why can't they release The Tomorrow Project Anthology with a similar license? (the current license is all rights reserved, you can download it, but you can't redistribute it) You CAN help change the future- file a request to post the whole ebook using this form.
In yesterday's tomorrow, androids dream of electric sheep, cars fly around LA, and in Blade Runner, people read newspapers on paper. What will today's tomorrow look like tomorrow? I wonder how much of today's best writing about the future will be available to people ten years from now. Unfortunately, the answer depends on licensing details that most creators don't think much about. Doctorow is an exception.
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1 comment:

  1. great post. Indeed, the the future isn't what it used to be.
    "No one pays attention to a narrative unless it fits with what they want to do today." an interesting point to test. I'm working on a project of analytics for content/reading personalization, designed to measure and potentially "improve" cultural/cognitive effects. You might put it as, can we shape a narrative so it "fits" the user BUT stretches in what we or our customers deem to be helpful directions, e.g. serendipitous, bias-correcting, educational, innovation-biased? As opposed to, say, evaluation according just to normal commercial web metrics like user minutes, page views, click-throughs, etc. How to do that?

    Tim McCormick
    tim (at)