Forensic futurology

One approach to understanding the future is to look at futures past. We can look back to previous times and examine how they thought about the future.

How were people thinking before train travel, recorded sound, human flight, the radio, television, the Web, SmartPhones? What was their concept of the future?

In each case, were there people during those times who predicted the change that was about to happen with any degree of accuracy? If so, who were those people?

Were they scientists, industrialists, poets, philosophers? Were they writers of popular fiction?

It might be useful to do some forensic futurology: the study of how and when the future was accurately predicted in times past. We may very well be able to apply what we learn to our current times, and thereby better predict our own future.

Speaking up

Some among my friends and family ignore the insane tweets, the rapid dismantling of rights and protections for our citizens, and all of the other assaults on our country that are currently oozing out of Washington D.C. like an overflowing toilet. Their argument: This too shall pass away.

They invoke the Civil War, the horrors of Reconstruction and the Klan, the McCarthy era. They point out that our nation has, more than once, received terrible body blows from within, and yet has managed to survive.

Yet I have other friends who obsessively read the news, agonizing over every astounding new insult to our system of laws and our national character. They are politically engaged, but stressed.

The first group is less likely to get high blood pressure, but are they really right? After all, any democracy relies on checks and balances. When a major political party goes insane, it’s up to others to pull us back from the madness.

As painful as it is, I think we have a responsibility as citizens to face the discomfort of dealing with a self-serving scoundrel and his cynical enablers. When you look back on those historical examples, one thing they had in common was the courage of at least some citizens to look the agents of hate in the face and say, in effect, “At long last, have you no sense of decency?”

Super powers

We are starting on a new research direction at the lab. When I first started drawing up plans describing this direction, I listed a set of projects we might work on.

It all sounded ok, but it wasn’t particularly exciting. The word “project” can evoke the idea of something you do because it needs doing. Like the “project” of repainting your bedroom or cleaning out the garage.

But then I changed things a bit, and started describing the same capabilities as “super powers”. Instead of stuff we need to implement, things are now framed in terms of cool new abilities we will end up having when we are done.

Suddenly the whole thing reads like something exciting — a grand and even epic adventure. I think there is a principle at work here:

In order to create excitement, it’s not sufficient to describe something. You need to create a compelling narrative. If you want to really inspire somebody, tell them a good story.

Puppies and kittens

I was having dinner with a fairly omnivorous friend at a trendy vegan restaurant in Greenwich Village. At some point the topic of varying cuisines came up.

I am a conscientious vegan, which means that for ethical reasons I eat only plant based foods. But I don’t have any objection to other people eating whatever they happen to eat, because I hate when people tell each other what they are supposed to do.

My friend had just related to me a story in which he had been dared to eat something without being told what it was. Only afterward did he find out that he had been eating whale.

He told me that he had gotten really upset, because he would not have purposely eaten whale meat. He had a level of sympathy for whales that moved them out of the category of food.

This made it easier for me to explain that becoming vegan had not involved any willpower at all on my part. It was, rather, a category shift. Here is how I explained it:

Just because something tastes yummy and is nutritious doesn’t necessarily make it food. And it doesn’t take any willpower to refrain from eating something that isn’t food.

For example, puppies and kittens might taste delicious, if you were ever to try them. And they would probably be quite nutritious. But you probably don’t think of them as “food”, so you still wouldn’t want to eat them.

Of course all of this is culturally relative. Your mileage may vary.

Conducting oneself

We all know on some level that we have multiple aspects to our personality. Different sides of us emerge at varying times, depending on a combination of circumstance and stress level.

Suppose we could see all of those sides of our personality with perfect clarity? Rather than a cacophony, what if they were instruments in a well conducted orchestra?

Now suppose that this were perfectly normal. Rather than being ruled by conflicts between internal emotional forces, what if people were able to simply draw upon those forces as needed, the way a poet draws upon a beloved memory.

I suspect that world would be a very interesting place to live. But I also suspect it might seem a bit strange and overwhelming to us ordinary neurotic humans.

Future dichotomy

Today in my Future Reality Lab blog post I talked about the far future. In that post I focused on the positive, in a sort of rah-rah cheerleader way.

Yet I am aware that the possibilities I described also have a potential dark side. That dichotomy leads to an ethical quandary.

Should we refrain from developing certain promising new technologies because of the risk of potential misuse? Or should we continue to develop those high stakes technologies, while also continually working to develop appropriate safeguards along the way?

I don’t have an easy answer to those questions. Given that humans are tool builders, I suspect we will be needing to ask them for as long as we are on this planet.

Four Weddings and a Discussion

I recently rewatched Four Weddings and a Funeral, and found it even more delightfully hilarious than I had remembered. So I recommended it to a friend, who had never seen it.

He reported that he found it very hard to watch. By about ten minutes into it, he was cringing in embarrassment for the main character.

Of course this was a classic case of Mel Brooks’ dictum: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

I was seeing the main character’s plight through the prism of comedy. Somehow I was able to separate myself from the acute embarrassment he felt as he went from mishap to mishap.

My friend, on the other hand, was experiencing something closer to tragedy. He identified with the character so completely that he directly felt the character’s pain.

Of course it doesn’t need to be strictly one or the other. Some situations manage to be both ridiculously funny and unbearably tragic all at the same time.

Then again, I don’t feel like discussing national politics today.

VR unchained

I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Oculus Quest VR headset. It’s a $400 consumer device that you can order on-line or just pick up at your nearest BestBuy.

Unlike previous VR headsets for consumers, the Quest lets you walk freely around a room while exploring VR worlds. There are no wires so your movement is unconstrained.

To me the difference this makes is as fundamental as the difference between the telephone that used to hang on the wall in your parent’s kitchen and the SmartPhone that’s sitting in your pocket right now. It completely changes the nature of what VR is for.

The Quest is just the first step. We are about to enter an entirely new era of VR technology that will give us an amazing level of freedom to communicate and explore together.

The next few years are going to be lots of fun. I for one am very excited.

Some decades from now

There will come a point, some decades from now, when nobody alive will have ever experienced life before SmartPhones. When that happens, the entire concept of a moment of ordinary life being “off the grid” will have disappeared.

In that future, will people even be able to fathom what life was like before the internet was absolutely everywhere? Or will it seem to them completely crazy that anybody could have gone even a day without being “connected”?

On the other hand, by then modern medicine may have figured out how to extend the human life span to several hundred years. In which case, old geezers like me will be quite happy to talk about the good old days when you could get through an entire day in peace.