Saturday, January 17, 2009

Things #1: Seeing the future.

Just before Christmas, as if to pre-empt the usual spate of 2009 predictions from anyone who fancies themselves a technology pundit, music industry consultant Andrew Dubber wrote a passionate rant (his term, so no criticism implied) against prediction.

I've never been afraid to critique punditry, especially where it's based upon little else than speculation, but Dubber's post got me thinking about the whole area of prediction in technology and everything that's mediated by technology (which might just mean everything that involves people and their myriad interactions over distances). Is it really a fool's game? Is prediction and speculation so meaningless as to be consigned forever to the realm of charlatans and snake-oil? When I (only half jokingly) described myself as a "network futurist" did I condemn myself to ridicule and mistrust?

The weeks pre-CES and MacWorld are notable each year for a dramatic increase in idle speculation and opinion, and this year was no exception, with dozens of analysts and bloggers producing thousands of words telling us just what we should expect from the technology companies.

Apple in particular is subject to this kind of empty analysis, partly because of the secrecy surrounding their future moves, but also because Apple and its various products touch us culturally and creatively in ways that few other technology companies do. The various developments around iTunes and the iPod ecosystem, for example, have ramifications for the whole music industry and for the digital distribution of all kinds of intellectual property (some of which I'll expand upon over the next few days).

It's this degree of influence that brings analysts, speculators, pundits and, yes, self-proclaimed network futurists out in a cold sweat, and leaves us feverish over the possibilities. In our predictions we embody our wishes for the future of technology, media and ways of living, as if the words on the screen (and the attention they garner) will magically bring our desires into being.

Now for the most part this is a futile exercise, and little better than sitting in a bar waxing lyrical over the future of digital media, politics, or sport. If the past is a foreign country then the future is another universe entirely, and we have no right to expect it to behave as we wish. Most of us are condemned to live in the future as tolerated outsiders, watching the next generation unpick the mess we left behind and bring something decidely alien and unexpected into being.

Sometimes though, this act of prediction is less selfish, motivated not by a desire for recognition (or worse, profiteering) but by an acceptance of constant change and the need for social advancement. The genuine spirit of futurism lies not in pretending to see the future, but in recognising that we all have to live there, and that although the best way to predict the future is to invent it, first we have to imagine the possibilities and work out which of them we want. Or, just as importantly, which of them we wish to avoid.

So while Andrew Dubber is right, I intend nevertheless to spend the next few days recklessly gazing over the horizon. Here in Bangkok, seven hours in the future from the UK and on the continent which will likely dominate the next fifty years, I'm looking forward. Not from a position of special insight, but from one of optimism and excitement, tempered by the knowledge that there are crucial things we need to imagine now if we, and the alien race we call the next generation, are to actually make it happen.


Blogger Dubber said...

You've captured my intention exactly. As soon as we abandon fortune-telling and predicting what will "happen to us" in the future, we can start charting a deliberate course and go about inventing it.

My main gripe is with charlatans who describe the present and dress it up with jargon to portray some sort of futuristic utopia (or dystopia).

The key phrase that should automatically ring alarm bells is: "In the future, we will all..."

10:43 AM  

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