Over the past few months I’ve been developing a framework for the book I’ve been working on, and while I’ve been pretty quiet about the work, it’s time to lay it out and get some responses from you, the folks I most trust with keeping me on track.
I’ll admit the idea of putting all this out here makes me nervous – I’ve only discussed this with a few dozen folks, and now I’m going public with what I’ll admit is an unbaked cake. Anyone can criticize it now, (or, I suppose, steal it), but then again, I did the very same thing with the core idea in my last book (The Database of Intentions, back in 2003), and that worked out just fine.
So here we go. The original promise of my next book is pretty simple: I’m trying to paint a picture of the kind of digital world we’ll likely live in one generation from now, based on a survey of where we are presently as a digital society. In a way, it’s a continuation and expansion of The Search – the database of intentions has expanded from search to nearly every corner of our world – we now live our lives leveraged over digital platforms and data. So what might that look like thirty years hence?
As the announcement last year stated:
WHAT WE HATH WROUGHT will give us a forecast of the interconnected world in 2040, then work backwards to explain how the personal, economic, political, and technological strands of this human narrative have evolved from the pivotal moment in which we find ourselves now.
That’s a pretty tall order. At first, I spent a lot of time trying to boil any number of oceans – figuring out who to talk to in politics, energy, healthcare, technology, and, well, just about every major field. It quickly became quite evident that I’d end up with a book a thousand miles wide and one inch deep – unless I got very lucky and stumbled upon a perfect narrative actor that tied it all up into one neat story. Last time Google provided me that actor, but given I’m writing a book about how the world might look in 30 years, I’m not holding my breath waiting for another perfect protagonist to step out a time machine somewhere.
But what if those protagonists are already here? Allow me to explain…
For the past few months I’ve been stewing on how the hell to actually write this book I’ve promised everyone I would deliver. The manuscript is not actually due till early next year, but still, books take a lot of time. And every day that goes by without a clear framework is a day partially lost.
A couple of months ago, worried that I’d never figure this thing out (but knowing there had to be a way), I invited one of my favorite authors (and new Marin resident) Steven Johnson over to my house for a brainstorming session. I outlined where I was in my thinking, and posed to him my essential problem: I was trying to do too much, and needed to focus my work on a narrative that paid off the promise, but didn’t read like a textbook, or worse yet, like a piece of futurism. As I said to Steven, “If I write a book that has a scene where an alarm clock wakes you up on a ‘typical morning in 2045,’ please shoot me.”
It’s not that I don’t appreciate futurism – it’s just that I truly believe, as William Gibson famously put it, that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. If I could just figure out a way to report on that future, to apply the tools of journalism to the story of the future we’re creating, I’d come up with a book worth reading. Of course, it was this approach we took in the early years of Wired magazine. Our job, as my colleague Kevin Kelly put it, was to send writers off in search of where the future was erupting, with instructions to report back.
To find that future, we asked our writers (and editors) to look hard at the present, and find people, places or things that augured what might come next. Hence, issue one of Wired had articles about the future of war, education, entertainment, and sex, based on reporting done in the here and now. While we didn’t call it such, over the years we developed an “If-Then” approach to many of the stories we’d assign. We’d think out loud: “If every school had access to the Internet, then what might change about education?” Or, “If the government had the ability to track everything we do both offline and on, then what might our society look like?” The conditional “If” question followed with a realistic “Then” answer provided a good way to wrap our heads around a sometimes challenging subject (and for you programmers out there, we’d also consider the “ands” as well as the “elses.”)
Next, we’d ask a reporter to go find out all he or she could about that scenario – to go in search of artifacts from the future which told a story of where things might be going. (Wired, in fact, later created the popular “Found: Artifacts from the Future” series in the pages of the magazine.)
As an early reader and contributor to Wired, Steven knew all this, and reminded me of it as we spoke that day at my house. What if, he asked me, the book was framed as a series of stories about “future antiquities” or “future relics” (I think he first dubbed them “Magic Coins”)? Could we find examples of things currently extant, which, if widely adopted over the next generation, would presage significant changes in the world we’ll be inhabiting? Why, indeed, yes we could. Immediately I thought of five or six, and since that day, many more have come to mind.
Now, I think it bears unpacking this concept of what I mean by “widely adopted.” To me, it means clearing a pretty high hurdle – by 2045 or so, it’d mean that more than a billion people would be regularly interacting with whatever the future antiquity might be. When you get a very large chunk of the population engaged in a particular behavior, that behavior has the ability to effect real change on our political, social, and cultural norms. Those are the kind of artifacts I’m looking to find.
As a thought experiment, imagine I had given myself this assignment back in the early 1980s, when I was just starting my love affair with this story as a technology reporter (yes, there’s a symmetry here – that’s 30 years ago – one generation past). Had I gone off in search of digital artifacts that presaged the future, ones that I believed might be adopted by a billion or more people, I certainly would have started with the personal computer, which at that point was counted in the high hundreds of thousands in the US. And I also would have picked the Internet, which was being used, at that point, by only thousands of people. I’d have described the power of these two artifacts in the present day, imagined how technological and social change might develop as more and more people used them, and spoken to the early adopters, entrepreneurs, and thinkers of the day about what would happen if a billion or more people were using them on a regular basis.
An antiquity from the 1980s, with its future descendant (image from machinelake.com)
Pushing the hypothetical a bit further, I imagine I’d find the Dan Bricklins, Vint Cerfs, Ray Ozzies, and Bill Gates of the day, and noticed that they hung out in universities, for the most part. I’d have noticed that they used their computers and online networks to communicate with each other, to share information, to search and discover things, and to create communities of interest. It was in those universities where the future was erupting 30 years ago, and had I been paying close attention, it’s plausible I might have declared email, search, and social networks – or at least “communities on the Internet” – as artifacts of our digital future. And of course, I’d have noticed the new gadget just released called the mobile phone, and probably declared that important as well. If more than a billion people had a mobile phone by 2012, I’d have wondered, then what might our world look like?
I’m pretty sure I’d have gotten a lot wrong, but the essential framework – a way to think about finding and declaring the erupting future – seems a worthy endeavor. So I’ve decided to focus my work on doing just that. It helps that it combines two of my favorite approaches to thinking – anthropology and journalism. In essence, I’m going on a dig for future antiquities.
So what might some of today’s artifacts from the future be? I don’t pretend to have an exhaustive list, but I do have a good start. And while the “If-Then” framework could work for all sorts of artifacts, I’m looking for those that “ladder up” to significant societal change. To that end, I’ve begun exploring innovations in energy, finance, health, transportation, communications, commerce – not surprisingly, all subjects to which we have devoted impressive stone buildings in our capital city. (Hence my trip to DC last week.)
Here’s one example that might bring the concept home: The Fitbit. At present, there are about half a million of them in the world, as far as I can tell (I’m meeting with the company soon). But Fitbit-like devices are on the rise – Nike launched its FuelBand earlier this year, for example. And while the first generation of these devices may only appeal to early adopters, with trends in miniaturization, processing power, and data platforms, it’s not hard to imagine a time when billions of us are quantifying our movement, caloric intake and output, sleep patterns, and more, then sharing that data across wide cohorts so as to draw upon the benefits of pattern-recognizing algorithms to help us make better choices about our behavior.
If that were to happen, what then might be the impact on our healthcare systems? Our agricultural practices and policies? Our insurance industries? Our life expectancies? I’m not entirely sure, but it’d sure be fun to try to answer such questions.
I won’t tip my hand as to my entire current list of Future Antiquities, but I certainly would welcome your ideas and input as to what they might be. I’d also like your input on the actual title of the book. “What We Hath Wrought” is a cool title, but perhaps it’s a bit….too heady. Some might even call it overwrought. What if I called the book “If-Then”? I’m thinking about doing just that. Let me know in comments, and as always, thanks for reading.