The benefits of being a slow reader

I’ve started doing something recently that seems to be having an interesting effect on me. It’s something I’ve started to mention to other people and they seem to be intrigued by it.

What’s the thing?

I’ve started reading old newspapers and magazines. I don’t mean really old (years old), but weeks and occasionally months old.

Why am I doing this?

It’s partly that I no longer have the time to keep up with the daily deluge of newspapers. Reading one or two daily newspapers plus half a dozen or more magazines and periodicals cover to cover every week just isn’t sustainable.

So, here’s what I’ve started doing to deal with the deluge. I’m still buying the same material (but with more of a focus on weekend editions of newspapers and monthly magazines and periodicals that have more time to analyse not just report), but I’m reading them in binge reading sessions backwards. I’m reading them a week or a month after they’ve been published.

What’s the benefit of doing this?

Reading news and analysis that’s old seems to mean that I can skim things much faster. It’s more immediately obvious what is nonsense, misjudged, ill-informed or, with 20/20 hindsight, absolute gibberish.

I can skim a whole newspaper and pick out the good bits in 60-seconds if the issue is old enough.

But this skimming must be done on paper. Skimming a newspaper or magazine is far faster on paper than scanning one online. On paper serendipity also kicks in. Online I’ve pre-selected sections that I’m theoretically interested in. On paper, I just look at the whole thing and occasionally find things that I never knew I wanted to know.

But the really key thing is that with old newspapers, periodicals and magazines I seem to see connections. The benefit of what I’m terming ‘media hindsight’ is that deep connections appear far quicker.

My mind is more relaxed too. I don’t feel as though I have to finish things fast. The pressure is somehow off.I’m also tearing things out, scribbling on them with a pen and stapling them to similar and connected ideas. Try doing that on a screen.

In short, I have more time to think and my thinking is more relaxed, less knee-jerk and more contextual. I’m even less stressed, less anxious about the state of world affairs and, dare I say it, a little bit smarter (which in my case isn’t difficult).

Every little helps as they say.

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Idea of the month – social seating

So, I’m in Adelaide and there’s the world’s biggest space expo and exhibition happening alongside a festival of the future and future innovation. I’m in a hotel and eating breakfast by myself. So is more or less everyone else. But my suspicion is that some of these these people eating alone might be rather interesting. There a quite a few astronauts knocking around town for example.

So, here’s my idea. When I check into a hotel (or onto a flight for that matter) instead of asking whether I’d like a smoking or non-smoking room or equivalent, why can’t I be asked whether I’d like to meet someone new or perhaps ask me who I am and what I’m interested in and try to pair me with someone for breakfast or whatever.

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Our Energy Future

Back in 2007 I vividly remember having a conversation with a fellow futurist about Peak Oil. As far as he was concerned, the oil price was going to keep going up and up and we were facing a global crisis. Only it didn’t and we faced a different kind of crisis. The global economy crashed and took the oil price with it, falling, if I remember rightly, from $147 a barrel to less than $50. I’ve not heard the expression Peak Oil since.

Peak oil, like most predictions, contains assumptions. It’s also impacted by other factors, notably the price of oil. The higher the price, the more oil there is, because there’s greater economic incentive to find more, to look for non-conventional reserves or to invest in alternatives such as solar or wind. In other words, there are feedback loops.

I’m told that in the 1700s there was Peak Wood in Britain. The demand for wood was skyrocketing due to rapid urbanisation and the clearance of woodland for agriculture. Wood was the main global fuel and the main building material too and it was becoming scarce. There was surface coal, and people knew about underground coal, but they couldn’t get their hands on it due to mine-shaft flooding.

But, as always, necessity was the mother of invention. The high-pressure steam pump was invented to solve the problem of draining deep mine-shafts and this invention kick-started the industrial revolution. So, in a sense, we’ve been wherever we are before.

Right now we don’t have an energy crisis globally. What we have is an energy storage problem. We need reliability of supply ahead of both affordability and low carbon, although all three are vitally important.We face imbalances between supply and demand, especially with growing populations, urbanisation and the impacts of climate change and regulation, but human energy is addressing this. Battery technology in particular is improving, although this only solves part of the problem.

The decentralisation of energy and the development of smart energy grids – along with smart buildings and intelligent appliances – is the larger part of the solution in my view, although we shouldn’t forget that energy anarchy could be a step away from energy democratisation.

At the moment the grid, our cities, our buildings and our appliances are not very intelligent. And neither are we. Power generally comes from centralised generators and we plug in or switch off our devices wily-nilly and then complain about the size of our energy bill.

But imagine if everything that used power were given a level of intelligence and autonomy. Imagine if devices, dwellings and local energy eco-systems could instantly switch energy provider. And what if these devices and micro-grids could trade with each other, selling any excess energy they had or deferring – or time-shifting – their use of power in return for micro-payments.

So instead of devices being ‘on’ or ‘off’ they would decide for themselves the optimum time to be switched on or recharged. They might have a conversation with us about this or, more likely, they would talk among themselves and collectively agree how best to use the power that’s currently available on a national, local or hyper-local basis.

Your washing machine, for example, might shift being on by 10 or 20 minutes or it might decide buy electricity from your neighbour’s electric car. And perhaps Google will facilitate this, becoming an energy trader and provider connecting everything that’s connected for optimum efficiency. Google might even offer free energy in return for data.

This could all work seamlessly, especially if we harness the power of AI and machine learning, but it has the potential to dissolve into disaster too if control is too tight or too loose or we create a system that can be hacked. A single domestic air-conditioning unit linked to the internet can be hacked to cause a surge, thus knocking out the power of a whole neighbourhood.

Electric cars, btw, are interesting in the context of smart things, but they are a long way from being a game changer in terms of fossil fuel dependence.

There are currently around 2 million electric cars globally. The forecast is 100 million by 2035, but even this number would only reduce demand for oil by 1 ½ million barrels of oil per day. Global oil demand is currently 95 million barrels a day.

Even if we get 100 million electric cars by 2040 this pales into insignificance compared to the 1 billion conventionally powered cars we currently have or the 2 billion forecast by 2040. Regulation may change these numbers, especially in China, but don’t count on it.

Nevertheless, electric and especially autonomous electric vehicles do deliver one thing that’s potentially rather interesting. If you have millions if not billions of electric vehicles buzzing around you effectively have one giant battery. And it’s a battery that’s highly mobile, locally owned and potentially the beginnings of a system where ordinary people are able to store power and sell it to each other.

If you add in nudge pricing (energy tariffs that vary by season, by real-time demand or by end use – or offer financial incentives to people not to use power at a certain time) we could end up with an era of energy abundance rather than scarcity.

But don’t for a minute think that such a system will run primarily on renewables. In my view fossil fuels will continue to dominate out to at least 2030, maybe 2035. Unfortunately, renewables sources of energy don’t scale well and history suggests that energy transitions (the time it takes to switch from one primary energy source to another) takes many decades.

Over the much longer term, beyond 2040 say, I think we have a slightly different power problem, namely will power. We can easily solve all current and future energy problems if we act together and think boldly enough.

For example, it’s been said that if 0.3% of the Sahara was covered with solar panels, Europe could be powered indefinitely. Raise this figure to 1% and you could power the entire world. And that’s with existing solar technology, never mind hyper-efficient nano-solar that might work with moonlight or within clear glass panels. Imagine if every window in the world was a solar power panel?

Looking out of my plane window on the way to Australia recently it was clear that Australia has an lot of land and quite a bit of sun, so why isn’t there mega-solar downunder?

But that’s just one option. We can get more inventive than this.

We can grow bio-fuels using algae. We can harvest micro-energy from human footsteps, from body heat or from the waste energy emitted from our homes. We can collect wind inside tunnels using tiny electric ‘ribbons’, harvest wind alongside roads using plastic blades of grass that are actually tiny wind turbines or even harvest wind in the deep oceans.

We might even be able to collect wind high above the earth using giant kites (or airships) or collect solar energy in space using mirrors and send it back to earth using lasers or microwaves.

Implausible, but not impossible.

Over the short-term things could get bumpy due to conflicting political and commercial interests, and I do see a shift away from coal, but I don’t see coal disappearing entirely and neither do I see gas or oil going away anytime soon. Known reserves of oil are enough to meet global demand out to 2030 twice over and the development of alternatives could effectively increase reserves. As for nuclear, by 2040 there’s a vague change of Fusion Power, which would be another game-changer.

In short, I see a world where energy sources become more diverse, more local, more transparent and more democratic. An energy future that hopefully shifts away from central to local control and away from some of the world’s more unpleasant regimes too, although the destabilisation of these energy autocracies could create a different set of problems.

But, of course, I could be wrong.

The only thing we know with absolute certainty about the future is that it’s uncertain. Extrapolating recent experience or events forward in a singular, logical, linear manner is usually how we get ourselves into trouble. So, we need to think. And then think again.

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Luminous beings are we…not this crude matter.

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Surveillance innovation

This is quite extraordinary (and straight out of 24 or CSI). Researchers at MIT, CSAIL and Microsoft are experimenting with the recovery of speach from vibrations. In one experiment they were able to ‘recover’ speach from the vibrations of a crisp packet behind glass 15 feet away. The same tech can be applied to a glass of water or the leaves of a plant. Awesome! Somewhere I’ve got a timeline of emerging tech with Speach Recognition CCTV on it. This is far in advance of that. Any criminal or terrorist seen to be talking can potentially have their conversation intercepted via the video recording and analysis of vibrations on everyday objects around them. One for GCHQ or MI5 perhaps? (but I’m sure they’ve already listened in on this innovation).

Thanks to Nik at ITF who picked this up.

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Why technology forecasting goes wrong

Lovely set of pieces in Slate on the Future of the Future. One article in particular caught my eye, which is an analysis of 81 technology articles and press releases going back to the 1990s in which things are said about what will be true in 5-10 years. As the article points out, one especially common mistake is to confuse the invention of something with its widespread adoption and use.

The full set of articles can be found here.

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Stranger than fiction

And let’s not talk about the Amazon algorithm recommending certain ‘ingredients’ terrorists may have missed!

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Chinese translation of Digital Vs. Human

The only country, I believe, that’s translated every single one of my books is China.

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