New book #1 is done. Now to catch up with What’s Next, which is now so late it’s almost historical (and hysterical). Several things caught my eye today. Firstly, a new term – fauxstalgia – meaning new technologies that make the contemporary look classily dated. According to Wired magazine, an app called Retro Recall is a good example. This randomly showcases fashion, music and TV from 1980 onwards. iZotype is another example, which is a sound-processing program that adds ‘authentic’ vinyl crackle to digital recordings, although when I looked at this it didn’t quite seem to be what the app was offering.

What’s going on here? Possibly it’s the idea put forward by the writer Simon Reynolds that for sections of society “the past has replaced the future in the imagination.” Why so? I think it’s possibly related to anxiety caused by uncertainty.

More seriously, the other things included an article in the FT saying that India’s richest 100 people own assets equivalent to 25% of Indian GDP. Also, fact that 800 million Indians live on less than 50 cents a day. Meanwhile, in an older edition of the FT, there’s the assertion that next year the US Air Force will have more drone pilots than pilots of ‘real’ F16 fighters.


Classic counter-trend






Apparently sales of fountain pens are on the rise. For instance, according to Amazon, sales have doubled this year compared to last and are up 400% on 2010. But why?

I suspect the reason is that this is a counter-trend. Things have swung too far in the direction of email and texts and people want something more tactile and ‘special’.

A tweet or text saying “Sorry for your loss ;-( ” doesn’t carry the same weight as a handwritten note. As they say (well, as I sometimes say), ideas come and go, but often they come and stay. The serious point here is that very strong trends tend to create weaker counter-trends moving in the opposite direction. These are either growth opportunities or risks depending on your orientation.

More on this from the BBC here.

Why trends bend

If one more person had said “Have a magic day” I might have hit them. I’ve been in Hong Kong for a night staying at the Disneyland Hotel. Mickey Mouse in Cantonese and Mandarin is somewhat weird. Anyway, amongst other things, I’m putting the finishing touches to a new book called The Future: 50 Things You Really Need to Know. Here’s what used to be the end before it got thrown out (I hate throwing things away, which is why have a habit of recycling them here).

Ideas can be tricky in the sense that they often combine in novel and unexpected ways. Thus, the future rarely ends up as a logical extension of our current thinking. Some ideas will move much faster, or much slower, than we expect, either because we will underestimate the speed of technological change or because we will forget about the impact of human psychology and the inertia of history. This latter point is hugely important. Futurists, especially techno-optimists, often focus on technology at the expense of other important factors, especially the psychology of their fellow human beings, many of whom can be emotional, subjective, irrational, forgetful and stark raving mad.

Therefore, while science and technology will exert significant influence on the future, other, more prosaic, ideas or events may prove to be far more influential, especially when they combine with inherently human responses. For example, it is likely that machines will one day become smart enough to replace people in many more roles. At this point capital effectively becomes labour. But what will the human reaction to this situation be? Similarly, a major man-made or natural disaster could trigger a seemingly illogical technological regression, while a prolonged economic depression might result in anger or resentment towards other nations that ends up with a steady retreat from globalisation and many of the values, institutions and beliefs that we currently take for granted.

If you are thinking that this all sounds a little unlikely and that the future will most probably be a predictable and logical extension of the present, then consider what a handful of men armed with a simple idea, together with some low-tech box cutters and a rudimentary knowledge of flying, managed to do to geopolitics, US military deployment and the global zeitgeist on 11 September 2001.

We might also find that many of our new ideas, especially major scientific and technological breakthroughs that would benefit mankind, are constrained, modified or rejected by large numbers of people in favour of illogical beliefs and superstitions. Rather than a new enlightenment, we may enter a new dark age where it is illogical beliefs, rather than facts, that flourish. Again, you might believe that this future is implausible, but it’s already happening in some regions where the teaching of evolution is being rejected , either in favour of the balanced teaching of various viewpoints, or because religion considers such ideas to be dangerous and subversive.

Or perhaps we will abandon the internet, either because we no longer trust much of the information it contains, or because governments, or corporations, around the world start to censor it or remove many, or all, of its open and generative qualities.

We should also remember that important things happen by accident and that people often find uses for ideas that their creators did not foresee. Sending texts via mobile phones is just example of the unintended consequences of technology. Similarly, Twitter was largely created ‘on the fly’ by its users and not the unfolding of a long-term master plan. We often make long-terms plans based on an imagined future, but life then makes unexpected and unwanted turns. The challenge, to some extent, is dealing with the realities that we get rather than those we expect. Life, as John Lennon said, is what happens to you while you are making other plans.

It would also be a mistake to assume that the future will be a singular experience. Some people will experience the future sooner than others, which is much the same as saying that how you experience the future, 5, 15 or 50 years hence, will to a large degree, depend upon what age you are, where you live and what you spend your time doing. There is also the point made about prophesy by the philosopher Karl Popper many years ago, which is that the future is dependent upon the growth of knowledge, which is itself unknowable or, at the very least, unpredictable.

To conclude, the only thing that we really know about the future is that it will be different. Nothing is inevitable and equally nothing will happen in isolation.
Overall, the future offers us many wonderful possibilities, but it remains up to us whether the opportunities are embraced, squandered or ignored. The future is already here, but it’s unclear what we’ll decide to do with it.

Should we be optimistic about the future? On balance, the answer is probably yes. In the shorter term there are serious issues on the horizon and everyday life is likely to get more difficult for many people, especially in relation to food, water, energy and resources. Mankind also has a habit of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, often due to short-term pressures, or messing things up completely by leaving things until it’s too late. But we usually muddle through and eventually fix any serious wrongdoings.

Over the longer term things are looking brighter, largely due to forthcoming developments in areas such as healthcare, energy and the Internet. These changes won’t benefit everyone, so one of the key challenges is to ensure that any newfound optimism is evenly distributed and that more of the world’s people can engage in a debate about what kind of future we would all like to live in.

Yesterday’s futures











I’ve been at the University of Warwick attending a conference organised by the Society of Chief Librarians. There was a good talk on scenarios by Rafael Ramîrez, a fellow in strategy and director of the scenarios programme at the Said Business School at Oxford. He said something I liked which was as follows:

“Trends are the leftovers of yesterdays futures”

I think this is largely true, especially if you are talking about distant futures. Trends tell you about yesterday. They can sometimes tell you something useful about today, but you have to be very careful about projecting them forward. Having said this, I believe that some trends can stand the test of time. Demographics might be a case in point, although even here you have to be careful. For example, the UN has just adjusted it global population forecasts due to “unforeseen” fertility in Africa.

One other thing. I was in Birmingham earlier in the week (nice new library!) and couldn’t help but notice the amount of people on the street selling grievances. There were two stalls on the street selling personal injury compensation and another asking if you’d been mis-sold financial services. There was definitely something in the air around being hard done by or wanting to claim your share of the pie.


Image: Futurelab.org.uk