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Welcome to the World of Tomorrow! (Part One)
Jamais Cascio, 4 Dec 03

What does the future hold? Building a better future takes foresight: you need to have a sense of how things are changing, what you're going to be up against, and what new tools and systems may be available over the coming years. While there are myriad writers trying to tell you (or sell you...) their visions of what tomorrow may bring, few of them are truly useful if you're trying to change the world.

Quite a few futurists fall into a trap of imagining that the invention of things is a good way of thinking about the future. British Telecom has a forecasting department that specializes in just this, and has published a calendar of technology development. As the document was initially published in late 2001, and we are about to enter 2004, looking at how well they mapped out developments in 2002 and 2003 is a useful exercise. We seem to have under a month for the first talk show hosted by a robot to hit the airwaves, for example.

Not everyone who focuses on devices and innovations is content to simply list things in a terse "10GHz chips -- 2006" format. MIT's journal Technology Review publishes an annual "10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World" article, going into substantial detail about how the inventions work, how they are used, and what the next steps are in their development. The 2003 listing, from early this year, has been made available here; the 2004 edition, due out in a month, will likely be available initially only to subscribers.

More recently, Fast Company magazine took a similar approach, listing "5 Technologies That Will Change the World." As with the Technology Review piece, the article goes into some detail about the people and processes involved in the creation of the new systems.

Of course, the world is more than innovative new technologies and processes. Politics, demographics, design, and more all help shape global outcomes.

But few of these futurist and forward-looking projects take the next step, and consider how the developments, changes, threats, and opportunities they describe combine with those described by others. How does an increase in average lifespan mix with the proliferation of tiny, wireless, networked cameras, for example? At first blush, they seem unrelated -- and they are, superficially -- but upon reflection, one can start to imagine how a growing elderly population might use ubiquitous networked cameras for their own personal security (fearful of roving bands of teenagers), how an overtaxed healthcare system might use abundant netcams as a way of monitoring seniors who don't need onsite care but might need rapid responses to a fall or heart attack, how active older people might use mobile networked cameras as a tool for prompting their gradually failing memories when meeting someone new, trying to recall where they put their keys, etc. (frankly, I could use something like that now...). I'm sure you could think of others.

None of these musings would necessarily have been apparent just from thinking about the implications of either aging demographics or wireless cameras, but pop right out when you put the two together.

In part two, I'll talk a bit more about how we can use this as a tool for building a better world.

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