By Danlev (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

SPECIAL GUEST: Heather Schlegel. There are many paths to the future and many futures that could come to pass. Strategic foresight is the art of looking ahead to these futures. On this episode, we're joined by social scientist and futurist Heather Schlegel to talk about the future of finance and wearable technology. We cover Bitcoin, Google Glass, Apple Watch, a variety of fitness trackers, other cryptocurrencies, and the way our world is changing in relation to these new technologies as well as what it means to be a futurist. Recorded 4/1/2015.


You can download the episode here, or an even higher quality copy here...


Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:

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The Future Of Money podcast

Heather on Facebook

Heather on Twitter

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Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #159. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.

Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.

Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.

MJ: And joining us on tonight’s episode is Heather Schlegel.  Heather, thanks for joining us.

Heather Schlegel: Thanks, my pleasure. 

MJ: To start off, could you tell us a little bit about your background.

HS: Sure. So I am a futurist, and the way I describe what I do is really I’m a scientist that studies the future. Now a lot of people think that the future is like the past and the present, meaning that there’s one past and there’s one present. So we think there’s one future, and that’s one of the reasons why we love predictions, and we want to know what the future is, because we think there’s this one future. But really the future is a completely different medium. Like if you think about art, it’s just a completely different thing. It’s not like there’s one future--there’s many possible futures. And as a futurist, and anyone who really looks to the future, it’s really about seeing what could happen and those are both in very clear directions, and then also kind of in more creative directions. So it’s both an art and a science. There’s a couple areas that I really focus on, and have researched for quite a while. One of them is the future of money and I’ve been studying the changes that have been happening with transactions, currency, technology since 2010 in that space. I’ve also studied the future of relationships and intimacy and how technology is making us have better relationships and closer, deeper contacts with each other. I also study how we’re changing our identities with technology. As a futurist, I really study how technology is changing the world that we know, and I really try to have a positive, balanced perspective and not just really be dystopian and think that no one’s going to have jobs and the economic world is going to collapse. I like to be more positive about it.

MJ: What really inspired you to get interested in the future?

HS: Well, that’s a great question. So I guess it was about 2007, I was at an event I had thrown. I used to be really active in community building for the Los Angeles technology community, and at one of the events was this guy, his name’s John Smart. We were talking, I was telling him about my work, what I was doing and he said, “You’re a futurist.” And I said, “Well, what’s that?” And he told me and I was like, “Okay, whatever.” A few years later I thought, “Maybe I am a futurist” because I’ve found even in my previous career when I worked in Silicon Valley as a product manager, I always worked for start-ups that were just ahead of their time. You know, they were a couple years, maybe five years ahead of what the mainstream was ready for. And so I thought, “You know what, maybe I am this futurist.” So I started researching it and I started learning more about the industry and what it was and what it took to be a futurist, and I realized that you can be a futurist. So there’s a couple ways I’ve figured out that people become a futurist, and one is you just start calling yourself a futurist and doing the work. There’s a lot of people out there that do that, that’s one way of doing it. Then there’s people that go out and get a Master’s. You can get a Master’s or PhD in foresight or strategic foresight. I thought that I could probably hack it if I just changed my title to futurist and go out and do it, but I don’t like to do anything really half-assed. So I thought if I’m going to be really serious about changing my career, I’m going to just go all the way. I went back to school and I got a Master’s in strategic foresight, and just for the record, I’m not a person who’s into academia or going back to school. I’m a person that learns, makes things up, is on the edge of things, but I have to say that going through the program, I learned so many tools and techniques and ways of thinking and ways of training myself to think differently, and just some consciousness around myself and my own biases that I look at the work that I’ve done and it’s just significantly better. I’m able to see the future, see future possibilities much better than had I just changed my title to futurist and started kind of making it up as I went along. I get a lot of inspiration from science fiction, it’s kind of one of the things that all futurists have. They’re really inspired by a lot of science fiction. There’s definitely an aptitude. People who do this kind of work or think about the future, we’re all kind of naturally interested in it in a certain way. But it’s kind of like finances or driving or anything. We all need to think about the future a little bit to see how it applies back to us. But only a few people become professional race car drivers.

MJ: That’s interesting that it was John Smart that started you down that road. You’re actually the second person that we’ve had on that’s sort of been connected to him.  He actually referred us to our guest from Episode 152, Scott Lemon, who’s got a company called Woven in the Internet of Things space.  

HS: Yeah, John has been in the future space for a really long time and he’s fantastic. He’s a great advocate for the future. Once you’ve been working in the space for a little bit, some people just know what they are and what they do, and other people are just kind of like, “Oh, I don’t know.” And futurist is such a cool thing. I tell people what I do and they’re like, “Oh, that’s so cool!” And it is cool. I want people to think about the future and think about how we can co-create the futures we want to live in. Because here’s the thing: if you’re not actively out there thinking about the future, creating the future, and by creating the future those are actions you take in everyday life, in the present moment, you create the future in the present, then you’re going to be left with a future that someone else creates. So, I think one of my big motivating factors of the research I do and why I just put it out there--and most of my research is what I call independently produced, independently funded research, I don’t do it from a company, I do it as a labor of love and curiosity--is I want people to be educated about the changes happening in money, and with technology, so that we can make conscious choices when we choose to pay for things, or what we’re choosing to pay for things, or how we choose to interact in the present moment so that we can create a future that is vibrant and abundant for all humans.

MJ: Yeah, I think we would definitely agree with you.  So, you’ve got a project that started as a Kickstarter that has become a podcast?  The Future of Money, correct?

HS: Yes, actually that project’s been going on--it’s been five years now I’ve been working on The Future of Money. I started my Master’s in 2010, and I wanted a throw-away topic that I could kind of practice some of these new tools I was learning, forecasting tools. I was working for a company that was kind of in a financial space and so I thought, “Oh let me look at how technology is disrupting the financial industry,” thinking that this is something I would maybe work on for four months, and then throw it away as sort of the end of the coursework, I’d just be done with it. Well, what I found out was that it was really fascinating. Fast-forward to 2013, I had this really ambitious idea. Let’s fill in a few little gaps first. So, I did a bunch of research in the future of transactions in 2010, 2011, and 2012. I produced three short scenario videos, one in 2011 and two in 2012 that showed visions of the future of transactions and how people would pay for things. The biggest one of those was Fly Me to the Moon, which was showing four friends splitting a check at dinner, and that scenario was written in 2010, shot in 2011. If you watch it today in 2015, it fits right in. Some of it feels very familiar to us, and there’s some pieces of it that still haven’t yet happened but probably will. As I was speaking a lot and I was showing people these videos, I realized the power of showing the videos, how it impacted people. So I had a really ambitious project to make a TV series around the future of money, so I raised a Kickstarter for that in 2013. After a series of really working hard to try to make that happen in 2013, 2014, it was just taking a really long time, and I’m impatient and I wanted to move forward with it. Rather than wait to do the TV series, which I am still kind of working on on the side, I decided to launch a podcast. So I’ve started The Future of Money podcast in which I interviewed a lot of the people that I’ve talked to, that I’ve known well, that really have driven a lot of my research, and released those interviews as a podcast. I’m actually doing a second season this year. I don’t know that I’ve really told very many people about it. I’ll announce it now. I’m definitely planning to do a second series around the future of money this year, and I’m doing a new podcast series on the future of wearables, because wearables is such a hot topic. I haven’t really seen a lot of grounded in foresight extrapolations picked up by mainstream media. It’s just been mostly a lot of pop news, what’s just really been happening.  So, I really wanted to kind of do a little bit of a deeper query into wearables, and embedded devices, and kind of the implications we might think about that.  That’s another tangent.

MJ: What do you think of the Apple Watch? Because I know when they first announced that right around the same time as Apple Pay to tie back to finances, my first thought was that Apple Pay was going to be way bigger, but the idea of tying that into the watch, that seems like a pretty obvious use-case I guess? I should admit I’m a big Apple-watcher. It seems like a lot of the coverage is either very very pro or very very con--there’s no middle ground. And a lot of times it seems kind of shallow, I guess. I’m curious to see not only what you think about the Apple Watch but some of the others in that space to knit together wearables and the future of transactions.   

HS: Yeah, I’ve thought a lot about wearables and banking and wearable wallets, and you know like a few years ago no one was really talking about wearables in finance. I was at this wearables conference and I was like, “We’ve got to start thinking about this,” and now I see it all of the time. Of course, it’s just a matter of us going there. Apple is not a technology, innovation leader. They take concepts and ideas that have already been socialized by startups, by other types of technology. What Apple’s great for is the tipping point; Apple is the tipping point from early adopters to mainstream. Apple Pay is very exciting because it’s kind of like unleashing it to the masses. It’s very interesting to watch how that’s unfolding. Now the Apple Watch--my big problem with wearables is that they’re not really designed for a woman. I’m a woman obviously, and I don’t wear a watch. I haven’t worn a watch for like, 20 years. I’ve worn a watch maybe three years of my life. So, I’m not in the target market for any of these watch-like devices. There are a few handful of devices that are beautiful, smart pieces of jewelry. Their functionality is not really anything I’m interested in, like I don’t need to have a ring or a bracelet notify me of text messages or notifications or things on my phone. I don’t need that level of always-on connection. So I think that, at least for me, there’s not the killer app that I’ve experienced with those types of wearables. Now, I think that for health-related items or fitness, it makes more sense. But again, I’ve tried some of those wearables. They’re all gross; they’re like plastic, they don’t fit properly, they fall off. Frankly, I want to go straight to a stick-on sticker, right. You know, give me a temporary tattoo. I’d wear a temporary “Smart Tattoo” before I’d wear a plastic bracelet. That’s just me, and guys--I’ll make a gender stereotype here--guys tend to be more into the watches and those things. The other comments with the Apple Watch is the killer app for women would be a period tracker. That’s something that I won’t say I’m thinking about all the time or whatever, but it’s something that we kind of have to track and monitor and know what’s going on, and man, that would make life a lot easier--to be able to have that information, to be able to track mood information. That’s not even there. So, talking about period-tracking apps is probably not something a lot of people are comfortable with.

MB: It might be helpful for men. If it’s that time of the month if the watch turned a different color, so that we knew, so that we could just avoid you.  

HS: Maybe just broadcast, “GTFO!”  you know? “Don’t fuck with me today. Just leave me alone.  Today’s not the day for anything.” Or maybe it could be like, “Today is the day your significant other, your spouse, your partner, if you wanted to bring takeout home or bring home some flowers or be extra nice, that would be really helpful.” It’s just a fact of life and no amount of drugs is going to change our chemical bodies. So, I guess I would say, wearables… Women are fifty-plus percent of the population, and we spend tons of money. Make some beautiful looking devices that do stuff we care about. I think it will happen.

MB: Where do you think Google Glass went wrong? Do you think it went wrong?

HS: Well, it’s not like Google Glass was wrong or right.  

MB: It’s gone at this point if I’m not mistaken, or pretty much cancelled.

MJ: I think they pulled it back into the lab, didn’t they?

HS: I think they did that. There is a wearable pair of glasses that I think is really cool, and that’s the Jins Meme, it’s in Japan. Google Glass had too much functionality, and too much creepy uses for it, I think. Humans are not evolved enough to be able to use Google Glass. I don’t think it’s a technology problem, I think it’s a human problem--like socially; social function.  How’s that for a crazy answer?   

MJ: I would agree with you. I was talking with a friend of mine at work and his whole thing about it was that it’s like someone having a camera on the side of their head pointed at you all of the time, even if it’s not recording. We’re surrounded by cameras all of the time, which was a little bit my response to him. But he’s like, “It’s way more invasive.” It just seems like socially, it’s much more a social problem. And I can’t believe nobody thought that by calling it Google Glass that that was immediately going to prompt “Glass-holes.”  

HS: Here’s one of the problems with technology and startups and people building technology, is that often the technology is built and developed with what the technology can do, not what people want to do, or the human aspects of interfacing with that technology. Really early technology, and even technology today, has always been the human adapting to the user-interface of the technology rather than the technology evolving. I mean, technology has been evolving to the ultimate way of interfacing with the human. We continue to see improvements in user-interface design, and I think that Google glass was, “Let’s see what we can do with the technology and not think about the human society, culture side at all.”

MB: If you look back at any popular technology, there’s always a version that came before it, that failed, usually miserably or pretty badly. Is it because you think that people just aren’t ready for that technology yet? Or are they trying to push the envelope too far, too soon?  Does that make sense?

HS: Yeah, absolutely. Timing is a very challenging thing to get right. Whether you’re a futurist, or you’re launching a product, or you have a new idea, you want to hit the sweet spot with the timing where what I like to say the collective and conscious is open to what it is and wanting and desiring. Then you put the thing out there and they’re like, “Yay, Yum!” and they buy it. But to prepare the social collective and conscious to positively accept what you’re offering takes a lot of time, and a lot of companies and a lot of people pave the way for people to be able to be in a positive mind-set. That’s kind of what I was saying with Apple. Apple’s not like a ground-breaking leader in this. They let other people see the collective and conscious and they come out with a beautifully designed, minimally buggy, product concept which helps the tipping point, which tips the concept of it into more mainstream. You have companies that are ahead of their time, and they pave the way. In some ways there’s no way that the subsequent companies or products could serve, thrive, survive, or be successful without the groundwork laid because often times that groundwork laid is shifting the way people perceive success metrics. I’ll give a specific example. I worked for a company in 1999 and 2000 and we did dhtml technology.  That’s known as Ajax in 2004 and it’s now one of the technologies that’s provided the functionality for all interoperability for all kinds of interactive web applications within the browser.  Now in 2000, success metrics were based on page refreshes and page views.  That technology basically made page refreshes go like down 70%, so by the old success metrics it was a failure, but it was a positive increase in user functionality having people stay on the page, stay on the site, have positive branding, use an app for hours, or minutes at a time versus being on a page for ten seconds. But it was very hard to get that technology adopted in 2000 because it was at odds with the current way we define success. That’s where we are with a lot of things right now.  I can weave this into bitcoin now, and some other currencies. Our current economic models are such that we are extremely profit-driven and our success metrics around companies and businesses is how much you sell, and how much profit you make, and what kind of shareholder value you bring. Well, in the future that’s not going to be the success metric, but the future success metrics don’t match up with the success metrics of what we value today, or what is valued in the marketplace today. So some new business models, some new ways of transacting, new types of currencies, technology for new currencies, they are slowly growing and slowly evolving. You’ve always got this friction between what’s reached its apex, what’s reached its blooming, and what is coming new and can grow even more.

MJ: Heather, what is your overall take on bitcoin? I kind of thought of it as somewhat the Napster of digital currency. It seems like it’s a little bit a wild west environment still and it’s been up, it’s been down, it’s been all over the place and they’ve had some controversy about it.  But it still has this very kind of, at least in the stuff I read about it, very “outlaw” flavor to it.  I can’t really see that being adopted by your standard financial industry, but it seems like in the same way that Napster kind of paved the way for a lot of what has happened in the music industry, that bitcoin is sort of shining the light ahead. What is your take on bitcoin?

HS: You can make a comparison of bitcoin to Napster. Whether or not bitcoin survives or not, or continues or exists in the future, it’s already changed the way we think about money and transactions. That’s a positive thing because we need to evolve the way we think about money. One of the things I think is really interesting about bitcoin is when it first came out and when I first did research about it, I was really curious. I said, “Okay, here’s bitcoin. It seems to have these non-financial values that people are associating with bitcoin that people don’t associate with other types of currencies.” So I thought it’s almost like bitcoin is a currency brand that represents certain non-financial values, like distrust in large government, centralized banking, believing that technology can solve a lot of problems, being peer-to-peer, wanting to have peer-to-peer transactions, and I did a research survey in 2011. At that time, the majority of people--I don’t have the numbers right in front of me--but the majority of people did have these types of personal values. The people who use bitcoin had these personal values. I thought, “Wow, that’s really interesting.” So it seemed to me that bitcoin was acting as if it’s a currency brand. As a transactional currency, that’s not the main way people are using it, unless they’re doing it for illicit things. But using bitcoin for money laundering or drugs, paying for drugs--I’m not really phased that much by it being used for that because the U.S. dollar is the currency that is primarily used for money laundering and paying for drugs, and it’s not even as sophisticated as bitcoin is. I think that what ended up happening is a lot of people were drawn to the technology to kind of like pound on it, to test it out, to push it into places, to see what they could do and get away with.  We’re seeing some of that happening with Silk Road. You have new technology that’s being built; it’s still kind of buggy, it’s still being QA tested. So, bitcoin is kind of like QA testing a new kind of type of currency and financial transaction. Now, the outcome of that is there’s a huge demand for global transactions that have very low transaction costs. If you transfer money internationally, if you do it with a wire, or even like PayPal, you’re going to get hit with various transaction fees.  People don’t generally like to pay those, especially since the systems that those run on now, they are very secure and they are very fast. You don’t need to do batch processing for that stuff anymore, so that’s market pressure on those systems to kind of get up to speed, to become more modern and to become more competitive in their pricing.  And then you also have the impact that bitcoin has on traditional currency. I think it would be really cool to have a mash-up of the U.S. Dollar and bitcoin. People are used to paying for things in the traditional way, and there’s a lot of really interesting functionality that comes with a block chain that people are trying to explore. I think it’s also really interesting to note that there’s so many knock-off coins to bitcoin that, to me, shows that there is a demand for individual currencies and that those individual currencies will be valued at different prices. I definitely see a world in the future where there is a diversity of currencies, and those currencies could be both nation state-backed currencies, individually backed currencies, community currencies, corporate-based currencies, and to me I see bitcoin as just kind of another experiment in that whole area.

MB: You don’t think we’ll go to just a global single currency at some point?

HS: Oh, we have that already right now in the form of credit card. I just was in London a week ago and I couldn’t find my stash of cash, my stash of British pounds, and I was like, “You know what? I don’t want any more of these. I have one-hundred dollars in pounds somewhere in my house. I can’t find it.” I did the entire trip with my credit card. I was like, “I don’t want to exchange out.” One taxi driver, his credit card thing wasn’t working and I said, “Well I have no cash, I can give you U.S. dollars, but I need change in dollars because I don’t want any pounds, or I can PayPal you,” and he was like, “PayPal me.”  I PayPal-ed him.

MB: Wow.

MJ: Nice.

HS: I ordered some sparkling water and they needed to be paid cash. I couldn’t put it on my hotel. I was like “Okay,” and my friend was like, “I’ll just get it for you,”  and I was like, “Great!” That’s one of the things I notice the most in my research when I ask people some of their fears with the future of money: a single global currency is one of the things that comes up. But I realize we already have that with credit cards, and in fact it’s better with credit cards because they provide a level of security, that if someone’s doing some kind of fraudulent activities or purchasing things, the responsibility of dealing with that fraud using a credit card is on the credit card company, not on your bank or your bank account. So actually, I see a lot of benefits using a credit card and I don’t think credit cards are going to go away.

MJ: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I think I went six months last year with--literally I had not been to an ATM to get cash and I had no cash in my wallet for six months.

HS: Yeah, I go back and forth through phases. Sometimes I try to do everything in cash, and sometimes I try to do everything on a card. I mix it up. I feel like, as someone who researches the future of money, I have to kind of live in these different futures in different ways and really understand what different people with different motivations--what they’re going to want to do, what they do today and what they might do in the future.

MJ: One of the things that I notice that you’ve got on your website is a survey. Is that still going on, about creating the future of money?

HS: Oh, yeah definitely. At this point, it’s a yearly survey, it’s kind of my yearly update. I’m trying to collect the same type of data on trends, what people are using, how they’re using it, so I can compare it against past surveys. At some point I’ll either have some free time or I’ll get a sponsor or something, which will let me do a deeper analysis of the data I’ve been collecting. I’ve been collecting it to look at how things are changing, what our trends have been--like actual trends during this time. This year, the two projects I’m working on are The Future of Money podcast season 2 and Future of Wearables podcast, so that’s what I’ve got going on. Those will be updated on my website: I always love to talk to people and I really like it when people ask me questions about the future of money--really specific questions, or future of relationships, or future of identity. I just did this talk in London. My friend had said, “Hey Heather, what’s happening with payments in the sharing economy?” At this point, I know so much information about this space, it’s really hard for me to figure out what to write about or what people are interested in. So, I really like it when people kind of come to me and say “Heather, what do you think of this?” or “What do you think of that?” or “What would you say about this?” because it helps me think, “Oh! That’s what they’re interested in.” Then I can kind of put some of my thoughts together on that.

MJ: Heather, thanks so much for joining us tonight.

HS: Thank you!

A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.

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A: We hope to see you again in the future…

MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.

MB: Thanks.


Image Credit: By Danlev (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons