Episode 253 - Fastening The Future
Published March 10, 2016
SPECIAL GUEST: Alexandra Whittington (Fast Future Research). In episode 249, we talked about The Future Of Business (from Fast Future Publishing). This time, we're joined by futurist and professor Alexandra Whittington (from Fast Future Research), to talk about the future of mobile, Internet, and society. How will these massive changes affect our personal lives? Our relationships? Our relationship to our technologies? Tune in and find out... Recorded on 3/6/2016.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Alexandra Whittington (on LinkedIn)
Alexandra on Twitter
Buy The Future Of Business (use code "over20" for a 20% discount -- LAST DAY)
Episode 249 - Future Bizness, with Steve Wells (from Fast Future Publishing), where we talk about The Future Of Business for the first time (2/25/2016)
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #253. 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 this episode is Alexandra Whittington. Alexandra, thanks for joining us.
Alexandra Whittington: Thank you.
MJ: To start off, for our listeners’ benefit, I know you’re teaching at the University of Houston, right?
AW: That’s right, I’m an adjunct at U of H, I teach undergraduate courses there.
MJ: And how did you come to be teaching, and what is your academic background or area of study?
AW: I actually have an academic background in futures studies, or what we now called foresight at the University of Houston. I have a Masters degree in futures studies, that is the background that prepared me for this, hopefully, for my teaching at U of H. I teach a couple courses in the College of Technology that are not futurist courses or futures studies courses, but they use the tools and techniques and perspectives of a futurist, so I kind of get to sneak it in there on the technology students. I have a lot of engineering majors, also consumer science majors, people who are interested in biotechnology, so I get to actually see and experience a lot of future forecasts from students every year, so it’s actually a lot of fun.
MJ: What got you interested yourself in futurism, to study that?
AW: Well, you know, it’s funny how history repeats itself, I guess it’s a good lesson for a futurist, because I actually started as an undergraduate. I took a course in futures studies at U of H as an undergraduate; I was an anthropology major at the time and one of my anthropology professors decided to teach this class, I think it was very experimental. She kind of worked it into the curriculum and got approvals to teach this course, and it was sort of just intro to the studies of the future class and I took that, and then I found out about the graduate degree at the University of Houston and just went straight into that. I guess my interest in it came from being an anthropology student. You know, I’m interested in human development, progress, societies, evolution, how societies change, so I was going along that line of inquiry. You know, I’m really interested in the future of families, women, children—social issues.
MJ: Do you think that, as a society, we’re having the right conversations? Matt and I do a lot of talking with different people and I think the common sense that seems to come up is that across the board, in our media and just in our general culture, we’re really not having these conversations enough about how we’d like to shape the future and where we’d like to go. Do you see that changing now, or is that something that you’re trying to affect with your own work?
AW: I think that’s a really good question. What I hear a lot about, in terms of the future of society, is preparing our children, and that’s something I’m obviously very interested in as someone who’s studying the future of families and stuff. But we tend to speak about preparing the next generation and doing that through school and formal education. There’s a lot of sentiment towards competition. I’m sure you guys have heard it as well, the idea of competing in the global economy, competing in the 21st century. I think the intention is good, but I’d rather see the conversation shift to a cooperative mentality, or a more partnership-oriented approach to creating the future. Rather than saying, “We’re going to compete our way to the top,” how about, “We’re going to cooperate and work together so that everyone’s future is positive, not just the ones who win.”
MB: We spend so much time, there’s so many school classes and college courses and things on history, but there’s so few on the future. Do you think that’s something that’s changing? Does it need to change?
AW: I think that it’s a difficult topic to fit into the way colleges are set up. You point out the history, which is a very obvious parallel, and history is mainly, what, a social science or a liberal art? But futures studies can fit into so many different disciplines, so it’s very cross-disciplinary, I guess you’d say, so that might be part of the challenge. I think as education is becoming more hybridized, for lack of a better word—you hear about college students studying these interesting mixed majors and universities experimenting with new ideas, even eliminating majors all together; online education, MOOCs and all these different ideas. Hopefully futures studies is one of those new ideas that’s making its way. I have actually been involved with some really interesting education start-ups, or actually I should say a start-up, it’s a university start-up called Ubiquity University, which is sort of like a new business model for higher education, and they’re basically selling the whole degree for one price. Things are changing in higher ed and I think that’s one of the ways that it’s changing, because this particular project, Ubiquity, they involved futurists to teach classes about the future, and that goes along with the new line of thinking about how higher education is evolving.
MB: Do you think part of it is one of the reasons schools kind of avoid futurists studies is because there’s no way to really tell if you’re right or wrong? Obviously with history, you can memorize a lot of dates and when things happen, and we know what happened, so you can tell if you’re right or wrong, whereas futurist studies, it’s kind of a best guess.
AW: I think that’s a really good point, actually, the uncertainty of futures studies is probably a little scary in an environment where there’s always a right or wrong. We have tests, we have good answers, we have bad answers, you pass, you fail. But yeah, that’s a great way of looking at it. A lot of educational settings aren’t prepared to deal with the creative, the open-ended as opposed to, I don’t know, what’s the opposite, like a standardized test. A multiple-choice test. I think that’s probably a little bit of where the resistance comes from. And also, I would say that futures studies is one of the ways of challenging the status quo, so I think that may be another reason for keeping it a little bit more quiet.
MJ: Do you think that our view of the future overall as a society has kind of become more pessimistic over the decades? It seems like now, at least in fiction, you have an awful lot of dystopian things, or particularly in pop culture or movies, that people used to have a more positive view of the future. And I know a lot of people who are cynical or pessimistic about it. You mentioned that a lot of it within society seems to revolve around preparing the next generation, and I know a lot of people who are really significantly worried about how their kids are going to get by in the world, that they’re going to be the first generation to not have it as good as their parents. Do you think that view is widespread? Is it accurate? What’s your sense of it?
AW: I think most of all it’s a view that’s very well supported by statistics. You can’t actually argue with the way, unfortunately, the indicators have gone over the past generation in terms of economic equality and the growth of wages and economic stability, all sorts of health indicators have declined and not improved… I would guess this sense of pessimism is especially pronounced in societies like ours that have experienced this big economic recession and all sorts of turbulent stuff here in these last ten years or so. It may be very dependent on where you’re standing, right? But at the same time, it does seem like the media puts out a lot of really negative images, no offense intended. But I’m talking about movies and films and pop culture stuff. I do get the sense that young people are a little bit, yeah, nihilistic about the future, maybe more so than when we were growing up, the 70s, 80s, 90s, it was a little bit more of a positive view.
MJ: Well, it’s just seemed to me recently, particularly in looking at the media and the reporting they do, I know a lot of people that spend a lot of time watching it, that their view isn’t in sync with my own in reading a lot of news online and stuff. It seems like the media itself is hocking a negative view of things because scared people are maybe more vulnerable to advertising or more inclined to tune in and hang on every word, almost.
AW: I think that’s definitely part of it, the constant saturation of our lives with media. It’s hard to turn it off, and it sort of amplifies itself.
MJ: Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy almost.
AW: [laughs] Yeah.
MJ: So, we first found out about you via “The Future of Business” and kind of began looking at your work. How did you get involved in that project?
AW: Well, “The Future of Business” is one of the FutureScapes publications from Fast Future Publishing, and I’m actually a research consultant for Fast Future; I actually work for the research arm of the company. And so I was invited to submit these chapters—actually, two of the chapters I was invited to submit, co-author with Rohit, someone that I work with regularly, and then the third chapter that I co-authored actually was something I’ve been working on for a while and when I heard about this proposed book, “The Future of Business,” I thought, “Well that would be a cool publication to submit this essay to.” So, the three chapters are “The Future of the Internet,” “The Future of Blockchain,” and the “Future of Mobile,” just to sort of summarize the three topics that we covered. But I’m very interested in technologies and how they affect society, and how people and business and culture will be different as a result, so that’s what we explored in each of these chapters, sort of looking really closely at separate emerging technologies.
MB: Mike and I, five minutes before we called you, found out that we each read different parts of the book that you were involved with. I read the one about the future of mobile, and Mike read the other two, but I didn’t read the other two and Mike didn’t read the one about the future of mobile.
MJ: [laughs] There’s a lot of content in “The Future of Business.”
AW: A lot of content, and I believe the chapters I wrote with Rohit I believe are the longest ones, and I know that because I audio recorded them for our podcast, so I got to read them out loud, and yeah, they are rather lengthy. But full of information.
MB: [laughs] I found the chapter of the future of mobile interesting. You kind of break it down into basically four different ways that we could go by the year 2030. Can you talk a little bit about that?
AW: Sure, yeah. Now, this is the independent project I did with my co-author, Amir, and we worked together on this, which was a lot of fun because this is like the funnest part of being a futurist, getting to write these future scenarios. And so what we did is we talked about major driving forces in the mobile environment—and mobile really us to just means devices, computing but on the go, stuff that you carry around with you and it becomes a part of your day-to-day life. Primarily the mobile phone, but it could probably be a tablet or other devices. So we looked at these key forces and we thought that the main factors—well, the most interesting ones that we wanted to consider—were environmental scarcity, which is two extremes: either there’s abundance or there’s actual scarcity, so we’re talking about the natural resources that go into providing the mobile lifestyle, the raw materials, the actual manufacturing, the e-waste that goes along with it, and then the effects or possible effects on human health of mobile technology… That has sort of formed one continuum of forces. On the one hand, mobile being completely clean, safe, abundantly available in terms of the resources available to make it, and on the other side, the mobile technology is sort of dangerous to your health, poisoning the environment, and overall a very negative ecological footprint for mobile. And then we contrasted those forces with these other two, which we came up with these cute terms to encapsulate the feeling. One is “my better half,” and the other is “frenemy,” and this describes the relationship between the user, the individual, and their mobile phone. Obviously my better half, that was meant to evoke the idea that you can’t live with your phone, it’s sort of like your spouse, right? You’ve heard that phrase, I hope. It’s my better half, it does everything for you, so it takes care of you and you’re lost without it, right? And on the other hand, the mobile phone could be your frenemy. Now, we’ve all heard that sort of pop culture phrase, that it’s your friend is really your enemy. So, someone or something that you kind of can’t get rid of, it’s always there, you’re not sure if it’s helping you or hurting you half the time. So, we compared those forces and we came up with these four scenarios which describes what happens really when two of the driving forces get into an interaction with each other. I won’t go into total detail on the scenarios, but the first one, for example, is the “Path to Self-Actualization,” that’s the title of the scenario. The scenario is just a little story about the future, what it’s like to live in this possible future. The path to self-actualization is just like it sounds: the mobile phone is basically your life, it does everything for you, it’s great; it basically has no drawbacks. The second one we called “Insecure Attachment.” So basically mobile is a basic need, it’s a privilege, not a right, there’s competition for devices and services, and it became sort of a menacing level of surveillance at that point. Low environmental impact, but it started becoming a form of social control in that scenario. Then third we talked about “Mobile as a Status Symbol,” that’s the title. Each of these scenario titles was supposed to convey the relationship between the human and the technology. So in scenario three, the mobile technology is your status symbol, and in that scenario we actually talk about a theft, someone getting mugged for their mobile phone and how that is such a huge issue in society and how it pretty much affects your entire life. And then lastly, we use the good ‘ol “Big Brother” title. To give you an idea, it’s the phone pretty much controls your life, it determines where you can work, how much energy you can use, even how many children you can have. It pretty much dictates everything you do. So while each of them is different, they’re built from the same driving forces, but they’re meant to explore different extremes in the future of mobile and what our relationship with this technology is going to be like.
MB: Yeah, I actually found it very fascinating, the whole chapter. You were talking about the scarcity of the resources, and I don’t want to go off on a sideways tangent here, I just kept thinking about it while I was reading, is everybody at this point has some kind of a mobile device but there’s no good way—and this isn’t just mobile devices, but all electronics—we keep these things for a year or two and then there’s really no good way to recycle them or do anything. You look at it and you go, well, all these raw materials are actually in there, we just have no good way to get them out. Do you think that in the future we’re going to be able to come up with some way to recycle these things so that we can get out the precious metals and everything as opposed to just dumping them in a landfill? I don’t know about where you are, but around here every week there’s some town that stops doing electronics recycling anymore because it’s too costly, yet we recycle cardboard and stuff that’s constantly here.
AW: Yeah, I do think that we are going in that direction. I mean, I certainly hope so. What I read about recently is the modular mobile phone. I don’t know how heavy it is on the reuse factor, but the idea that you would be able to replace those pieces that break or upgrade on the same phone. So rather than switch out the whole device, you just change one little part of it. Google had this Project Aura for a while, and then there’s some other similar programs that are exploring the modular smartphone. So that would be one good step towards reducing the amount of waste. There’s materials coming out, too, that should make them more flexible, stronger. This is sort of related, but we touch on this in the topic, but there’s also the concern for human rights abuses that go along with mining and e-waste disposal. So, that would be another factor. And there are actually phones that are created, I guess they’re called conflict-free phones—or maybe that’s the diamond, the conflict-free diamond, like the blood diamonds type of thing. There’s a similar company doing the same thing with mobile phones.
MJ: Alexandra, when you’re looking at these topics, whether it be the future of mobile, the future of the internet, the future of Bitcoin, it often times feels to me like we’re right on this cusp of that scarcity model that you mentioned earlier, and the abundance model. That we’re kind of riding that line of we still have all these things that are grounded in scarcity, whether it be the resources for some of these devices, or whether it be people’s overall attention, or just the way they think about things, and yet we’re starting to see more and more of the abundance model, where it’s a little less competitive and a little more collaborative/cooperative. Do you think that dividing line is becoming more prevalent in every issue?
AW: I think as we face so many challenges environmentally, ecologically, we’re going to have to start thinking in a manner that benefits more than just a few. So, hopefully that would apply to natural resources, that would apply to economic and social resources all across the board, and it will involve changing other aspects that seem unrelated. I was reading Naomi Klein, or I’ve watched the documentary, “This Changes Everything.” I don’t know if you’ve read the book or seen the documentary, but she talks about how, to fix the environmental crisis, we have to basically restructure our economic system. So, I guess what I’m saying is that we have to retool a bunch of different areas of society to address that potential of scarcity really causing damage. Today I was just reading about the coming food shocks. Climate change is becoming so drastic that we will literally have people starving to death because they will not be able to access food. You know, stuff like that is really forecasted to occur, and not by futurists necessarily, but by scientists who study modeling and stuff like that. I think it’s a very important topic and I hope that scenarios will highlight the vast differences between those futures to motivate people to do something about it before it’s too late.
MJ: Yeah, I was just watching this morning something about the west coast of the US, and it was in the context of the tsunami that had hit Japan. But it basically said that a lot of people think, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen in the US,” and yet the report I watched said, “Oh no, it can happen,” and they’re really just not at all prepared for it because they haven’t thought in those terms, and with some of the economic shocks that have happened over the last eight years or so, they’re not really prepared to build up that infrastructure that would prepare them for a disaster. So, it’s almost a disaster waiting to happen.
AW: Yeah, and I think that’s a lot of the rationale in a similar way for “The Future of Business.” Everything in these chapters is about the infrastructures in the future of business, basically. Things like the internet, mobile, the system like Blockchain or Bitcoin. These systems are going to be there, but are we prepared to use them well? Are they prepared for us to use them on the scale that we think we’re going to need them? We’re not really sure how far we can—there’s still parts of the world without internet connectivity and we’re trying to get global internet connectivity, “we” being major Silicon Valley companies and stuff. There’s a very big drive to make everyone have equal access, to allow everyone to have equal access to these. But I don’t think we know what that would look like.
MJ: I was really interested in your future of internet piece, just all the different areas you identified there. That’s a big area of interest to me. I think I mentioned earlier to you that I used to work at AT&T, and it seems like those communication technologies are almost core to what people can have access to, their economic opportunities and all of that, that that is really going to be an important area for determining the opportunities that are available to people.
AW: Definitely. Determining opportunities, determining access, determining all sorts of factors for businesses, for decision makers. Even in the universities and schools, it’s really become so elemental to what we do day-to-day. That’s kind of what the chapter addresses. It’s gotten to where it’s just part of everything and we take it for granted. The chapter gets at understanding what it is, how it works, and what we’re leading to with this kind of close relationship with it, so close that you really don’t even see it anymore, it’s just become part of the day-to-day landscape.
MJ: Do you think that itself is a danger? When people tend to think of something as just there, that they kind of forget about it and allow it to deteriorate… I’m an infrastructure person in IT, but also I’ve been following an issue that a friend of mine who lives in downtown Chicago, they actually have part of their water system, tunnels and pipes and things that were around at the time of the Civil War and they’re made out of wood, so they’re having all kinds of problems right now. Do you think there’s a big danger, that really the internet itself, that people will just kind of forget about it? And I think you even identified it in the chapter, I think the term you used was canyon, for these companies that provide that service kind of getting in with the government and stopping it from improving to the level that it might if it were left to its own devices?
AW: Well, we certainly need to keep an eye on various stakeholders and what decisions they’re making that impact us all. This is on the same level as the Bells and the birth of the telecomms 50, almost 100 years ago. The start of the railroads, the invention of these early technological systems that, as we know from history, have become ingrained in society, right? And at that time, they were basically monopolies that got there first and gained complete access over technology and it pretty much set the standard for the way things are going. And I guess that’s what I see as the next big technological move, at least business-wise, is going to be dealing with the internet of things and how that is going to be deployed, how people are going to connect to it, people and devices. That’s where everyone is sort of looking now, to see what the next set of conditions will be. Whose terms are we going to be on? Samsung is trying to get in there and be the leader. A bunch of the companies are competing to be the one that sets the standard, like the Bell of the internet of things.
MJ: Do you think that those companies are struggling now with trust issues? Just looking at the landscape, Matt could probably tell you I’m fairly skeptical of some of those companies. You mentioned Samsung and their TV—I think it’s even in one of your examples for the future of internet, a TV was recording conversations and things like that. In thinking about these devices, thinking about services like Facebook, where they ran their contagion experiment to see if they could affect people’s moods, do you think these companies really have trust issues, that they need to maybe step up the level of ethics where they deal with their customers?
AW: Definitely. I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s actually I think one of my favorite parts of the chapter, when we talk about the devices in our homes that are listening to us, basically eavesdropping on us. You mentioned the TV. I think my favorite one in there is the Facebook coffee table. I don’t remember where I located that little piece of information, but this is a real consumer product design, a piece of furniture that listens to you in your living room presumably while you’re talking to your friends and family, and as you mention stuff, it calls up your Facebook pictures of that vacation that you’re speaking about or that school field trip, or grandma’s Thanksgiving turkey or whatever it was. It’s sort of fascinating to me how this could potentially change our social relationships with each other, the way that we talk to each other, interact. But definitely, we’re letting companies with little more than an economic interest determine the future of our social relationships. And I agree with you, if this is what you were saying, I don’t think there’s been a ton of transparency on the behalf of the companies to make it very explicit what they’re doing with that information besides helping us have great conversations around a coffee table.
MJ: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was saying, actually. Matt might tell you I’m a little on the paranoid side, but the idea of these companies having their fingers in my house when I’m having a private conversation, or the fact that in Samsung’s licensing agreement, they had a warning not to discuss your financial information, like your account numbers and things like that… It definitely crosses my line anyway for creepy personally, and I’m amazed it doesn’t do that for more people.
AW: Yeah, this is a huge uncertainty for the future of these devices, because I don’t think that people are aware of what they are agreeing to. You click that little box that says, “I agree to all of these terms and conditions” when you download an app or when you install some software, and I don’t think people are aware of what they’re agreeing to.
MB: Well I think, too, that people just look at it as a payoff… Mike and I have talked about Facebook before. Obviously Facebook is free, however Facebook makes literally billions and billions of dollars every year, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve never bought anything from Facebook or on Facebook, but yet they have all this money. They’re obviously using our data to, you know, make money, but yet we just willingly go along because it’s free. I think a lot of stuff is like that. Windows 10 just came out; Microsoft is just giving away the operating system for free, but yet they’re collecting literally everything you do on your computer and getting that information. So, I think at some point we’re going to have to sit down and have some kind of a conversation and say, “Alright, how much information am I willing to give away in order to get stuff for free?” And right now, it seems like literally anything anybody wants, as long as what we get is free.
AW: Yeah, I think that’s actually a good way of showing the connection between the technologies that we’re dealing with today, these breakthrough technologies, and the economic system. Because what it really boils down to is the definition of free. What does that mean? And what are we willing to allow it to mean? And when will that shift to being, “Okay, this is not free. This actually has a cost, it’s just a different kind of cost, not monetary.”
MB: Yeah, there’s a famous cartoon with some farm animals sitting around, talking about how they get free room and board at the farm, but yet obviously they become food later on, so… [laughs]
MJ: Where can people find you if they’re interested in finding out more?
AW: The best way is probably my LinkedIn profile.
MJ: Okay, well thanks so much for joining us today.
AW: Great, well thank you very much for having me.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. For even more society-changing goodness, visit our website at RobotOverlordz.fm. You can also review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We’ll see you again soon, in the future.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.