And What Next?

How are we thinking about the future?
HOW are we thinking about the future?
How ARE we thinking about the future?
How are WE thinking about the future?
How are we THINKING about the future?
How are we THINKING ABOUT the future?
How are we thinking about THE future?
How are we thinking about the FUTURE?

(many readings are possible, all are interesting to try...)


my thoughts will appear below:


So many thoughts rattle through my mind re: "the Future", and I'd like to corral and then explore them. This needn't be anxiety-making, or chastening, or even altogether serious. I'll try to work with what appears on the yellow pads more or less as it unfurls.

So what is this Future of which you speak? ...and of course the answer is "yes" to all, and there may be others.

My own subjective sense is that I'm sliding through time in a very comfortable and deeply INTERESTING capsule, going from thing to thing and enjoying the ride, seeking to be in the present moment and keeping an eye on where I've been. Sometimes it's important to be vigilant for what's ahead, as one is when driving, or sailing, or even walking... but that's the ME who mostly lives in my own head, non-participant in various communities.

Among the nexts I might consider: we're rolling through the cycle of a year, each successive week with a new array of ... weather, vegetation, animal life, bits of information re: the wider world. This week there are fauns out for the first time, learning to leap or just learning to follow. A month ago it was asparagus; now the garlic scapes and kale are overtaking us, and the snowpeas are beginning and the summer squashes are flowering and the kohlrabi is ready...

And I need to order 2 cord of wood, and get the chimney cleaned, and build a new woodshed, and renew the drivers licenses and passports... so next also manifests as a TO DO list.

And then there's the future that includes getting TO and then getting past 80: a month for Betsy, two months for me. It seems momentous and portentious, but I have no idea what to DO about it. Celebrate, surely, but how?

And there's the hazier Future in which the dramatis personæ change, exeunt stage left, and the narrative shifts. And it is, after all, acting...

And there's the future of Humanity itself, and of the many planetary systems WE are entangled with, a drama we're caught up in... We'd be justified in either caring very much about (for any number of reasons, like grandchildren, or generalized compassion, or a sense of responsibility) OR caring not at all about (we won't be there, and can't do much to change the trajectory).

On a more down-home level, where I actually live, the Future promises a stream of books that scratch itches in the vast what-I'm-interested-in department ... and more adventures in the visual and photographic realms ... and a marvelous sequence of musics, streaming via Spotify and drawing from my own collections. This is the version in which things keep on keeping on indefinitely, and of course they won't, but that doesn't diminish the pleasure of the present moment.

Another approaching Future has to do with a front-tooth implant that is failing, and what my options will turn out to be after July 21st... Scientists in Japan Have Developed an Experimental Tooth-Growing Drug. Ah, the Future appears to dawn.

And what about the science of the Future? What about extrapolation, modeling, analysis of systems in all their complexity? Can Humanity engineer its way out of disaster, soon enough?


As I continue to chew on this Future thing, I realize that I spend quite a lot of my attention on, or in, the past. I'm less interested in predicting or anticipating or projecting forward than I seem to be in looking backward, to better understand how we got here. At the moment my attention while walking has been on David Mitchell's Utopia Avenue, set in late-1960s London and following the life of a band scuffling their way to recognition ... and after that I'll immerse myself in Dutch East Indies/Japan trade ca 1700: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (also David Mitchell), which might nudge me back to another pass at Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

I'm certainly not immune to future-pointing sci-fi, and The Glass Bead Game was surely that...

One of my engagements with the Future has its roots in History of Technology, which I've had as an interest for 50+ years of off-and-on immersion. As part of that, I've followed computer evolution and its effects pretty closely, and I gaze across the Jordan River at the next Chapter in the form of AI — with the conviction that I'm not going there, but am still pretty much riveted to the emergent dramas. My running notes page is unwieldy, so I'm thinking to extract the marrow of that (continuing) exercise to a separate page... still thinking about how to format and organize the presentation.

Meanwhile, here's the Future arriving ca. 1904:

M Frank Eastman and Harry Eastman
Harry Maynard Eastman demonstrates a horseless carriage to his father, M. Frank Eastman
(MFE was my father's maternal grandfather; I remember Uncle Harry [1874-1956] very well)


Aaaand it's Tuesday. This often happens, and I'm tempted to say reliably: I start looking into a Question and my various sources (the RSS feed, the news and literary sources I follow, the books that flock to me from the library shelves, the resident daemon(s)...) produce a flood of relevant or at least potentially relevant material that cries out to be included in my ruminations and discoveries ("me! me! me! choose me!"). Heady times, barely enough to "prepare" for Wednesday night <== to marshal the resources into any semblance of coherence and sequential presentation, even in my own mind let alone in a form for public expression. It really is akin to riding a surfboard, I imagine: inexorably impelled forward by an unseen power... How can I possibly fit it all in?

So I left off with Uncle Harry, who was an early Cadillac dealer in Massachusetts and then in Spokane WA:

Spokane to Walla Walla 1911

Another sort of "what next?" suggests that something might be different in subsequent days, weeks, months, years. And here's where I'm inclined to invoke Robert Heinlein's (or was it Isaac Asimov's?) three categories of science fiction stories:

what if?

if only...

if this goes on...

(cited by Cory Doctorow in The seductive, science fictional power of spreadsheets: Maybe the map IS the territory?) ...which points to the central importance for the Future of techno-logy <== the development and use of TOOLS and MATERIALS to make and build and transform —arguably the SPECIALTY of the human species, and a main driving force in the unfolding of what we IMAGINE as the Future, for good and ill...
...and that reminds me of another sci-fi quote, this time from William Gibson:

The future is already here — it's just not evenly distributed.

So this morning's haul of Future-oriented things includes Icon of the Seas


FIRMS US/Canada)



(via Bruce Sterling)

Umair Haque lays it out for us:

Everything's fine. Forget that 95 degree water off the coast of Florida. Forget the giant smoke plume from Canada burning that lingered over London and Paris. Never mind the killing heat beginning to arrive as people fry under heat domes from Texas to China.

The real problem here? It's the tree huggers. Or, in American code, the woke.

This is where we are, my friends, and it is a real problem. Let me formalize why now. I'm going to make a point that sounds political, but isn't. It's observational and empirical, and there's a difference. Politics is about what you believe, and sure, you're entitled to that. But to say a form of politics can't possibly work in a certain set of circumstances — that's not politics. It's just reality. It's pragmatism, if you want. It's not a political point to say that a certain set of politics is obsolete. It's just thinking, evaluation, empirical reality. We don't really think of, say, feudalism as a viable form of modern politics, do we? Apart from the LOL "Moms for Liberty," no, we don't. That is because things change...

I'm not sure if these links will work for non-subscribers, but maybe: Design Fiction As A Cool Futures Thinking Approach and Speculative Future Lifestyles 2040 ...and maybe just Too Much Information anyway.


...Convivium delayed for a week...


Back to the several readings of the Question:

And I'm reminded of a favorite Dorothy Parker quote, which seems Future-oriented:

What fresh hell is this?

Says Vincent Sheean, in Keats' You Might As Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker: "If the doorbell rang in her apartment, she would say 'What fresh hell can this be?' —and it wasn't funny; she meant it."


I haven't mentioned extrapolation and 'trend analysis' as tools and methods, as means of engaging with the Future, but they surely belong with HOW, along with the creation of scenarios that seek to model what might happen under various conditions ...for which there's long been an Industry, necessarily snuggled up to the military and "security" organizations (RAND, DARPA, and so on and on). Arguably, WE need such expertise to be at work, and surely there needs to be "oversight" on what such organizations do.

A particularly chilling example floated in with Michael Klare's AI vs. AI: And Human Extinction as Collateral Damage suggests, these are murky and dangerous waters, in which there are already things happening that we barely know about and don't control. In just the last 6 months it's become more and more clear that the Future will involve AI in pretty much everything. For precedents of that oncoming tsunami of Effects, think back to The Graduate (1967)

...and was he wrong? Clearly not. That Future was 56 years ago, and look where it got us.

The Future is always paved with unintended consequences (and with unanticipated linkages) that might have been foreseen, but typically are not. Think of freon and air conditioning (and chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs]), and of tetraethyl lead and other forms of lead pollution, still being discovered (very recently, in lead sheathing of electrical cables, as recently described in a Wall Street Journal report). Each of those technologies were in their day innovations that made modern life possible...
AI came up so fast, and now colors EVERYTHING in unexpected ways, and sucks up the air in many spaces: military, education, "art"... AI is now an essential piece of the Future, but wasn't on everybody's mind just 6 months ago. That's how fast the complexion of the Future can alter, and how rapidly an Innovation can ramify. Back to Michael Klare:
The installation of an AI-powered command-and-control (C2) system like this may seem a distant possibility. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Defense is working hard to develop the required hardware and software in a systematic, increasingly rapid fashion. In its budget submission for 2023, for example, the Air Force requested $231 million to develop the Advanced Battlefield Management System (ABMS), a complex network of sensors and AI-enabled computers designed to collect and interpret data on enemy operations and provide pilots and ground forces with a menu of optimal attack options. As the technology advances, the system will be capable of sending "fire" instructions directly to "shooters," largely bypassing human control...

...the Air Force's ABMS is intended to constitute the nucleus of a larger constellation of sensors and computers that will connect all U.S. combat forces, the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control System (JADC2, pronounced "Jad-C-two"). "JADC2 intends to enable commanders to make better decisions by collecting data from numerous sensors, processing the data using artificial intelligence algorithms to identify targets, then recommending the optimal weapon... to engage the target," the Congressional Research Service reported in 2022.

Initially, JADC2 will be designed to coordinate combat operations among "conventional" or non-nuclear American forces. Eventually, however, it is expected to link up with the Pentagon's nuclear command-control-and-communications systems (NC3), potentially giving computers significant control over the use of the American nuclear arsenal. "JADC2 and NC3 are intertwined," General John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated in a 2020 interview. As a result, he added in typical Pentagonese, "NC3 has to inform JADC2 and JADC2 has to inform NC3."...

(what can possibly go wrong?)

...the Pentagon has been racing ahead with the development of automated C2 systems. In its budget submission for 2024, the Department of Defense requested $1.4 billion for the JADC2 in order "to transform warfighting capability by delivering information advantage at the speed of relevance across all domains and partners." Uh-oh! And then, it requested another $1.8 billion for other kinds of military-related AI research...

(Remember Skynet in the Terminator movies, from 1984 (!) ?)


Ted Gioia is always good for a pithy quote. Today's post:

The number of songs in the world doubled yesterday. Did you even notice?

An artificial intelligence company in Delaware boasted, in a press release, that it had created 100 million new songs. That's roughly equivalent to the entire catalog of music available on Spotify.

It took thousands of years of human creativity to make the first 100 million songs. But an AI bot matched that effort in a flash.

The company notes that this adds up to 4.8 million hours of creativity.


I really need to emphasize that this is no laughing matter. The larger picture here is ominous:

  1. For the first time in history, the most powerful and wealthy companies are all tech global players with consumer-facing platforms.
  2. Every one of them is now obsessed with AI as a profit-generating opportunity.
  3. The various AI projects they're pursuing are all different, but they have one thing in common: They involve flooding the culture with torrents of AI garbage—the metrics are all quantitative, not qualitative (because, hey, that's how they roll).
  4. Quality checks are actually viewed as hindrances. In the mad gold rush mentality of the AI revolution, quality slows things down—so even the most basic safeguards are ditched or ignored.
  5. But genuine creativity operates in the qualitative realm. In that sphere, numbers are meaningless. Mozart's Requiem or the The White Album or other works of that sort can't be replaced with 100 million AI tracks—numbers don't work like that.
  6. The more garbage you dump into our polluted culture, the more obvious this becomes.


I found it useful to look again at Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, which was James Lovelock's last book, published in 2019 when he was 100 years old (he died in 2022), which I read a few months ago in the context of explorations of the Gaia Hypothesis (in a nutshell: "Life and the Earth are an interacting whole and the planet can be seen as a single organism" [pg x]). Lovelock's Novacene is conceived as an Age that succeeds the Anthropocene (which may be thought of as beginning in 1712, with Thomas Newcomen's steam engine, or perhaps in 1945, with the atomic bomb, its effects traced by radionuclides in ice cores and lake cores). The Novacene begins

...when our technology moves beyond our control, generating intelligences far greater and, crucially, much faster than our own...(pg xi)

We alone, among the billions of species that have benefited from the flood of energy from the Sun, are the ones who evolved with the ability to transmute the flood of photons into bits of information gathered in a way that empowers evolution... (75)

Some AI device will soon be invented that will finally and fully start the new age (83)

The Novacene, like the Anthropocene, is about engineering. The crucial step that started the Novacene was, I think, the need to use computers to design and make themselves, just as AlphaZero taught itself to play Gō.

Live cyborgs will emerge from the womb of the Anthropocene. We can be almost certain that an electronic lifeform such as a cyborg could never emerge by chance from the inorganic component parts of the Earth before the Anthropocene (85)... is crucial that we should understand that whatever harm we have done to the Earth, we have, just in time, redeemed ourselves by acting simultaneously as parents and midwives to the cyborgs. They alone can guide Gaia through the astronomical crisis now imminent. (86)

...the cyborgs of the Novacene will be entirely free of human commands because they will have evolved from code written by themselves (94)

The simple truth is that we are inconveniently large and slow beings and quantum phenomena exist tantalyzingly just beyond our common experience... (102)

The notion of allowing the evolution of adaptive computer systems on military platforms seems to me to be potentially the deadliest idea yet introduced for the replacement of human and other organic life... (114)

We are now at the edge of the next geological period, and it is right to be fearful. Our anonymity as individuals has been broken and cyborgs could design weapons that exploit our own personal weaknesses... (116)


Betsy reminds me to explore further the writings of self-proclaimed Futurists I've known:

Bob Textor on "Anticipatory Anthropology", from the introduction to The World Ahead: An Anthropologist Anticipates the Future, an edited collection of Margaret Mead's writings:

Anticipatory Anthropology (like the general interdisciplnary field of Futures Studies) is about the possible, the probable, and the preferable. The "possible" refers to what could happen. The "probable" refers to (among other things) what would likely happen under appropriate circumstances subject to human control—such as political will, leadership skill, resource allocation, regulation, and education. The "preferable" is a normative judgement as to what should happen—by the values of the interviewee, a panel of citizens, or the like.
Textor summarizes "the scenario method" with a quote from Wendell Bell:
The end product of all the methods of futures research is basically the same: a scenario, a story about the future, usually including a story about the past and present. Often it is a story about alternative possibilities for the future, each having different probabilities of occurring under different conditions. Also, it includes goals and values, evaluating alternative futures as to their desirability or undesirability.
The notion of 'tempocentrism': of the first things the professional futurist notices about a group of people he or she studies. is how automatically they take for granted the situation, premises, expectations and values of their own timeframe—even when that timeframe is inappropriate for the purpose at hand. Tempocentrism makes it harder to pay critical yet imaginative attention to future possibilities and probabilities.. (pg 18)
(I was only able to read the first parts of the book via Google Books, but it's On Order and will roll in by the end of the week) (Also of great interest: Clifford Geertz' Biographical Memoir of Margaret Mead, National Academy of Sciences, 1989)


The other Futurist I know is Bryan Alexander, whom I met more than 20 years ago via Associated Colleges of the South. We've been in email contact ever since, trading bits of fugitrivia and ephemera and bellwether documents. His work is primarily with the Futures relevant to higher education (an arena I've vacated pretty much completely), but it's interesting to keep an eye on how he continues to project and prognosticate. A recent example: The Deluge: notes on a leading climate fiction novel.


Another I'd put in the category 'Futurist' is Bill McKibben, whom I've been following for several years (and who co-incidentally, was a neighbor of Bryan Alexander in Ripton VT). He has the first piece in this week's Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker, and his most recent book is The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened, which I've just started reading on the Kindle. The book can be read as a chronicle of advancing Futures, starting from 1970—and thus from a time WE remember well, when there were plenty of vestiges of the 1950s in which WE grew up.


And this just in: A Deep Dive Into the Future, via Medium

...we often find it hard to reunite our personal perspective with the grand scheme of things, and to think on a much broader scale than our selves. We act like yeast cells: atomized and individualized, not only on a social but also on a mental level. As a result we see ourselves as independent actors, carrying out the whims of our "free will" as we navigate through life. The problem is, that this independence and free will are nothing less but a delusion, in favor of which we have traded our imagination and critical thinking skills, together with any sense of being part of something much bigger than ourselves...

Irrespective of what happens to our high tech civilization in the coming decades (whether it keeps slowly disintegrating as it encounters even more shortages, collapses, or turns itself into a grove of mushroom clouds) one thing is for sure: it will not, it cannot continue...

If you thought the Anthropocene was a truly geological epoch, I have to disappoint you. From a geological perspective this steaming pile of hot mess we have created by tapping into ancient carbon and other mineral resources, as well as the ecological disaster we have unleashed with them, will be seen as nothing more but a dramatic, albeit rather short lived event. Like an asteroid hitting Earth, or an eruption of some super-volcano. Bang. Death. Restart. ...

...imagine that the atoms, now forming your body and doing the thinking for you, were the very same ones which once used to build up mammoths, dinosaurs or ancient fish; and very well could have ended up in that bird singing on that tree. All these creatures are you, and you, Dear Reader, are them. You, they, we, are one. Nothing is separate. Reconnect yourself with them through space and time, whether through bark, skin, bone or stone. It doesn't matter. We share the same fate. And just because we have arrived closer to the end than the beginning, it doesn't mean that we are more, or less important. We just happened to see the peak of our species reign and the havoc it brought about. And it is fine. There is no moral lesson to be learned, no grand meaning to all this. It's just what it is.