Image: TheGameWay (Flickr)

Fictions about the future and present realities engage in a perpetual exchange. Many scientists and inventors recount being inspired by a particular Star Trek gadget or science fiction movie.

Here’s an intriguing example that suggests how tight these loops can get: the designers of the computer game Call of Duty: Black Ops II wanted to add some futuristic elements. They wisely consulted Peter W. Singer, a defense expert and author of Wired for War.  One of the things he suggested was a small armed quadcopter drone, and this idea was incorporated into the game.

To promote the game, the company put up a simulated video showing what was supposed to be a real-life prototype of such an armed drone. Millions watched the video, including, Singer says, some people in the US Defense Department. According to Singer, the American officials

said “hold it; this crazy Russian guy has something better than what we have now – we want one”. Now the Pentagon is working on developing their own a fictional drone from a TV commercial. Essentially, in trying to be a projection of the future, the science fiction accelerated the future – we were saying this is what’s most likely to happen in the 2020s. Now it’s going to happen before then – largely because of the game.


Image: Brett Neilson, Flickr

So, the 2012 election cycle is in our rear-view mirror, and the political media is only half-jokingly running stories on possible 2016 contenders. In the immediate aftermath of November 6, there have been two dominant stories about the election, the demographic challenges facing the Republican party and how unprepared the Republicans were for losing. As someone who has an interest in consumers and the future, the first story-line interests me, but as a foresight practitioner, the second story fascinates me.

As campaign post-mortem stories roll in, I am struck by how blindsided the GOP seemed to be by the results. Story after story quotes campaign officials, pundits, donors and voters on their puzzlement that Mitt Romney lost the election. But what it also lacking in these stories is any quote from a member of the conservative establishment who saw the writing on the wall for Romney. While it is still early times for the definitive telling of this election, the fact that political reporters can’t find a naysayer is telling. Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, has a persuasive piece on how the right-leaning media created an echo chamber that allowed no contrarian thinking to color its coverage of the election, leading viewers/readers with the impression that the race was in the bag for Romney. And while I can understand how voters might have been sold on this narrative, campaigners tend to be a more cynical and mercenary lot, believing their candidate, but also realizing that not everyone wins.

As someone who advises clients on the need for alternative futures, this unheeding belief in only one narrative (Obama can’t win, Romney can’t lose) runs counter to what I do on a daily basis. But it also forces me to confront a bias of my own: unless I deliberately think about it, I tend to believe that everyone considers alternatives to their current expected future as a matter of practice. This election reminded me that many, many people don’t — and that is one way we can be useful to clients.

Image: Asthma_Helper, Flickr

In May 2008 I gave an interview with TV Week magazine in which I discussed the future of television. In the interview I said:

Eventually, that’s going to be what the TV networks as they exist now are going to have to do. Not just create programming and release it at certain times. Rather than broadcasting 18 episodes of “Lost” over 18 weeks, they’ll release 18 episodes and you can buy it in any way you want. You can buy it and watch on your television, you can buy it and watch on your phone or you’ll be able to buy it on DVD simultaneously with its release as a broadcast. You can have it in a definite form and watch it at your leisure. (Emphasis added.)

So I was intrigued to read in the New York Times a few days ago that not only would Netflix be premiering its first original production, House of Cards, on February 1, 2013, but that  all 13 episodes would be available for streaming at that time.

This all-at-once release reflects another point that I made in the TV Week interview:

Appointment television will still exist, but it will be a lot more finite. The appointment will not be each week or when the new show comes on, but the appointment will be the date that the show is released. It goes from being Thursday being the first new episode from the second half of the season for “Lost,” to Thursday being the release of the fifth season of “Lost.” The appointment becomes a more singular point rather than every week.

How we consume media–on which platform, at which place, during which time–is more in flux today than ever before. Netflix’s move into content producer is just one aspect of this. Traditionally, content producers would lobby established distributors (broadcast and cable networks, movie studios) to buy their content, as these were seen as the only way to reach an audience. No more. The advent of Internet streaming, smartphones and tablets, cheap Wi-Fi and content stores such as iTunes and Amazon means that who distributes the content is no longer a mark of quality or legitimacy. House of Cards demonstrates this: People are interested in this series because of the involvement of Oscar winners such as Kevin Spacey and director/producer David Fincher. It will be the rare viewer who will turn up her nose because it is being released via Netflix and not HBO or ABC.

Or to put it another way, just because there have been broadcast television networks for 70 years does not mean there will always be television networks. And Netflix is betting that this is the future.

Whom to ask when you want to know if electronic records are being subtly altered?  A five-year-old, evidently.

My son is in the dinosaur phase, and watches paleontology shows religiously, so we get pretty familiar with them too. One of his favorites, watched via streaming video, recently began to seem <em>different</em> somehow. We could swear certain lines and scenes had shifted, but we had no evidence. But he confirmed it: he knew pretty definitively whether our hunches were right about each little change.

This is likely an innocent matter involving regional broadcasting rights or the like, but it illustrates another effect of information centralization: when everything is electronic and cloud-based, there are new opportunities for information manipulation.

  • Governments or corporations with legal control over content, or sufficient coercive power, might simply modify or erase key sources, using electronic centralization to be thorough about it, or thorough enough. This is especially likely as more governments attempt to control the Internet, or portions of it, and the option of coercion will grow as more governments inclined to censorship increase their economic power. This was much more difficult in the era of paper, though some governments tried: owners of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia would sometimes receive new version of articles to paste in when old versions of history fell out of favor.
  • Hackers might make the same kinds of changes illicitly. Sufficiently adept or targeted changes could sew real confusion. (We saw a preview of this when an American politician garbled some American history, and her supporters attempted to alter the Wikipedia entry so that history fit the candidate’s confusion. The decentralized nature of Wikipedia thwarted this effort.)


Image: denn (Flickr)

Image: GoXunuReviews, Flickr.

Amazon sent out a news release this morning announcing that sales of digital books for their Kindle digital book format/reader had eclipsed sales of printed books. All printed books, not just hardbacks. (That milestone was reached in July 2010.) This news about digital book sales edging printed sales is apparently a big deal as many of the people on my Twitter feed have sent around the link to the news release.

But what does it mean? There are those who decry the rise of the e-book, claiming it is the end of books. But this is not the case. It may be the winding down of printed books, but the healthy growth of e-book sales does not indicate books are going away. In fact, in the news release, Amazon states that 2011’s strong digital copy sales, along with growth in printed book sales, has “resulted in the fastest year-over-year growth rate for Amazon’s U.S. books business.” Clearly the book is not going away. Had there been mass communication tools 500 years ago, no doubt there would have been hue-and-cry over printed books edging out hand-copied versions. (“What are the monks to do?” “Is this the end of scribes?”) But books flourished because of the printing press, and they will continue to flourish as e-books.

Image: Paul Joseph, Flickr

One of the things we help our clients do is reframe their perspective on their business. As we tell clients, we can never have the depth of their institutional knowledge, but by coming in with an (educated) outsider’s perspective, we can help them uncover their hidden assumptions and biases, and move past these biases to more productive innovation.

I was thinking about this as I was listening to a story on NPR about the recording industry. Music was the first entertainment/media sector to be seriously gutted by the Internet and digital media. Other entertainment sectors—books, movies, tv—all view the music industry as a cautionary digital tale and are working hard to avoid making the same mistakes. But faced with the sweeping changes brought by Internet disintermediation, some in the business still can’t shake their old frames. In a story about how the Internet makes it easier for artists to record music and sell directly to customers, comes this quote from Neil Jacobson, an executive with record label Interscope:

If you want to be a great brand ideally you’re relevant to the masses. And getting to the masses now is harder than it’s ever been, there’s just so many places you have to get.

In the middle of an article on the future of the recording industry, and how the Internet is creating new and myriad opportunities for artists to market and sell their music directly to consumer, Jacobson is arguing that artists need record companies to reach all the new opportunities the Internet has created. Clearly Jacobson can’t get beyond his assumption that artists need labels, and has turned the freedoms offered by the Internet on their head, making them a need for labels, not a means to ditch them.

Another piece on NPR’s Planet Money blog help put paid to Jacobson’s notion that artists need labels. It features the story of Jonathon Coulton, who moved to New York 20 years ago to become a musician, but settled into a career in software programming instead. Now, because of the Internet, he is selling his songs and gaining a critical reputation and popular following. And while he is not earning U2 money, the $500,000 he has earned has been a pleasant surprise.

Our job as futurists is to help our clients see the future, unburdened by the outdated frameworks of the past. Whether or not artists still need labels is debatable (and other people in the initial story make stronger arguments for labels), but the music industry—and every industry—doesn’t need thinking that tries to bend the future to the past.

Egyptian with mobile phoneThe raid that killed Osama bin Laden yesterday has to have been one of the most secret operations in the world — and yet it was live-blogged by an inadvertent witness.

Sohaib Athar, an IT consultant trying to get away from it all in the small Pakistani city of Abbottabad , was so irritated by the low-flying helicopters that he began tweeting about them as they were overhead, not realizing that they were American machines carrying out the operation that would end bin Laden’s life.  After Obama’s announcement, Athar added, “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.” (He now has 65,000 followers on Twitter.)

Was he the only person on social media in Abbottabad?  No, he explained, but others in the area tend to be on Facebook instead.

Pakistan is not even very wired, with 94% of the population not using the Internet.  But even in that very poor country 38% of the population had mobile phones in 2010, and that number has surely risen.

This is another moment that tells us what a transparent world will be like: an ever-smaller percentage of newsworthy events will occur without witnesses able to record and broadcast what they see.  This may already seem ubiquitous — from NATO plane spotting to Syrians reporting demonstrations — but it has only just begun.


Image courtesy Sierragoddess (Flickr)

Internet retailer Amazon announced today that it is starting a program that would allow library patrons to check out books using their Kindle. This sounds like a great idea. I am surprised no one has considered this before. Way to go, Amazon!

Image: GoXunuReviews

A couple of years ago some colleagues and I were talking about the cleverness of the Netflix model, and we wondered if there was any other product that could be rented/distributed via mail in the same way. One co-worker suggested how it would be great if we could rent books for free, and then return them when we were done. After the laughter died down, we explained to him that he had just invented the public library. But this was all pre-Kindle.

Here is my free idea for Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and any public library:  Allow your books to be rented for e-readers. So how would this work? Libraries would purchase a number of copies of an e-book, and then a library patron with an e-reader could get a code for the digital copy of the book and download it from either the library system or an e-book seller. After two weeks, when the book was due, the library would cancel the code and the book would be removed from the e-reader. As Amazon demonstrated in 2009 with the 1984 kerfuffle, the ability to remotely wipe e-books exists.

But what about the lost sales to e-book sellers due to free downloading via the library? I am no expert in library and publishing economics, but I assume that if you’ve decided to check out a book from the library, you’ve already made the decision not to buy it. The free library system is predicated on the idea of one purchase, many readers—so retailers are not losing money, as it was never going to be spent in the first place.

There are some concerns about piracy, as digital media is relatively easy to pirate. A host of digital rights management schemes are available now to thwart illicit downloads. Also, Netflix seems to have managed this problem—even with its live streaming of movies—so it is not insurmountable.

To sweeten the pot for e-book retailers, perhaps the library would share a bit of demographic information about the e-borrowers, allowing retailers to build more effective advertising plans.

So there you go, libraries and retailers: Free idea. And on a personal note (and for full disclosure), as a Kindle owner, I look forward to seeing it reach fruition.

Like many other modern knowledge workers today, I work from home. One of the advantages is that I get to watch reruns of Scrubs while I eat my lunch. The other day (June 9, to be precise, for reasons I will shortly make clear), a song I like was playing in the background on Scrubs, so I pulled out my iPhone and fired up the Shazam app. For those not familiar with Shazam, it records a snippet of any song played in its vicinity, then analyzes it and tells you the name and artist. It is handy for just the situation I was in: What is that song and who sings it? In addition to the song title and artist, Shazam shows a picture of the album cover art, if available. And this is what caught my eye—I realized I had seen this cover art before. So I scrolled back through my previous Shazam results and found that I had recorded the same snippet on May 11, 2009. Which tells me two things: 1. I seem to really like that song, and 2. I now know the exact date I previously watched this episode of Scrubs.

The second piece of information may seem trivial, but it is just these kinds of small pieces of info that mobile apps and other programs are picking up daily as we go about our business. As a savvy tech user, I am aware of the various privacy implications of my choices, and while to some it may seem as though I blithely, and too frequently, let third parties into my life, I am fully aware of what I am doing. At least I thought I was, until this incident. It got me thinking about what Shazam could do with this information. What it knows is that I tagged one song on two different occasions. It would not be difficult to comb extant databases and find out how I would have heard that song on those days. And then what? Well, then Shazam would know I like Scrubs, and music featured on Scrubs. If the people behind Shazam ever wanted to expand their business model, they could push recommendations to users about other artists similar to the ones tagged, recommendations about other television shows, or even a reminder that the rerun of Scrubs with the song you like is coming up.

One thing this experience has not seemed to do is encourage me to buy the song. Over a year after tagging it the first time, and weeks since the second, I have still not bought it. Wait—I just did.

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