Image: Stew Dean, Flickr.

Here are five indicators, observations or articles that caught the eye of FA futurists today.

  1. Richard Fernandez assesses the potential for a rapid proliferation of nuclear weapons in East Asia, and makes the observation that one consequence of declining US hegemony could be a global race to build or acquire nuclear weapons.
  2. Jane McAdam at the Brookings Institution examines how the international system may deal with the problem of states that disappear entirely due to rising sea levels.
  3. Basel Kayyali, David Knott, and Steve Van Kuiken of McKinsey & Company argue that if the healthcare sector is to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by big data it must use the technology not only to reduce costs but also to improve healthcare outcomes. They identify five paths forward, which they briefly title “right living, right care, right provider, right value, and right innovation.”
  4. The BBC compiled a group of forecasts covering the next century and had Ladbrokes calculate the odds of the forecast occurring. Uber-tech analyst Brian Wang then tweaked several of the forecasts and offered his own predictions and timeframes.
  5. Get ready for iRadio.  Apple and Universal Music have signed an agreement for streaming radio. Moving in to areas that were dominated by newcomers, like Pandora, expect to see a major shift in radio entertainment and devices.

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.

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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