Thank you so much for allowing me to engage you in a conversation. Our signature process at the Institute for the Future is what we call "Foresight to Insight to Action." We don't predict the future, because nobody can do that. Rather, we create provocative but realistic visions of the future. We use those forecasts to engage people in conversations about what this particular future might mean to them and to their organizations, what is important, what they need to pay attention to, what challenges they might be facing. Those are the insights that they can then use to develop action steps to achieve a desirable future.
• Socialstructing -- organizing around social relations and not against them -- has the potential to humanize our economy. At the same time, substituting social capital for money as the new currency can bring in new challenges and new social divisions. We can end up with whole new classes of rich and poor based on new social capital metrics.
• Social networks can be exclusionary (secret societies, clubs, cliques), again something to watch for.
• The drive for accumulation may be as harmful with regard to social capital as it is with regard to money. People may engage in all kinds of unsavory practices to build up social capital (just as they do with financial capital).
• Any single metric of a person's reputation is bound to create a crooked mirror of someone's worth. Humans are too complex to be reduced to one measurable metric. What isn't the metric measuring? What perverse incentives for accumulation it is creating?
• Finally, and most importantly, as my son leaves for college, I need to watch out lest I develop new passions much less savory than bluegrass and baseball (thank you, @samuraizenu).
I want to leave you with one of my favorite short clips from an exercise IFTF did at the 2008 Maker Faire Bay Area. As visitors passed our booth, we asked them to record 30 second videos outlining their visions of the future. Great wisdom from the mouth of the babe, completely spontaneously.
I don't know about you but I am feeling kind of bad about those poor Goldman Sachs investment bankers. Just a few months ago they looked so sad (remember those sad guys on the trading floor?). And now, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, after taking money from American taxpayers, they earn huge profits as if the credit crunch never happened. The 29,400 Goldmanites are expected to take in on average around $800,000 in pay, bonuses, and benefit packages. I can only imagine what this means for the top 400. But I worry that this is just not going to make them happy. And this is because research on happiness reveals some surprising things:
• Wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but not thereafter (Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness.)
• The bewildering array of choices that wealth brings not only doesn't make us happier but actually erodes our psychological well-being. (Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice)
So I want to humbly suggest that for the purposes of ensuring Goldmanites' happiness, they give large portions of their money to those impoverished by the recession, thus making themselves and others a bit happier. Spread a bit of that happiness contagion. What do you think?
Whenever you are tempted to feel superior about our unique status as humans in the animal kingdom and our extraordinary achievements in building a sophisticated civilization, it is worth reading Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist who has studied apes for almost 40 years. Several years ago when I picked up his book "Our Inner Ape," it quickly occurred to me that this is probably one of the best management books I've ever read. (OK, so I don't like management books). Behaviors that we, humans, embellish with complex rationalizations and justifications, De Waal was able to observe with clarity among his subjects, apes. Making alliances to achieve power, engaging in acts of reciprocity to build and maintain social capital, puffing up to threaten the opponent and scare enemies -- so ape and so human at the same time. So if you are looking for an entertaining, yet humbling experience, above is De Waal's speech from 2004 at Pop!Tech.
The title of this post is actually the name of the program started by the California Bluegrass Association, an organization that brings together young pickers, ages 3 to 18, to play at various bluegrass festivals. Before I, or more precisely, my son and his friends, found bluegrass, I could never imagine that this traditional American music genre could be the epicenter of young musical talent. And when I mean young, I mean very young. I've seen some amazingly hot pickers who are under 10! What I love about bluegrass festivals is that there is as much great music offstage as on, in the campground where small and large groups, many including very young musicians, jam together. Bluegrass is the ideal medium for these musicians. The basic chords are easy to learn, bluegrass jams are cross-generational affairs with pros often happy to share their skills with novices, and the music is highly social and ad hoc, i.e. you can play acoustic instruments virtually anywhere without any major set up. Although the chords are easy, the possibilities for virtuosity in this genre are immense (think Chris Thile , Bela Fleck , or Bryan Sutton). I also love the fact that at most any bluegrass festivals you can see the "stars," mixing with the audience or standing in line for coffee just like anyone else. Imagine such a thing at a huge rock festival.
Above are videos of a few amazing young bluegrass musicians I've come across: Annie Staniec, Molly Tuttle, and AJ Lee with the Tuttles. There are many more out there, young and old, so feel free to link to your favorites in the comments.
l find many things remarkable about psychiatrist George Vaillant's longitudinal studies of 268 Harvard men, not least of which is their time span -- 72 years! To see someone transformed from a teenager to an old man is usually the stuff of fiction, not academic research. It turns out though that real lives are not that different from fiction, what with so many unpredictable twists and turns. What struck me most was the depth of personal transformations many of Vaillant's subjects' lives take. For example, starting out as a promising well-adjusted student with a loving family and later coming to resent your kin, seeing them as cold and detached; veering from a happy marriage to an affair with a much younger woman and eventual divorce; finding God, abandoning God, all in the span of one life. These transformations are so stark, some of the study participants barely recognize themselves when presented with vignettes of their past selves. As Joshua Wolf Shenk writes in the June issue of Atlantic Monthly:
"One of the men in the study at age 50 declared, "God is dead and man is very much alive and has a wonderful future." He had stopped going to church, he said, when he arrived at Harvard. But as a sophomore, he had reported going to mass four times a week. When Vaillant sent this--and several similar vignettes--to the man for his approval to publish them, the man wrote back, "George, you must have sent these to the wrong person." Vaillant writes, "He could not believe that his college persona could have ever been him. Maturation makes liars of us all."
The stories reported in the study are complex yet familiar -- they are not so different from stories of our own lives or those of our parents, grandparents, or others we know. I have come to view my own life as a progression of different personas --- a young girl in Ukraine, a young professional in Silicon Valley, a mom of a teenager. At each stage, I was a different person with a different outlook on the world, different circumstances and sets of aspirations. Reminders of my past selves are contained in a few photographs tucked away in a shoe box that I occasionally bring out, a box of letters to my family in Odessa, and, more recently, increasingly growing compilations of videos, e-mails, online photos, etc.
For the past 8 years at Institute for the Future, we have been creating "artifacts from the future." We see them as a means of converting abstract, high-level trends and future visions into tangible objects that help people internalize our forecasts. However, we do not view them as prototypes for building new products or services. Artifacts from the future are a good way to engage people in important conversations about the future and to elicit meaningful insights that hopefully lead to positive actions.
The above artifact, a "Reputation Statement of Account," was designed by our colleague Jason Tester, a researcher and a designer, as a part of our 2004 Ten Year Forecast. It remains one of my favorite artifacts and seems to perfectly encapsulate emergence of new types of social currencies as a part of a reorganization of our lives around social relationships. In this world, it would be easy to imagine that the statement of your wealth would include accounting of your social capital as measured by contributions to various types of open communities, such as Wikipedia or Flickr.
As my son gets ready to move out of the house to go to college, I've been thinking about another Russian writer who captures universal human themes that resonate over a hundred years later: Anton Checkhov. His story "Dushechka" or, in English translation, "The Darling," has many layers of meaning. Indeed, the Russian word Dushechka originates from the Russian word "dusha" or soul, and thus the title alone has multiple meanings -- soul mate, someone who is all soul, or has a great soul. I'm not going to do Dushechka justice in this post so please forgive me, dear Russian literature fanatics.
The heroine of "The Darling" is a young woman, Olenka, who becomes passionate about whatever her loved ones are involved in. First she marries a theater owner and all she talks about is theater. She speaks with contempt of the public, of its indifference to the arts, of its boorishness and insensitivity. She weeps at unfavorable revues and argues with editors. When her husband dies, she marries a timber merchant. Suddenly, lumber is the most fascinating subject on earth as far as Olenka is concerned. She manages her husband's business affairs and dreams of boards, planks, beams, and joists. When the second husband dies, Olenka takes up with a veterinary surgeon. Her acquaintances find out about this simply because she suddenly becomes overwhelmingly concerned with the sanitary conditions of animals: "The health of domestic animals ought to be as well attended to as the health of human beings." And so it goes.
It is hard to be a parent and completely avoid turning into a Dushechka just a bit, particularly in this day and age of high parental involvement. Whether we like it or not, we become engaged in our kids' passions and pursuits, and often absorb them as our own. That brings me to baseball and bluegrass.
Yesterday I posted an essay on Socialstructing--creating organizations around social connections rather than against them. I believe these types of organizational forms are growing and diffusing rapidly throughout the economy. However, I do not see them as panaceas from all our ills since they have a potential to bring with them new kinds of inequalities, exclusions, and Ponzi schemes. So this post looks at potential unintended consequences of socialstructing.
One of the best things about speaking Russian (possibly the only thing), is that it gives you an ability to access Russian literature in the original. Over the years I've tried many different translations of Russian writers and was disappointed every time. Nothing compares to the original. Maybe it is impossible to do justice to these texts because many Russian words are so deeply rooted in a uniquely Russian context and life circumstances. What I love about writers such as Gogol and Chekhov is that in portraying life in 19th century Russia they managed to capture universal themes of human inner struggles, desires, and life ironies. They created prototypes of characters and circumstances that are as real today as they were 150 years ago. People just work through those circumstances with a whole new suite of tools and technologies.
That leads me to one of my favorite pieces of Russian literature -- Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, a novel first published in 1842. The story revolves around the exploits of Chichikov, a personality populating the lower rungs of the Russian society. Driven by a desire to enhance his social standing, Chichikov develops an ingenious scheme. He goes around Russian villages buying up records of dead serfs. It's a brilliant idea that capitalized on a unique and grotesque feature of the feudal Russian society -- ownership by landlords of the people who lived and worked on their land.
My mother knew well the value of social capital, although she probably never heard the term. In the Soviet Union where she lived and where I grew up one couldn't survive without it. She traded social capital on a daily basis. It meant that despite being a widow with very little money, despite not having a high position or a membership in the "privileged" class (the Communist Party), she was able to provide a relatively good life for her family. We never worried about having enough food, my sister and I always wore fashionable (by Soviet standards, at least) clothes, took music and dance classes, went to good schools, spent summers by the seashore, went to the symphony, and otherwise took advantage of a lifestyle that seemed much beyond our means. How was my mother able to provide all these things? She certainly couldn't afford them on her pitiful wages as a physician in a government-run clinic in Odessa, Ukraine. Social capital--networks of relationships with friends and acquaintances -- is what accounted for her ability to provide for a relatively comfortable, albeit not luxurious, lifestyle.
While there was no meat to be found in any store in the city, my mother got it regularly (along with other provisions) through the director of a supermarket, who was also a husband of a close colleague. I got into music school in exchange for my mother treating the director of the school. We could get Western medicines because my mother was friendly with the head of a large local pharmacy. Our apartment was always filled with people who my mother was counseling, diagnosing, treating, and prescribing medicines for. No money was ever exchanged. Ever mindful of Stalin's purges and his fabricated case against Jewish doctors' alleged conspiracy to poison Soviet leadership, she was too afraid to have an underground private medical practice or take money for her services. "With my luck, I would be the first to be caught," she always said. The people who could be regularly found in our home or whose homes she visited dispensing medical services were her substitutes for money. They and many other "connections" she built over a lifetime were her doors to resources -- from tangible commodities such as food, medicines, and clothes, to information, services, and emotional support.
At the end of workshops at the Institute for the Future we often ask participants to sum up their experience in one word or one sentence. Applying the technique to myself, I would sum up my whole life in one phrase: From Odessa to the Future.
Right around my 50th birthday I found myself in a position of Executive Director of IFTF, a venerable 40-year old think tank in Palo Alto, California. An honor, for sure, but an honor that for me meant many hours of reflecting on an amazing arc one's life can take, an arc that in my case started in a three room (not three bedroom, three room) apartment I shared with my mother, sister, and grandparents on a street named after a radical and obscure left-wing German politician and historian Franz Mehring in a city most famous for its steps forever immortalized in Sergey Eisenstein's movie Battleship Potemkin. This arc has brought me to the heart of Silicon Valley and to the most unlikely of occupations--a futurist. Although in a funny way, my past may have given me the best training for a futurist, at least the kind of futurism we practice at IFTF. It taught me on a visceral level a lesson that we always try to impart on others: no one can predict the future. If you asked me or anyone around me 35 years ago what would I be, the most likely answer would've been an "engineer." A good bet since most educated Russian Jews are engineers, many of them here in Silicon Valley. I did spend one unhappy year studying naval engineering (this may explain my decision to emigrate at the age of 18). No one around me knew any futurists other than the gypsy fortunetellers regularly trolling the streets of Odessa. You can think of me becoming a futurist as one of those black swan events Nassim Taleb writes about.
My personal experience has also led me to wonder about the unintended consequences of most things we do or that happen to us. I have come to believe that Steven Johnson's apt book title Everything Bad is Good for You applies to many realms much beyond video games and popular culture. I am finding that many things we strive for or think are desirable are actually bad for us and vice versa, things that we thought were bad turn out to be good (unless they kill you, of course). Or to be precise, I don't think they are good or bad per se but that when we make judgments about something being good or bad, we simply cannot foresee the totality of consequences and that among this totality of consequences there are necessarily some good things and some bad.
Prosperity and abundance that we all strive for and that many people have come to America for bring with them huge environmental and oftentimes social costs; lower living standards are simply more sustainable. Abundance of opportunities leads to stress and tyranny of choice, which we experience on a daily basis, from our shopping experiences to the kinds of stressful choices our young people are facing when deciding on colleges or careers. Compulsory education turns many kids off learning. In contrast, kids deprived of educational opportunities, treasure schooling. Just read stories of Afghan girls who were banned from schools under the Taliban and how exalted they were at being able to go to one-room crammed schools. Compare it with kids in many American schools who think of going to school as a punishment. I often think of Solzhenitsyn who once remarked that the freest he ever felt was in the gulag. Who could've thought that in the most oppressive of places one can attain great spiritual freedom? By no means do I advocate depriving people of incomes or kids of schools. I also would not recommend taking spiritual vacations to the gulag. I just like to think about complexity of outcomes and possibilities that often go against the grain of conventional wisdom or clear-cut solutions. I guess this would make me a bad politician. But this is what I like to think about, write about, and debate about, and this is what I hope to engage the awesome Boing Boing community in conversations about.