You can't consume your way out of global warming

When inventor and MacArthur "genius grant" recipient Saul Griffith started reading papers about global warning that were written in 1974 (the same year he was born) he discovered that "all the problems we face today are familiar from 43 years ago. All the proposed solutions are similar. Merely the motivation was a little different." In this episode of For Future Reference, a new podcast from Institute for the Future, David Pescovitz and I talk with Griffith about how we need new mindsets as much as new technologies to alleviate climate change.

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Our puny human brains are terrible at thinking about the future (and what to do about it)

Your brain does something weird when you imagine yourself in the future. FMRI scans reveal that your brain "stops acting as if you’re thinking about yourself," writes Jane McGonigal in Slate. "Instead, it starts acting as if you’re thinking about a completely different person... your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about."

Jane is my friend and colleague at Institute for the Future (IFTF), where we encourage people to think deeply, broadly, and creatively about their future selves. IFTF recently conducted the first major survey of future thinking in the United States, and the findings were surprising:

The survey found 53 percent of Americans say they rarely or never think about the “far future,” or something that might happen 30 years from today. Twenty-one percent report imagining this future less than once a year, while the largest group of respondents, 32 percent, say it never crosses their mind at all.

Likewise, 36 percent of Americans say they rarely or never think about something they might personally do 10 years from now. The largest group of respondents, 19 percent, think about this 10-year future less than once a year, while another 17 percent say they never think about it at all.

If you'd like to get better at thinking about the future (so you can make better decisions today on how to shape it), Jane has tip:

Make a list of things that you’re interested in — things like food, travel, cars, the city you live in, shoes, dogs, music, real estate.

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Will the Trump presidency play out like Sinclair Lewis’ "It Can’t Happen Here?"

What can the press do in an increasingly hazardous environment of computational propaganda, a multi-trillion dollar criminal economy, deeply divided populations, and rising authoritarian populism around the world? I wrote a report about a recent convening of over one hundred journalists, publishers, technologists, philanthropists, academic leaders, and policy experts, who came to atInstitute for the Future (I'm on staff there) in Palo Alto to develop media strategies to preserve civic society.

A charismatic man ran for president on a patriotic platform to restore the country to greatness and return to traditional values. When the media reported on his well-documented misdeeds, he accused the media of smearing him with vicious lies. His drumbeat of racist messages energized rural, working-class white men, playing on their fear of unemployment and their anger over societal changes that were threatening their privileged status. He won, with the support of the religious right, a fake news campaign, and impossible promises.

This may sound familiar, but it’s actually a synopsis of the first part of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, an eerily prescient 1935 dystopian novel about a populist demagogue named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who undermines democracy and drags the United States into fascism. Here’s what happens next: Windrip strips Congress of its authority. His followers form a bloodthirsty militia called the Minute Men that violently attacks dissenters and enforces authoritarian law. Windrip imprisons his political enemies, restricts the rights of women and minorities, and throttles the press. Most of the citizens are alarmed by the totalitarian takeover of their country, but accept the president’s explanation that such changes are necessary to “make America a proud, rich land again.”

Is this our future?

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Making the gig economy work for everyone

The platform economy can have something for everyone. People needing goods or services get what they want, people who have the time and skills to provide the goods and services get paid, and people who built and invested in the platforms that connect customers with providers get a cut of the action. Win-win-win, right?

Well, sometimes. But if you take a higher altitude look at the growing landscape of algorithmic matchmaking services, you’ll see some troubling aspects. For example, traditional workers can usually converse with human bosses, but on a platform, workers are told what to do by algorithmic “managers” that consider humans to simply be part of a pool of inputs to be allocated in response to changes in network conditions. To make things worse, workers in the gig economy are isolated from one another, making it extremely difficult for them to develop a collective voice to negotiate with platform owners and designers about issues that affect their livelihood.

Without taking action, this lopsided relationship between platform workers and platform owners could get worse, becoming like a high tech version of the day laborers in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, standing at the gates of the Chicago slaughterhouses in hopes of being selected for a shift of low-paid labor.

That’s why Institute for the Future (IFTF) had an open call for interested people to come to its offices in Palo Alto, California on November 30 and December 1, 2016 to participate in a two-day Positive Platforms Design Jam. The event was part of IFTF’s Workable Futures Initiative, established as a call-to-action for “policymakers, platform developers, and civic and labor leaders to blueprint positive platforms for people who work—platforms that not only maximize profits for their owners but also provide dignified and sustainable livelihoods for those who work on them." About 75 people attended, including technologists, historians, policy experts, software developers, and social inventors. Read the rest

What does it mean to be human in an age of machines?

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In his 1854 book, Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” Thoreau’s assertion is as valid today as it was when he made it over one hundred and sixty years ago. Whenever we shape technology, it shapes us, both as individuals and as a society. We created cars, and cars turned us into motorists, auto mechanics, and commuters.

Over the centuries we’ve populated our world with machines that help us do things we can’t or don’t want to do ourselves. Our world has become so saturated with machines that they’ve faded into the background. We hardly notice them. We are reaching a new threshold. Our machines are getting networked, and enabling new forms of human machine symbiosis. We’re entering a new era where fifty billion machines are in constant communication, automating and orchestrating the movement and interactions among individuals, organizations, and cities.

Institute for the Future (IFTF) is a non-profit think tank in Silicon Valley, that helps organizations and the public think about long term future plans to make better decisions in the present. Mark Frauenfelder, a research director at IFTF interviewed Rod Falcon, IFTF’s Director of the Technology Horizons Program, which combines a deep understanding of technology and societal forces, to identify and evaluate these discontinuities and innovations in the near future. Rod discussed Tech Horizon’s recent research into how machine automation is becoming an integrated, embedded, and ultimately invisible part of virtually every aspect of our lives. Read the rest

How to help shape a future that is more sustainable and equitable for everyone

Together, we can shape a future that is more sustainable and equitable for everyone! If you are interested in joining together with creative technologists, social inventors, policy experts, and thought leaders for a two-day event in Palo Alto where we will tease out the thorny challenges of the evolving on-demand economy and prototype real solutions tell us here.

Institute for the Future’s Positive Platform Design Jam November 30–December 1, 2016 8:30am-5:30pm

Institute for the Future Palo Alto, CA, USA

The IFTF Workable Futures Initiative is a call-to-action for policymakers, platform developers, corporate strategists, activists, and of course other workers of all kinds, to join us in blueprinting these positive platforms for the future of work. The time is now to grapple with the challenges ahead, develop sustainable solutions, and create a future of work that is workable for everyone. Read the rest

What happened when Mike Zuckerman brought his San Francisco culture hacking ethos to the migrant camps in Greece

In 2013, Mike Zuckerman, a self-described culture hacker, attended the White House’s National Day of Civic Hacking. Inspired by what he’d learned there, Mike returned to San Francisco and founded [freespace], an organization that focuses on sustainability and urban tactical development. In the spring of 2016, Mike went to Greece where he spent four months rehabilitating an abandoned clothing factory in the industrial sector of Thessaloniki, turning it into a humane shelter that he and his colleagues named Elpida. Unlike the official migrant camps in Greece, where refugees have little say in the day-to-day operations of the camp, Elpida put its 140 residents in charge, and the results were remarkable. Not only is Elpida much less expensive to run on a per person basis than official camps in Greece, the residents don’t suffer from boredom, restlessness, and disengagement like they do at NGO-run camps.

As a pilot model, Elpida offers hope and improved living conditions for refugees in a place where no other NGO was able to provide in this kind of support.

Mike has been working with Institute for the Future (where I'm on staff) as an affiliate since 2014 and recently accepted an IFTF fellowship to help uncover and study new paradigms for restoring vulnerable places and space, such as post-disaster sites, informal refugee settlements, and decaying urban neighborhoods.

I spoke to Mike about his work at Elpida in August, 2016, just days after he returned from Greece.

Listen to the audio podcast interview with Mike Zuckerman here. Read the rest

Blockchain meets virtual reality

Institute for the Future (where David and I are research directors) has a Blockchain Futures Lab blog. Today, Kathi Vian of IFTF presents a scenario involving a "bottom-up distributed toolset for aggregating large groups of people with similar interests, needs, and values into civic affinity groups."

This virtual city council is not simply passive profiling, however. You can interact with others to explore the issues with people who are a lot like you, a little like you, or very different from you. These interactions create the opportunities to develop more nuanced affinities with large numbers of people.

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Understand the blockchain in two minutes

You’ve heard of bitcoin. It’s a form of digital cash you can send to anyone, even a complete stranger. You may not have heard about bitcoin's digital ledger, called the blockchain, tracks and validates bitcoin transactions. Blockchain technology has enormous potential beyond bitcoin to automate every type of online transaction that requires a degree of trust. In this short video, produced by Institute for the Future (where I am a research director), Olivia Olson (the voice of Marceline the Vampire Queen in Adventure Time) explains how blockchain technology can be used to launch companies that are entirely run by algorithms, make self-driving cars safer, help people manage and protect their online identities, and track the billions of devices on the Internet of Things. Read the rest

By His Things Will You Know Him (podcast)

(art by Daniel Martin Diaz)

Earlier today, we published my story "By His Things Will You Know Him," which is from the forthcoming Institute for the Future anthology "An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter." I've read the story aloud for my podcast, if that's how you prefer your fiction.

MP3 Link

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"By His Things Will You Know Him," a short story

“My father kept things. I mean, he didn’t like to throw things away. Nothing.” I looked into his eyes as I said these words. I’d said them before, to explain my spotless desk...

Gweek 089: Marina Gorbis, executive director of Institute for the Future

Earlier this month, Boing Boing posted an excerpt from Marina Gorbis's fascinating new book, The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World. As David wrote, the book is "a compelling, provocative, and grounded book about how technology is enabling individuals to connect with one another to follow their passions and get stuff done, outside of large corporations, governments, and the other institutions that typically rule our lives." David and I spoke with Marina about The Nature of the Future for this edition of GWeek.

When Marina was a child, growing up in the Soviet Union, she lived with her sister and widowed mother, a medical doctor at a government clinic in Odessa. Her mother’s salary was meager, and her mother wasn’t a member of the privileged communist party elite, and yet Marina says she and her sister enjoyed a life filled with the arts, good food, fashionable clothes, travel, and education. It was all possible, she says, because her mother knew the value of social capital. “Social connections,” Marina writes, “were a powerful currency that flowed through [my mother’s] network of friends and acquaintances, giving her access to many goods and services and enabling our comfortable, if not luxurious, lifestyle.”

Marina never forgot this lesson about the incredible power of networked individuals, and it directed the course of her professional life. For the past 7 years, Marina has been the executive director of the Institute for the Future, an independent, non-profit research organization and creative design studio in Palo Alto California where David is also a researcher. Read the rest