Humani Victus Instrumenta: Ars Coquinaria / Unknown Master, Italian (active 1570s)

Why you should hang out with weirdos

And other lessons for living in the future — now — from cyborg anthropologist Amber Case

Amber Case, cyborg anthropologist who works at software company Esri, isn’t waiting for the future — she’s living in it.

She is surrounded by electronic devices, but those devices don’t control her: They step out of the way and let Case be a better human.

In Case’s world is the world of the invisible button, a world where she walks around and things just happen. Her phone — which is just one of a slew of devices that is constantly receiving information about Case and her environment, processing it, and returning useful nuggets of insight — tells her whether she’ll need to bring an umbrella for the walk to the meeting she’s heading to later, and reminds her that she should eat chicken and greens for lunch and skip the chips.

She is surrounded by electronic devices, but those devices don’t control her: They step out of the way and let Case be a better human.

Amber Case | Creative Commons via Flickr

Case didn’t wind up in this world by accident. She thinks about technology — where it is now, where it’s going, where it should go, and how that will change how we interact with it and with each other — constantly. Here are a few of the things she looks for when she’s dreaming of the future:

1. Imagine what would happen if the stuff you have and love went away forever.

If there’s anything we know about technology in the twenty-first century, it’s that it changes fast. Huge players disappear and leave holes behind — holes that someone else will fill in a new ways. One trend Case thinks is imminent is personal ownership of our own data via home servers. How will this catch on? If people realize that an abrupt exit by Google or Facebook means their documents/photos/memories/life’s ephemera will be effectively erased, they’ll scramble for a way to log their own data before sending it to the data giants.

2. Look to the past.

“If the future is unevenly distributed,” said Case, “then there are little pockets where people are seeing the future early on.” Case looks for those pockets in the present and the near past. For example, her current obsession is the evolution of the user interface from solid (machines that had to be reconfigured) to liquid (software that can be rewritten to redefine the meaning of a button) to air (no button or physical at all — just you interacting with information and the environment). To vaporize the user interface, Case looked at the work of Steve Mann, who build wearable heads-up displays thirty years ago. Sure, Mann’s inventions weighed as much as a Golden Retriever, but they essentially predicted Google Glass.

3. Hang out with weirdos.

Weirdo is just another word for visionary, according to Case. Activities happening on the fringes right now could one day fall into the center. What’s regarded as bizarre will someday be mainstream. If you want to beat it there, head for the passionate group of people in the corner, wearing forty pounds of sensors and hacked electronics and drinking home-distilled spirits.

4. If you don’t see the future you want, don’t wait for it: Make it.

Unlike some futurists, Case doesn’t just speculate about the next big trend — she creates it so she can start to play with it and understand its dynamics.

“If I don’t see somebody making something, I build it,” said Case, “because I can’t wait around for five years.”
“To predict what will happen in the next period of time is impossible, but If certain things haven’t been made, then I will have to make them,” said Case.

And there’s no reason why you can’t, too.

A version of this article also appears on The Upstart, along with a podcast of my conversation with Amber Case, as part of coverage of the Defrag 2013 conference.