Future #58: Disentangling the future from the past

Alexis Lloyd
Ethical Futures Lab


Welcome back to Six Signals! We missed writing this (though the wedding was a blast!), and hopefully, you missed reading it as well. Grab some leftover Halloween candy and settle in for a re-imagining of books, a slower social network, and some tips on making better predictions.
— Alexis & Matt

1: How to future, better

One of our favorite tenets to consider when imagining potential futures is that “The future is accretive”, or that the future is built on the past. Interesting things happen at the intersections of what is currently happening and what is newly possible, but it’s very difficult to imagine these combinations. (See also, “Imagining truly new things” in issue #56)

Paul Ford, in an essay for Wired, touches on this idea in exploring the question: “Why are humans so bad at seeing the future?” The essay begins with a review of a book of predictions published in 1980. Not only are these predictions largely incorrect (“Every now and then someone writes something like ‘By 2000 you’ll be able to listen to any album in a record store through a data service,’ and you can squint and see Spotify.”) but they’re not even wrong in interesting ways. When asked to imagine a future, these writers first “prioritize, then fantasize” about what they know and draw straight lines from there. They’re “just saggy, middle-aged predictions”.

What’s often forgotten in the practice of futurism is how seemingly boring advancements in infrastructure enable truly spectacular possibilities that couldn’t have been imagined before. The most interesting — and often, the most correct — speculations come from imagining what can be created by the union of several new possibilities at once. For example, broadband technology and ubiquitous cameras lead to lots more pictures being taken; this leads to AI-driven slideshows of years’ worth of vacation shots, or facial recognition companies building models by scraping social media, or social movements springing up in response to livestreamed atrocities. In retrospect these are obvious; the trick for any good futurist or strategist is to get better at finding new intersections and being creative about what might be made in those connections. As Ford puts it, “Watch for the curious and interesting intersections between very large things. Look for points of contact or points of conflict. Pick two enormous forces and wonder how they connect.”

Why humans are so bad at seeing the future | WIRED

2: What does it mean to read on the internet?

Digital experiences often begin as replicas of analog ones: What if shopping but on a computer? What if a photo album, but with connectivity? Those experiences tends to start out quite skeuomorphic, but eventually diverge to be more distinct from their IRL counterparts. They become less like literal replicas, more native to their new environment and its affordances. But what is the appropriate relationship between a digital and analog version of an experience? What affordances should we retain and which should we jettison in favor of new ones?

The two pieces below — one by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic and the other by David Pierce in Protocol — critique digital reading experiences, but from radically different angles. Bogost criticizes ebooks for their lack of “bookiness”. He argues that for many forms of reading, the ebook experience is too lossy; it has eliminated too many key parts of the physical reading experience, like the ability to have a sense of the physical location of information, to utilize the margins, or for each book to feel unique in its design, shape, and heft. Bogost’s critique points to the opportunity for ebook experiences to be more like physical ones, to recover utility that has been lost.

On the other hand, Pierce’s piece takes a look at the revival of read-it-later apps — specifically apps like Matter that aim to do a lot more than provide a central hub for your open tabs. The critique here is the opposite of Bogost’s: Pierce argues that the digital reading experience suffers from hewing too closely to print experiences, that there is a huge wealth of untapped possibility in leaning in to what a digitally native experience can and should be. Digital reading should afford switching between text and audio, overlaying annotation layers on anything, dynamically toggling between long- and short-form versions, and more.

We believe both of these arguments are true. There are natural affordances that we’ve taken for granted in print that are much harder to replicate in digital contexts (like the density and serendipity that you effortlessly get with a broadsheet newspaper), and it’s worth pushing the design of the digital reading experience to see how we might replicate those benefits. But we should push ourselves to further separate the content from its traditional artifact, to imagine what superpowers our reading experiences might gain from more deeply leveraging the interactivity, connectivity, and fluidity of digital contexts.

Ebooks are an abomination | The Atlantic

Spotify for readers: How tech is inventing better ways to read the internet | Protocol

3: When skeuomorphs die

Speaking of experiences diverging from their analog counterparts, this piece by Monica Chin in The Verge documents the generational divide that has cropped up around file folders and directories. Until recently, directory structures had been the universal approach to organizing and finding digital files. Directly based on the physical practice of storing documents in labeled folders in file cabinets, the directory structure was the core organizing principle of personal computers, and persists in cloud services like Google Drive and Dropbox.

However, in recent years, technological changes have created a shift away from this model. Storage space is exponentially cheaper, file storage has moved to the cloud, and search technology is far better and faster that it used to be. It’s no longer critical to keep track of how many files you have or where they are located — instead, you just keep everything wherever and use search capabilities to find what you’re looking for. In addition, the practice of using physical filing systems has become nearly obsolete, so the original model for this skeuomorph has disappeared.

As a result, many younger adults and teenagers no longer understand directory structures at all, which can cause unexpected friction in contexts like college classes, where their professors start from very different assumptions. As one subject in the article describes his mental model, it’s like “the laundry basket where you have everything kind of together, and you’re just kind of pulling out what you need at any given time.”

Students who grew up with search engines might change STEM education forever | The Verge

4: What we talk about when we talk about decentralization

Nearly every week, we are confronted with centralization or distribution in one way or another. We hear hype about how blockchain-based currencies will lead to the end of centralized authority, then we encounter a glitch in Amazon’s US-EAST-1 zone that brings down half of the Internet. But what does it mean, really, to be decentralized?

This short piece by Josh Kramer includes several simple diagrams showing different stages of centralization and autonomy. While a helpful guide to various organizing patterns in technology, networking, and even society, it also helps visualize why a truly decentralized network of fully-autonomous nodes is unlikely on any significant time scale. Even if you remove the financial benefits of “economies of scale,” something as simple as popularity of a product can create nodes of concentrated power or risk. Visualizing the networks of control in this way also helps illuminate why the tech industry is in a constant state of periodic change, moving toward and then away from centralized control.

A visual guide to decentralization | New Public

5: Smaller, slower, deeper

We wrote a while ago about the impact of scale on the quality and experience of social networks, and this piece by Sara Hendren harkens back to those ideas. She discusses her experience using Notabli, a private social platform designed with families in mind. Since it is designed to share photos of children without exposing those photos to the wider internet, it is intentionally designed to do much less at a smaller scale — no advertisements, no third-party data tracking, no features intended to maximize engagement. Hendren describes her experience with the platform and discussed how we might abstract that experience into a broader set of lessons:

“Like so many designs that are ostensibly marketed for family life in a narrow and even parochial way, there’s some signal present, something deeper that calls for sustained attention. I’ve come to think of Notabli and its ‘family’-branded counterparts as a proxy for another possibility — for technologies that support the smaller but heterogeneous networks in our lives, deployed at an adaptively manageable scale. The app delivers the simplicity and productive limitations that the symbol of family stands for. It’s a human-scale model for giving and receiving the records of our lives with the family-or-friend, neighbor-or-colleague communities we belong to, and want to build.”

Care is not an infinite scroll | New Public

6: When are fears about technology valid?

It’s an easy trope to point to some new innovation and declare it dangerous, not necessarily in its own sake, but for what would happen if it grew and became too popular. Radio and television were going to raise a generation that didn’t read books, texting would kill formal writing, even the printing press was feared for its imagined impact on memory and oral history. This conversation between Clive Thompson and Evan Selinger lays out a rubric to understand when we may be heading down a “slippery slope” vs. when the imagined concerns are a reductio ad absurdum.

Selinger lays out three criteria for a technology pushing us down a slippery slope:

  1. Does the technology make something far simpler or cheaper to do than before?
  2. Are there clear incentives to doing more and more of that thing?
  3. Are there few obstacles to this solution’s growth?

Selinger and Thompson use this framework to identify inventions that did take society down a dangerous path, and ones where the predicted downfall never came. While a useful tool for analyzing a trend after it’s established its trajectory, we look forward to testing this hypothesis on new inventions and seeing whether it’s useful for predicting how it may play out.

How to recognize when tech is leading us down a slippery slope | OneZero

One reality-bending thing

Replace the cars on your street with X-Wing fighters? Blur out the crowd of protesters outside City Hall? Walk the streets of your city as they looked 200 years ago? All of these — and more — seem newly possible thanks to this “automatic object substitution” prototype that takes us one step closer to mixed reality experiences. After reading everything above, the phrase “it’s up to creatives to unleash their imagination” should both excite and terrify you.

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