Friday, October 10, 2014

When Moore Becomes Different: How to Learn to Love Accelerating Change in the Conditions of Change


Everyone has experience a sense of accelerating change. But no one knows how things are going to turn out. What can we expect our social-cultures, our political-economies and our institutions to look like in 10-20 years (or more)? We are all vulnerable to an intuitively linear imagination of the unfolding future and worse we also tend to imagine future technology overlaid on existing social, organizational and institutional frameworks. It is natural to imagine that we will still go shopping at the mall only we’ll use crypto-currency instead of our credit & debit cards. However, it is much harder to imagine the disappearance or transformation of the mall and the activities of shopping.

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.
Marshall McLuhan

 The most difficult challenge of foresight is that everything is interdependent –everything influences the way everything else changes. The important point is that change occurs simultaneously through many different processes, in many different ways and on many different time scales. This makes it difficult find a natural place to begin writing and thinking about the future. The reality of complexity means that long term control and prediction are impossible and uncertainty looms. If we don’t want to be marching into the future with our focus primarily in the rear view mirror must exercise more than traditional scientific rigor – we must embrace a creative imagination.

For this reason I’ve defined foresight in the following way:
Foresight is not about predicting what will happen. 
Foresight is about understanding evolving conditions in order to imagine what they can enable.
Foresight needs Rigor and Imagination.

Essentially we have to imagine what affordances we can discover within the ongoing currents of change as well as imagine how people can creatively act and respond. We must engage our imagination in order to wayfind through a changing landscape where each step changes the environmental conditions of the next step – and the next step may not just be ‘one more’ – it may initiate a ‘difference in type’.

The key points to this definition are:
  • Understanding trajectories of change;
  • Imagining what can be enabled within these conditions

The title to this initial series of postings is meant to evoke the challenge to our imagination – when more become different. The title is a play on words alluding to Moore’s Law of exponential change. The now very common phrase “more is different” was the title of a paper written in 1972 by Philip Anderson (Nobel Laureate in Physics) refers to a point where an increase in quantity creates a qualitative, discontinuous change – sort of like a phase transition.

One more challenge to our imagination is posed by a famous quote from Einstein that states: “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” In this series, we want to imagine that accelerating change won’t just be Moore, but different, and we imagine that this difference will involve not just developing new forms of thinking – but new types of thinkers arising in new types of societies. This requires more than just better creative thinking but a disposition that believes that problems can be solved and this means a fundamentally positive disposition.

A great place to begin is with a recent blog post by Kevin Kelly, where he asks a great question. It’s a question about the need for more positive visions of the future. Not utopias, but positive visions – “On the chance that desirable futures ARE possible, we need to imagine them.” The challenge of any foresight effort is to not be seduced into prediction. I’ve previously said that foresight is an effort to understand evolving conditions to imagine what they can enable. However, most foresight efforts are aimed at specific questions and horizons that are less than 40 years away.

It seems intuitively natural that entrepreneurs inherently have a positive vision of the future – but perhaps we should explore this assumption a little. Certainly an entrepreneur must have a naturally optimistic temperament. They must be able to not only see possibilities that are the basis of their endeavour, but also have the creative confidence to believe they can make their venture real.

However, the focus that is the entrepreneur’s strength may also be their weakness. The entrepreneur has to become very focused on the direct work necessary to implement their vision. This can force their creative imagination become bounded to the narrower domain and near-term timeline of their venture. The search for opportunities easily becomes constrained to the affordances in the more immediate environment – low hanging fruit that are ripe for consumption.

Entrepreneurs will often see the future of a world changed by their ventures. However, it is much harder imagine what the new innovations will be enabled by their ventures. It is even more difficult to imagine the new social institutions that disruptive innovations will enable.

The generation of innovators, scientists, engineers, and hackers that have been influenced by the positive depiction of a future portrayed by Star Trek has been well discussed – not just by William Shatner. But in the decades since Star Trek the popular future seems to be filled with looming catastrophe and science fiction has mostly focused on depictions of inevitable dystopias. In response to this, Neal Stephenson began the “Hieroglyph Project to convince sci-fi writers to stop worrying and learn to love the future,” in 2012. What science fiction can do is create a larger and more coherent vision of the future – one that imagines a whole integrated society, economy, political system and more.

This is why Kelly’s blog points at something so important. The call to imagine a future worth living in is more than a place we want to live – but is also a call to create visions of how individual innovations can contribute in the shaping of this sort of positive future.

What entrepreneurs need to be both individually successful and meaningfully successful in making the world a place worth living in, is not a single vision but rather the means, and support for a larger and more coherent visioning of their innovations and the ecologies their innovations will enable.

Before I begin to explore how the digital environment will provide a fundamentally new ‘ground’ (as in figure-ground) for life in the 21st Century. I want to begin by laying out a foundation for understanding how things change, and how change creates change in conditions of change (is this a Rumfeldism?). I will begin with some important types of causality, then look at some fundamental types of distribution and then discuss a few basic processes of change – but always with an eye on visioning what can be enabled by the emerging digital environment. Later I will explore the implications for how we construct individuality.

References:

Kelly, Kevin. 2014. A Desirable-Future Haiku: The coming hundred years, in one hundred words. https://medium.com/message/a-desirable-future-haiku-ff01d63c93c6

SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE –  APRIL 2012. Dear Science Fiction Writers: Stop Being So Pessimistic! Neal Stephenson created the Hieroglyph Project to convince sci-fi writers to stop worrying and learn to love the future. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/dear-science-fiction-writers-stop-being-so-pessimistic-127226686/