SAILING THE SEAS OF SUPERDENSITY: GUEST POST BY SCOTT SMITH
Continuing with our series of guest posts on the blog, we invited Scott Smith to share his thoughts on the notion of ‘superdensity’, something he has talked about in the past. Scott kindly agreed, and today we are delighted to share his brilliant reponse.
It’s the Future. Take an Umbrella.
About two and a half years ago, I wrote a blog post titled “The Future is Here Today, and It’s Superdense“. The phrasing was a reference to the apocryphal William Gibson phrase that’s a frequent crutch for people speaking prospectively in public fora: “the future is here today, it’s just not evenly distributed.” The trigger for the post was a cascade of world events that made “normal” a fairly useless construction—the Arab Spring was unfolding, the Euro crisis was in full swing, and oh, Japan had been laid low by a triple-whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
My intent in describing it as superdense, something typically used to talk about neutron stars or quantum information theory, was to find a way to describe how the typical Gibsonian loose distribution of future drivers and emergent trends was momentarily compacting into a tightly clustered ball of WTF. What we think of as the future, in particular bits of dystopia and chaos, wasn’t hiding in bits and pieces under this bush or over in that desert, but was all happening at once, or so it felt.
I also wanted to get across the sense of condensation—of various threads and elements, some connected, some not, coming together in a fairly knotty but spectacular way. While the tragedies in Japan were in some sense of a chain of causation (earthquake causing tsunami causing reactor damage), the events in the Arab world and the Euro crisis were in some ways quite connected via the sensitivities of the economic markets, political weaknesses and so on.
One could say—to keep piling on metaphors—a variety of chickens were coming home to roost. Others have talked about this period of protracted superdensity as a New Normal, where the general social, technological, economic, political and environmental conditions we had previously taken for granted no longer seem to pertain. In this period of deep flux, new power structures are emergent.
So far, so good. We’ve found various bits of language to describe the state we feel we’re in, but we don’t have a good system for coding and signaling the changes in state we experience, particularly as it applies to us as individuals, or to where we live or frame our existence (to our communities, economies, networks, etc). How fast is x changing in relation to me? To others? How strong is a particular driver, trend or state at this moment, and will it change? One person’s weird may be another’s normal, for example. From Chittagong in Bangladesh, for example, a hurricane and technological blackout in the New York metropolitan area might seem like seem a more normal distribution (though certainly not wished upon others).
Occasionally, when trying characterize the dynamic, often changeable nature of the future, I’ve resorted, unscripted to meteorological metaphors, describing how what we think of as “the future” as a phenomenon that washes over us from time to time like a storm front, full of pressure changes, turbulence, and with occasional destructive force. We talk about trends as parts of particular futures, as “building,” “gaining strength” or “rising,” for example. Fans of “Game of Thrones” speak cryptically online about how “winter is coming” as a means of characterizing what they see as a long-term shift toward instability or stagnation. The New Normal is, in effect a kind of climate change metaphor, conveying an expectation that conditions under which we’ve made assumptions and decisions in the past—or even the whole physics model of our reality—has altered in a fundamental way. Temperature, precipitation, humidity are all out of whack in our decision-making models.
As I sit thinking about this problem, a familiar sound comes on the streamed radio station to which I’m listening: the audio cue that tells me it’s time for the Shipping Forecast. If you aren’t familiar with it, the Shipping Forecast is generated by Britain’s Met Office and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at four intervals during the day. The Forecast splits the seas surrounding the UK and Ireland into 31 areas, reaching as far northwest as Iceland, east to Norway and Denmark, and south along the Continent to Spain and Portugal, and provides updated weather and sea conditions in these zones to guide both commercial and private shipping as it makes its way to and fro within the area. Similar forecast frameworks are used by other countries, with similar structures.
Many people, sailors and civilians alike, speak about the Shipping Forecast as having a sort of mythical quality—with evocative if slightly opaque names for the regions like Fastnet, Forties, Rockall and German Bight conjuring up something otherworldly, recognized but exotic. Announcers delivering the broadcast read out a standard format of information from each region: regarding wind speeds and direction, air pressure and tracking, precipitation, and so on. While the data sounds almost like a numbers station, it’s meaningful to those who use it, and from it one can create a very precise map of pressure across thousands of square miles of sea. The Shipping Forecast is a powerful shorthand that lets navigators know what to expect, how fast change is occurring, and in which direction it is moving.
Image credit: http://simonholliday.com/shippingforecast/trends
Would something like this be desirable as a means of navigating the New Normal? For understanding how to anticipate superdensity, and even to ride its kinetic energy? I wonder if what we need is a Shipping Forecast for futures—sliced into topical regions, with key forces identified, metrics described, and possible trajectories plotted? “Solar energy, veering 6 to 7, backing 3 later based on pending regulation, sporadic innovation, moderate to good.” “Surveillance, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11, hacking, squalls later, poor, becoming moderate later.” “Bioprinting, 3 to 4, fog, clearing later.”
As with many forecasts, the data is similar but the outcomes vary based on your position relative to the forces at play. Are you in a big or small craft, so to speak? Vulnerable, or protected? Is turbulence your friend or enemy? The standard language of the Shipping Forecast is interpretable by all, but value is variable depending on who or what you are, and where you stand, sit or sail, much like the security warnings we’ve grown weary of in recent years, with their orange/yellow/reds.
So, I make the modest proposal: let’s develop a Shipping Forecast for the sort of weird, New Normal futures we increasingly encounter. I’m sure we can come up with 30-odd social and economic issues, emerging technologies or environmental trends that we can all agree need tracking. Monitored by an appointed body (a Future Measurement Agency?), these factors can be reduced to publicly digestible metrics, and delivered in a daily report via print, radio and Internet.
Wondering whether Iran’s opening to the West is about to set off a chain reaction of international political reconfigurations? Want to know whether that new biotech product is an immediate gamechanger or just a slow burn? Is a new pandemic something to be concerned about? Tune in each night before bed, get a snapshot view of the future through the glow of your tablet, or a rip-and-read ticker tape via your mini-printer.
I’ll admit, it sounds a little strange, and yet we’ve spent far, far more time, money and effort developing sophisticated social media analytics, high-powered dashboards that allow financial traders at a glance views of market microturbulence, and, as we’ve found out recently, all-consuming social graphs of all of our interactions and connections. Why not, then, provide such metamaps of “future-weather” as a public good? Widespread knowledge of imminent turbulence and (dare I re-appropriate the word) actual disruption might go a long way toward connecting our actions and reactions to wider conditions.
Unlike the actual Shipping Forecast, to which sailors and ship captains can only respond in a reactive fashion, the forecasting model I propose is actually a feedback loop of sorts—a sort of Quantified Self for society. No, we can’t control (all) earthquakes, but there is a lot of the near-future that is in our control—if we can reconnect our conscious lives to causation. We may choose not to shape the waves coming at us—which is always an option in the decision-making process—but if we are going to apply so much of our time and effort to collecting data and crafting visualisations, surely this little experiment isn’t asking too much.