The Future is Now (Really!)

September 14, 2011

future gazingMy friends know I like to talk about the future. I don't claim any special gift other than an overarching anxiety that insists I need to know tomorrow, so that I'll know to duck when trouble comes along. There's a steep emotional price to be paid for that, but it has taught me over the years to interpret trends, and I find that I'm right more than I'm wrong. I was a terrific assignment editor in my early years in television news, because the job is all about future planning and logistics. I used to call it "downstream thinking."

Two articles and a personal experience this week validated earlier thoughts of mine about tomorrow, so I thought it would be fun to look at them and consider the future.

First, let's undergird the thought stream with J.P. Rangaswami's brilliant quote, "The web makes experts 'dumb' by reducing the privileged nature of their expertise." Think about that for a minute, because it's absolutely true, and it will have a lasting impact on Western culture. It's not that the Web makes us smarter; it's that it evaporates that which gives hierarchical experts their expertise.

Hierarchies represent the nature of the modern era. The rare few oversee the massive many. There are layers in between, but towards the end of the era, those layers have become fewer in number and volume, and what we have now is a well-defined ruling class and working class. The problem with modernism and hierarchies is that they're comprised of human beings. No matter how well-intentioned the hierarchical institution, it must, sooner or later, devolve into self-preservation, which interferes with its original charter of service.

C.S. LewisExpertise is one of the key factors in determining where one ranks in the hierarchy, and one of the most fascinating truths about experts is their need to keep others in ignorance in order to preserve their place on the ladder. This was addressed brilliantly by C.S. Lewis in his 1944 speech to graduates at King's College in London. Lewis warned the young people to avoid the lure of what he called "The Inner Ring."

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be "in." And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.

And you will always find them hard to enter, for a reason you very well know. You yourself, once you are in, want to make it hard for the next entrant, just as those who are already in made it hard for you.

So you can see the threat to hierarchies posed by Rangaswami's statement, because it so beautifully frames the postmodern era of Western culture. It's the age of participation, and that's what these two articles represent.

Quantified Self LogoThe first is a brilliant look into the Quantified Self movement for Fortune Magazine by futurists John Hagel and John Seely Brown called "Using the crowd to your company's advantage (my guess is they didn't write the headline). Quantified Self began as a meet-up group in San Francisco and has developed into an exploding international movement. The essence of QS is the use of various data sets to track things about your life. Make no mistake; this group is here to stay, because it so perfectly matches the nature of human beings. The idea of using data about yourself to understand yourself and the life around you is brilliant, and it's already yielding fruit.

Alexandra Carmichael and her husband Daniel Reda, a former molecular biologist, joined Quantified Self in San Francisco to learn how to track Carmichael's long-term chronic pain and discover ways to improve her condition. Soon after, they launched CureTogether, an online group where those with chronic pain could document and share the results of their self-tracking.

The community quickly expanded as people asked that their conditions be added to the ongoing group studies. Now, thousands of members share their own experiences of hundreds of health conditions.

This is the precursor to something I've been sharing at university lectures for years — a "doc in a box." Plug in your data, including current body readings such as blood pressure and heart rate and detailed symptoms, and the thing will give you a world of data to sift through. We may even see the day when medication can be prescribed this way.

AMA logoThis is the big fear of the medical profession, and it will be the source of a major, major legislative fight downstream. If people can share their conditions, treatments and cures, it directly undercuts the value proposition of being a doctor, because, as Rangaswami observes, horizontal information erodes the nature of expertise. In the mid-90s, the American Medical Association formed a separate lobbying group in Washington specifically charged with keeping a watchful eye on the dispersing of medical information on the Web. The AMA knows that its future depends on keeping a lid on the practice of medicine. Oh, they will say it's for the protection of the people it serves, but that's a half-truth used to justify manipulation of the masses. The AMA is interested in protecting its place in the hierarchy, and the Web is a major threat to that.

This is why WebMD is such a useless website. What medical knowledge is presented is so surface that it is of no value whatsoever to users seeking answers, and every search ultimately leads to "see your doctor." Right.

So the idea of people going over-the-top of all that and sharing their own experience and data is on a collision course with "practicing medicine without a license," and it will not end well for the AMA. Will it mean an end to doctors? Of course not! A doctor will always be a doctor, but the privileged nature of her authority will never be the same. It will also gut the machine that medicine has become and hasten the cry for reform, not only in terms of cost but also in the heavy price of time that patients must give up to make "the system" work (How many "appointments" occur on time?). In 50 years, healthcare won't even resemble what we have today, and people will be better off for it.

Now take this concept — the horizontal feeding itself — and apply it to other areas of modernist, hierarchical life, and you'll have a clue about the vastness and eonic nature of the shift from modernism to postmodernism. Nobody is really prepared for this, because it will turn the economy and our whole way of life upside-down. We'll find it coming on slowly but surely.

Which brings me to the second article and a question for us all. Steve Lohr wrote a fascinating piece for the New York Times called "In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column." It's about the work of an Illinois start-up called Narrative Science and their work with the artificial intelligence of computers to duplicate human reasoning. The story is built around an experiment the company recently published of their computer writing a real-time news story about a college football game. Here's an excerpt:

"Wisconsin appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3 ... "

It reads as if it were written by a human being, but it wasn't. Narrative Science admits that this is designed to help financially-strapped media companies, but it's ramifications go way beyond that. Let's just assume that this technology advances, and computers are able to summarize all sorts of knowledge and provide that in language we can understand.

What will be left for us to do?

I always come back to the innocent but profound question asked by my then 7-year old daughter Jenny in 1978 who had just begun using her Texas Instruments calculator: "Why do I have to study math," she asked me, "if I have one of these?" The pocket calculator was a breakthrough and a highly controversial device back then, and it's now taken for granted by young people everywhere. But Jenny's question remains, and it leads to a technology question that I have for future generations.

What will be left for us to do?

the time traveler, Weena and the EloiWill we so evolve intellectually that we become godlike in our lordship over the earth? Will we evolve spiritually to a place where selfishness no longer is a part of cultural struggles? Will we become like H.G. Wells' Eloi, innocent, at ease and free, but secretly the sustenance for the subterranean Morlocks? What will be left for us to do? This is a question that we certainly will face, as we continue to explore technology in a way that renders much of what we used to call "work" irrelevant.

Back to today...

The personal experience I had involves a glimpse into cloud computing and The Live Web, one that was both enlightening and also a bit disconcerting. Here's what happened: I have a Motorola Droid that I like very much. Among the apps is Gmail. Gmail isn't my main account, but as Google expands its offerings to me, that may change. The Gmail app on my phone is connected in real time to the Gmail account on my laptop, because neither pulls information from the device itself; the exchange takes place in the cloud.

I was introduced to a man I'll call Harry B. I needed to be able to contact Harry again, so I put only his first name, last name initial and phone number in the contacts of my phone. A few minutes later, I used my Gmail account to send Harry an email with some attachments. His email address used his full name, so I began typing H-a-r... Suddenly "Harry B" appeared in the address bar. I was momentarily flummoxed, because I knew that Harry wasn't in any "contacts" that are stored on my laptop. That's when it hit me that the name I had entered into my Droid contacts was immediately placed in my Gmail contacts.

So I went back to the phone and entered Harry's email address there. I returned to my laptop and began to compose a new email. Just as before, I typed H-a-r... and up popped Harry's email address. I had to sit back and think about both the spookiness of that but also the wonder of it all. I grew up — hell, we all grew up — in a different time and a different age. The idea of what I'd just done was absolutely unthinkable earlier in my life, and yet, it's very real today.

This furthers my belief that we've entered an entirely new era in human existence, a world of hyperconnectivity, not only among people but also of the knowledge and information each possesses. Nothing will ever be the same. Nothing.

Since the beginning, knowledge has been used to separate people. When Gutenberg had the audacity to print the Bible, it blew away the hierarchical roots of the priests in Rome and spread that knowledge far and wide, prompting the famous quote, "The jewel of the elites is in the hands of the laity."

The same thing is happening today. What we do with it is the challenge of tomorrow.