We are on the threshold of a historic transition. The rate by which the human race can extrapolate meaningful patterns from data is quickening as rapiWe are on the threshold of a historic transition. The rate by which the human race can extrapolate meaningful patterns from data is quickening as rapidly as is the spread of the Internet because the two are inexorably linked. With the rise of smart phones, sensor networks, and the Internet of Things, we now create usable data in more and more of our daily activities. The average American generates 1.8 million megabytes of data on a yearly basis through downloading, streaming of movies and music, making phone calls, even accessing buildings and highways with RFID technology. This is why more than 90% of all the data that has ever existed was created in just the last two years. There will be 44 times as much digital information in 2020 (35 zetabytes) as there was in 2009 (8 zetabytes) according to the research group IDC.
The data that we are creating now touches on every aspect of our existence. It can be linked to health, to human behavior, to how we behave in cities, in schools, and in relationships. In an anthropological sense, this data tells the untold story not just of where we are going but where we have been, how and why we built the modes of civilization that define us. This is why a better public understanding of data and its ramifications has never been more critical.
My work as a science journalist and editor has focused largely on helping my readers to build an understanding of our increasingly complex, data-driven world. Last year, this work culminated in the writing of a book, The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move?
Big data, analysis, and increased computational capability will radically change the way we live in the next decade. But too many news outlets treat the emergence of big data as a simple threat rather than as an opportunity to be seized wisely. The worst possible move that we, as a society, can make right now is to demand that technological progress reverse itself. A better solution is to familiarize ourselves with how these tools work, understand how they can be used legitimately in the service of public and consumer empowerment, better living, learning, and loving, and also come to understand how these tools can be abused.
That’s what drove me to write The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move?...more
In Future Perfect, bestselling author Steven Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You) declares himself a member of the new revolutionary party, the peIn Future Perfect, bestselling author Steven Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You) declares himself a member of the new revolutionary party, the peer progressives. For the most part, it’s a quiet movement, steady, not inherently violent. The recent uprisings in Bahrain, Egypt, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and other well-covered clashes between Net-enabled citizens and truncheon-wielding cops do not embody this phenomenon, but are instead merely a symptom. Make no mistake, however: A revolution is afoot.
Peer progressivism is the social change that occurs outside of rigid government structures but in a way that isn’t guided by capitalistic self-interest, at least not exclusively. It’s spontaneous networks of free and equal agents, democratically intertwined. For instance, the crowdfunding site Kickstarter is nominally owned by a for-profit company but is powered by millions of selfless users seeking only to reward worthy creative projects. Wikipedia is peer progressive, as are employee-owned businesses.
The New York City 311 network is one of the most interesting examples. In times of public distress, as occurred in 2005 when a strange maple syrup smell descended upon the city, it served as an information distribution center to calm anxieties. The odor was not toxic, after all. But the 311 network also served as a listening mechanism, recording the time and location of each call until eventually the source of the odor could be triangulated. (Not surprisingly, it emanated from New Jersey.) The peer progressive network is the distributed, adaptive, message block switching protocols that make up the backbone of the Internet.
Peer progressivism stands in contrast to what postmodernist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari might refer to as an arborescent: a system in which all information points toward—and all decisions radiate from—the center. Johnson makes a narrative parallel to the Legrand Star, the railway scheme put in place in France by Victor Legrand after the French Revolution. The Star was the quintessence of top-down efficiency, geometrical and symmetrical. It was beautiful—on paper. But it was a bit too perfect, too pretty, and, in the way it privileged central nodes at the expense of outlying and perhaps more defensible points, it proved to be a major liability to the French in the war with Prussia that broke out in 1870.
Today, we are in the midst of a historic sweep from Star formations to decentralized peer-progressive confederations, Johnson argues. The power to collect, process, and use information is moving away from institutions of authority toward the outlying nodes of more organic networks. This change is accelerated by the Internet.
Johnson brings up the case of orçamento participativo, or participatory budgeting, committees of Porto Alegre, Brazil, as a seminal example of what peer progressivism can do. In orçamento participativo systems, budget setting is not done by elected officials, but rather according to a transparent set of processes. City neighborhoods receive money based on the number of residents and the current state of the infrastructure in that neighborhood; in other words, to each according to her means. Elected officials work more like switches in a machine than like competitors for more money or legislative power for their districts or constituents. The system expanded water sanitation and paved roads throughout Porto Alegre at a rate that was orders of magnitude faster than the old top-down system that came before it.
“In the United States, the recent talk about reinventing government has focused on the potential breakthroughs that Internet-based engagement can produce,” says Johnson. “But the history of those Porto Alegre general assemblies suggests that the more radical advance could well come from the simple act of neighborhoods gathering in a meeting hall or a church or a living room, and drafting up a list of the community’s needs.”
Revolutions, it seems, haven’t changed much after all.
In Pinched, journalist Don Peck paints a portrait of the middle class as jilted lover, nursing feelings of despair and betrayal. After doing everythinIn Pinched, journalist Don Peck paints a portrait of the middle class as jilted lover, nursing feelings of despair and betrayal. After doing everything right, the question this poor sop finds himself asking, over and over, like a funerary wail, is not “Why aren’t I good enough,” but the far more terrifying “Why aren’t I good enough anymore?” There is no easy rejoinder. The American Dream has simply moved on and taken a new name. Our hero is left with only the awareness that his best days have passed him by.
The 2008 recession permanently altered the lives of millions of Americans, neighborhoods, and even entire regions of the United States. Peck shows that many middle-class, middle-skill jobs that existed prior to 2008 will never return, opportunities that had seemed perennial just a few years ago have permanently vanished. Labor experts such as John Challenger, writing in this magazine, have encouraged job seekers in low-growth areas to strike out for more-fertile ground. In fact, much of the advice given to the nation’s unemployed and underemployed has amounted to: Be adaptable, seek training, and move. These admonishments, while sound, are also callous. People forced by market conditions to make dramatic life adjustments are rarely thankful for the opportunity to do so.
In many respects, this current state of woe represents a culmination of trends that have been building for some time. Throughout the last 10 years, however, policy makers and financiers were able to postpone their full impact. The rapid appreciation in the housing market between 2002 and 2008 created an illusory sense of prosperity in the absence of real salary growth, which has budged little from the 1970s. Since the largest asset owned by most Americans is their primary residence, many people experienced an enormous, and artificial, expansion in net worth over the last decade. The losses resulting from the housing collapse will linger for a long time, affecting consumption and investment habits for years.
“Many Americans, even those who didn’t lose their jobs, lost a decade’s sense of progress. Long deferred, a decade’s disappointment has been concentrated in the past three years,” notes Peck.
Stagnant wages and vanishing jobs, compounded by the intractable housing crisis, have metastasized into to a very literal paralysis. Nearly one in four Americans owes more on his or her house than that house is worth. Peck points out that, in Arizona and Florida, the number is one in two, and in Nevada, two in three. Many individuals who are underwater on their home loans simply can’t move to a better economic environment, even if they wanted to. They’re caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, the mountainous amount of debt they owe and the cold truth of their home’s actual value.
All of this has fundamentally changed the demographic makeup of America’s white-picket-fence suburbs, which now house more poor people than do the nation’s urban centers. It’s an ironic reversal. In the 1950s, suburban developments were sold as a means to escape city squalor, which was understood as a thinly veiled allusion to non-Caucasian neighbors. Half a century later, actual squalor in these neighborhoods pits frustrated homeowners against equally desperate renters.
“This isn’t the neighborhood that I moved into,” one frayed suburbanite complained to Peck. “It’s never going to recover to what it was.”
Contrast this predicament with the plight, or more accurately flight, of the nation’s moneyed elite. While the American poor are stuck in place, the country’s rich are increasingly transient, pursuing the opportunities of an interconnected world and less concerned than ever with the future of the republic. A growing number of America’s rich are entrepreneurs, as opposed to inheritors of wealth. Their business aspirations are global in scope; they hire labor in Thailand to market products to consumers in China, or vice versa. Not surprisingly, the American elite have more in common with their fellow entrepreneurs from Asia or Europe than they do with their compatriots back home.
But, Peck cautions, don’t assume that today’s wealthy are leading lives of leisure. They’re more likely to be attached to a BlackBerry than a polo mallet. Because they work so hard, many are resistant to the notion that fortune may have played the determining role in their success. They may well be more philanthropic than their predecessors like the Rockefellers or Carnegies, but they’re also more aware of the depths of human need in places like Ghana, Bangladesh, and Papua New Guinea (locations where the Gates Foundation has significant investments). The struggles of the shrinking American middle class continue to look paltry in comparison to the circumstances of the majority of the world’s inhabitants.
“If the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” Peck quotes one CEO as saying.
Is the American middle class salvageable? Peck offers up a set of balanced recommendations toward that end. First, he argues for a return to the tax rates of a few decades ago, where the wealthy contributed much closer to 50% of their income to the government coffers, as opposed to the 35% they pay today. Peck dismisses the argument that increasing the tax burden on the rich would hurt the current recovery. Trickle-down economics is patently unviable in an environment where the wealthy are few and do a greater portion of their investing and consuming abroad.
Lawmakers may have overreached in their regulatory response to the 2008 market collapse, says Peck, so lessening regulations might help spur business. He also advocates a reconsideration of the nation’s current entitlement commitments, which, while popular among baby boomers, are unsustainable. Above all, only real government investment in research and development will put the country back on the road to prosperity, he argues.
Peck currently serves as a features editor for The Atlantic, and people who have followed that magazine’s coverage of the recession over the past two years and seen his cover feature story will find some aspects of this book familiar. But Pinched provides much original insight and should be considered a natural heir to Reisman, Glazer, and Denny’s The Lonely Crowd, and Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Pinched is an excellent chronicle of the Great Recession’s hidden and long-term effects on the American psyche. In its wide scope and clear focus, it may go on to be the seminal book on this period in the country’s history.
About the Reviewer
Patrick Tucker is the deputy editor of THE FUTURIST magazine and director of communications of the World Future Society. This review was originally published in the November-December 2011 issue of THE FUTURIST. ...more
Review originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2011
The inequality of wealth in the United States will result in a stagnant economy and politReview originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2011
The inequality of wealth in the United States will result in a stagnant economy and political turmoil by the year 2020, argues public-policy scholar and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich in Aftershock. Millions of deeply indebted Americans will embrace isolationism, reject both big government and big business, and sever America’s ties with the rest of the world, he predicts.
To illustrate the size and scope of this disaster, Reich sets up a credible and horrifying scenario: The year is 2020. The recently elected president, Margaret Jones of the Independence Party, is about to set forth on a legislative agenda reflecting the frustrations of the broad, outsider constituency that elected her. Her objectives: a freeze on legal immigration and the swift deportation of all illegal immigrants; increased tariffs on foreign goods; prohibition against foreign investment; withdrawal from the World Bank, the United Nations, and other international organizations; and a default on the U.S. debt to China.
The results are immediate.
“On November 4, the day after Election Day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average drops 50 percent in an unprecedented volume of trading,” writes Reich. “The dollar plummets 30 percent against a weighted average of other currencies. Wall Street is in a panic. Banks close. Business leaders predict economic calamity. Mainstream pollsters, pundits, and political consultants fill the airwaves with expressions of shock and horror. Over and over again, they ask: How could this have happened?”
This aftershock, says Reich, is a direct result of Americans failing to learn the lessons of the Great Depression, thus setting the country up on a course for yet another economic crisis. The most important of these lessons is that too much money resting in the hands of too few people cannot grow an economy. What’s needed is an orderly division of income spread across lower, middle, and upper classes, he argues. When income (hence, wealth) is too concentrated among elites, the economy atrophies and declines.
It’s a classic Keynesian argument that would ring shrill and tinny if we didn’t live in such Dickensian times. Consider that, prior to the Great Recession of 2008, income and wealth inequality in the United States were higher than they had been any time in the recent past other than just before the Great Depression, with the top 1%—those with incomes more than $380,000 per year—owning roughly 23% of the assets. Median wages for workers have been stagnant since the 1970s, at about $45,000 a year, despite the fact that the economy itself is much larger than it was three decades ago. Those gains mostly went to those at the top.
This present situation is, of course, not without historic precedent. In the 1700s, wealth inequality in the American colonies was similar to that of the United States today. The situation was particularly dire in Boston, where the top 5% of the population controlled 25% of the wealth in the 1720s (this would become 50% by 1770). Too often we forget that the decades leading up to the American Revolution were marked by the burning of rich merchants’ shops, occasional riots, and massive resentment over the issue of debt and wealth inequality, as chronicled by the late historian Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present.
Today’s wealth inequality is a moral failing, says Reich, but it’s also an operational malfunction at the root of many of America’s other problems. An economy that is growing across all income levels encourages people to buy more things like new cars, consumer electronics, bachelor’s degrees, bigger houses, and the like. Instead, over the last two decades, a larger portion of the wealth went to a smaller group; as a result, Americans were forced to resort to a number of coping mechanisms to continue to consume at ever higher levels.
The first of these coping mechanisms was the two-income household. In the 1970s, the mass entry of women into the workforce increased household income, but only up to a point. Over the last decades, those economic gains have been eaten up by such things as the costs of child care.
The second coping mechanism that Americans employed to mitigate stagnant wages was longer working hours. This also worked well until, by the mid-2000s, Americans were putting in 500 more hours—that’s 12 more weeks—of paid work a year than they were in 1970.
Finally, Americans resorted to saving less and borrowing more in order to continue consuming at ever higher levels. Reich points out that average household debt was 138% of household income in 2007, up from a manageable 55% in the 1960s. This represents the largest gap since the Great Depression. Much of that debt was tied up in home loans that people would never be able to pay off.
The question becomes, Does voluminous spending by the well-funded few necessarily lead to reckless spending on the part of the many? Reich argues that it does. There is some recent independent research to back him up on this. In an October 2010 paper titled “Expenditure Cascades,” Robert H. Frank of Cornell University, Adam Seth Levine of Vanderbilt University, and Oege Dijk of the European University show that “changes in one group’s spending shift the frame of reference that defines consumption standards for others just below them on the income scale....”
What of the gainers, the 10% who saw unprecedented wealth and income increases? They didn’t fare as well as you might expect. With too much capital to ever spend efficiently, many of them invested in a series of asset bubbles through unscrupulous Wall Street intermediaries, with predictably lackluster results.
The battle against falling middle-class wages is one that Reich has been fighting for decades, since serving as labor secretary in the Clinton White House. He acknowledges that, even in those instances when he’s had the ear of the president (he also served briefly on the Obama administration team), he hasn’t had much success in implementing the sorts of structural changes that would set the nation’s distribution of income on a more equitable path.
“We in the Clinton administration tinkered. We raised the minimum wage.… We offered students from poor families access to college and expanded a refundable tax credit for low-income workers.… All these steps were helpful but frustratingly small in light of the larger backward lunge.”
Reich lays out several proposals—either reasonable or radical depending on your point of view—to correct the imbalance of wealth in the next decade:
*A reverse income tax. The government would put extra money into the paychecks of low wage earners and cut taxes on middle class Americans (those earning less than $90,000 per year). The policy would be modeled after the Earned Income Tax Credit but would be more ambitious in reach. Reich speculates that the cost to the government would be about $600 billion per year.
*A carbon tax collected against energy companies. Reich estimates that, if set at $35 per metric ton of CO2, this tax would raise about as much as the reverse income tax (wage supplement) would cost—around $600 billion.
*A one-time “severance tax” levied against employers who lay off long-term workers, equal to 75% of a worker’s yearly salary.
*Federal subsidization of less-profitable but socially valuable college majors. Public universities, under a Reich plan, would be free, and loans for private schools would be available at low cost. Upon graduating, a student who took such a loan would pay about 10% of his or her income on the loan for 10 years. After that, the loan would be considered fully paid. “This way,” says Reich, “graduates who pursue low-income occupations such as social work, teaching, or legal services would be subsidized by graduates who pursue high-income occupations including business, finance, and corporate law.”
The effect of these proposals, with the exception of the college funding one, would be to transfer investing power away from the private sector (rich people and their money advisors) and put it in the hands of the federal government, which would then distribute those funds to the people to buy consumer goods.
There’s a libertarian argument against this, but also a practical one. As Reich himself points out, a rising share of consumer spending now goes abroad, as more Americans purchase products made in other countries. Taxing U.S. energy companies—at a time when a larger than ever portion of the fuel the country uses comes from Canada, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia—in order to pay Americans to purchase electronics from Malaysia, toys from China, and wine from Spain seems unlikely to have a positive effect on national GDP.
A better use of such money might be infrastructure or public works, which would put more money in the hands of Americans. Reich acknowledges the dilapidated state of the country’s roads and bridges, but he doesn’t propose a single large-scale public infrastructure project. In fact, he derides the 1990s as a time when too much private investment capital resulted in “more miles of fiber-optic cable than could ever be profitable.” The 1990s telecom asset bubble was certainly severe, but Reich disregards or ignores the types of services that can be offered over the Internet once bandwidth limitations are removed. Perhaps, while serving in the White House, he never experienced the frustration of a slow download.
The idea of a company paying severance costs of 75% of a terminated employee’s yearly salary—in essence paying the “social costs” for outsourcing—is a radical one for the United States. Businesses would argue that such a measure would crimp their flexibility and that the ability to hire and fire freely helps keep companies lean, nimble, and competitive. They might say that, faced with a 75% severance requirement, firing anybody would be too difficult and American companies would come to resemble Japanese companies during the 1990s—the so-called “lost decade,” when every employee was guaranteed a high degree of job security regardless of whether or not he (it was mostly men) helped or hindered the overall corporation. The suggestion that companies be penalized for firing people reads like an open pander to labor interests, not a viable revenue generating strategy. A straight tax hike on corporate entities, regardless of hiring or firing behavior, would seem to meet the same objective with fewer downsides.
The principal argument against Reich is that his proposals are politically untenable in an environment where any effort to raise taxes on any American, for any reason, meets with nearly insurmountable resistance from the Right and passionate charges of socialism on the floor of the House of Representatives. The 2010 election saw a number of Tea Party candidates rise to power in some very poor states like Kentucky—places that would benefit greatly from the wealth-redistributing policies that Reich proposes. How did these candidates win? They succeeded by promising to thwart any increase on taxation for the very wealthy, no matter what the cost; they promised to halt any remaining “bail-out” funds from being spent. They vowed to undo the recently enacted health care law and its provisions to expand health coverage to more Americans.
It’s one thing to argue that the country, running a record deficit, cannot afford such policies. It is another thing entirely to suggest that such policies are not in the interests of the growing poor. Yet, people in the first district of West Virginia and the first district of Arkansas voted against their own interests.
What does this show? Perhaps the worst enemy of the American middle class is not the most wealthy 1%, but the mistrustful and ever-angrier middle class itself, all of which adds to the timeliness and value of Reich’s achievement with this important book.
About the Reviewer
Patrick Tucker is the senior editor of THE FUTURIST magazine and the director of communications for the World Future Society....more
**spoiler alert** Oh, to be China in 2010, object of the world’s envy, admiration, and fear. Since the economic reforms of the late premier Deng Xiaop**spoiler alert** Oh, to be China in 2010, object of the world’s envy, admiration, and fear. Since the economic reforms of the late premier Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, the country has gone from a relatively isolated authoritarian state into a shining triumph of socialist-market economics. At present rates of growth, it will be the world’s largest economy by the middle of this century, overtaking the United States and achieving a GDP above $14 trillion per year — a significant first.
The question of how China became so successful, and what its leadership might do next, is a source of speculation and consternation, particularly in Washington, D.C. In China’s Megatrends: The 8 Pillars of a New Society, John and Doris Naisbitt dissect China’s achievement and provide what they call a “balance” to the “heavily weighted negative commentary” about China in the U.S. media.
Why has China grown so much so quickly? The Naisbitts present an exhaustive list of success stories, but their most novel insight comes from the retelling of a third-century Chinese legend. General Zhuge Liang sat on the banks of the Yangtze River facing the enemy army of Cao Cao on the other side. Rather than attack directly, Zhuge sent over various boats packed with straw. Cao Cao’s archers, perceiving an attack, sent a hail of arrows down onto the boats, whereupon Zhuge retrieved the vessels — and stole his enemy’s ammunition.
Deng employed the same “borrowing arrows” strategy when he invited foreign capital and industry into the country, starting with Volkswagen in 1978. Other large Western firms followed, including Boeing and IBM. The arrangement provided abundant cheap labor for U.S. companies. China secured capital and, more importantly, technological expertise — arrows that the West valued cheaply, it turns out. In 2005 Lenovo, which did subcontracting work for IBM under a different name, became the world’s third-largest computer manufacturer when it acquired IBM’s PC division. The Naisbitts forecast that China will eventually become the world’s largest supplier of electric cars, thanks in part to lessons learned building automobile parts for foreign companies.
In the century ahead, China will be first to reach a number of milestones as it seeks to leverage its growing technological sophistication to meet the needs of its one-billion-plus population. Faced with the challenge of educating an impoverished rural workforce, but free from the influence of teachers’ unions, China may be the first country to succeed in educating most of its population through the Internet. From 2003 to 2007, China spent about $1 billion to implement distance-learning projects in the rural countryside.
China’s leaders have invested heavily in the nation’s technological infrastructure through the establishment of various research and development centers such as the Zhangjiang High-Tech Park or the ZHTP (the park’s researchers received 2,205 patents in 2007 alone). It’s no wonder AI researcher Hugo de Garis, who has lived in China for years, has expressed certainty that China will be the first country to create an artificial general intelligence. The children of the researchers who work at ZHTP can elect to take SAT prep classes at the expense of the government (to secure placement in U.S. universities) or they can go along the Chinese track to continue their education in China. It’s a great education by American standards. It’s hardly typical of what most children in China experience.
How does China reconcile an explosion in private wealth with the tenets of communism? Easily, say the Naisbitts. Prosperity for all remains the Chinese government’s goal. But, in the words of Deng himself, China has “allowed some people and some regions to become prosperous first.” Trickle-down economics is apparently just another arrow to be employed expeditiously. The Chinese people don’t find the apparent contradiction nearly as troubling as do her critics.
Western concerns about the state of human rights behind the Great Wall aren’t shared by the Chinese people, according to the Naisbitts, and the authors are dismissive of Tibetan or Taiwanese sympathizers. From the 1970s to today, the human rights condition in China has been steadily, even remarkably, improving, the authors point out. Minority rights, worker rights, distribution of wealth, open elections, freedom of capital, freedom of speech, and rule of law: China is making “progress” in every one of these areas. But the Chinese people are happy to allow the government to determine the pace of that progress, rather than suffer the lectures of the West, they assert.
Too many in the West hold to a single, self-flattering image of China as an oppressed people in need of rescue, say the Naisbitts. This picture, born of that iconic moment in Tiananmen Square where an unarmed protester confronted a tank, isn’t representative of how the Chinese view themselves or their government today. China’s continued growth depends on access to U.S. consumer markets and technological expertise, for now. But the Chinese people do not see themselves as needing liberation by Washington. They perceive their future as bright. According to a China Daily poll that the authors cite, 76% of Chinese believe the world will be better in five years. Is China Daily a credible source? Don’t worry, journalistic independence is “improving,” too.
Unfortunately, in their pursuit of balance, the Naisbitts did not, it seems, include any personal interviews with any Chinese dissidents. If they sought any such interactions but were blocked by Chinese censors, they don’t remark on it. China’s Megatrends will likely strike American readers as adulatory in the tone it takes to the country’s leadership. For all of its merits, the book too often reads like a marketing pitch from the office of the CCP, intended to extol the country’s success and show the government’s sensitivity to the concerns of the people (note: the level of sensitivity is also improving).
China’s ascent is butting up against major obstacles. But the Naisbitts devote barely a sentence to the lack of transparency in Chinese financial institutions; to wit: “China’s banking system is more or less a monopoly. State-owned banks give loans to large [state-owned enterprises] that are operating at a loss; thus large amounts of nonperforming loans have accumulated.” You may recall, it was large, nonperforming loans sitting on bank balance sheets that nearly plunged the world into a second global depression just two years ago. The Naisbitts don’t explore the size of the Chinese finance bubble and don’t speculate when, if ever, it will pop.
The deteriorating freshwater situation is the larger problem, and the Naisbitts do pay more attention here. China hosts 20% of the world’s population, but the country holds only 7% of its resources. As covered in this magazine, the most water-intensive and highly polluting industries — paper, textiles, processed food production, and agriculture — have migrated to China’s relatively arid north, from which the more economically significant southern portion imports most of its food. The authors forecast that “water shortages in Beijing will become a crisis when its population, as expected, reaches 20 million in 2010, 3 million more than its current resources can support.” The Naisbitts offer examples of China attempting to deal proactively with the water situation. But it remains a daunting problem and an example of the most important first China is likely to achieve: limits to growth.
The obstacles are significant, but China seems poised to handle them dexterously. The country has made a habit of defying expectations. It’s done so for centuries. In 607 CE, the insolent Japanese prince Shotoku referred to the aging empire to Japan’s west as the “land of the setting sun.” China recently eclipsed Germany’s status as the third largest country in terms of GDP and will likely surpass Japan by the end of 2010. It seems the sun also rises.
About the Reviewer
Patrick Tucker is the senior editor of THE FUTURIST and director of communications of the World Future Society. This review was originally published in the May-June 2010 issue...more
WARNING: The plot formulas exposed and lauded in this book can be toxic. May lead to dizziness, fits of cynicism, and paroxysms. Do not take this prodWARNING: The plot formulas exposed and lauded in this book can be toxic. May lead to dizziness, fits of cynicism, and paroxysms. Do not take this product if you harbor unrealistic expectations about what sort of books the American book-buying public actually consumes. Do not read if you are offended by the notion that trite, adolescent writing and conventional morality may be the most sellable commodity in today's literary marketplace. Do not take if you are allergic to any of the following:
Michael Crichton John Grisham Tom Clancy Chicken Soup of the Anything
If, after reading, you are seized by the sudden urge to write a highly commercial techno-thriller, take with John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist and E.M Forrester's Aspects of the Novel. If problem persists, write twenty non-rhyming couplets on the intellectual anguish of having to watch Sex in the City then read Shakespeare's Coriolanus.
In short: A fantastic wake-up call and a manual on how to write crass, highly sellable fiction. Maass effectively and succinctly answers that most nagging of author gripes, how does this garbage get on the best-seller list? He knows his stuff, which is what makes this book so terrifying. ...more
Le Carre has some fine moments, but this book is too firmly rooted in the "cozy, mystery" genre to be at all interesting to anyone under the age of 80Le Carre has some fine moments, but this book is too firmly rooted in the "cozy, mystery" genre to be at all interesting to anyone under the age of 80. I don't know why I expected different. ...more
A new book argues that machines work best when they help us perform, not perform in our stead.
The Design of Future Things b Book Review
A new book argues that machines work best when they help us perform, not perform in our stead.
The Design of Future Things by Donald A. Norman. Basic Books. 2007. 231 pages. $27.50.
“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, simple or direct than does Nature. In her inventions, nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous,” Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci once remarked. Former Apple vice president Donald Norman’s Design of Future Things is very much rooted in this Leonardesque sentiment. The short, conversational book serves as both a meditation on the nature of human–machine interaction and a warning: invention that ignores the human, the artful, and the natural will fail both conspicuously and disastrously. “We are confronting a new breed of machine with intelligence and autonomy, machines that can indeed take over for us in many situations,” Norman writes. “In many cases, they will make our lives more effective, more fun, and safer. In others, however, they will frustrate us, get in our way, and even increase danger. For the first time, we have machines that are attempting to interact with us socially.”
We spend ever more time conversing with machinery. In the obvious sense, this means more interfacing (the technologist’s preferred term) with a wider variety of devices: selecting from an assortment of rinse cycles on our washer; setting lighting systems, motion detectors, and security devices as we leave the house; starting up the car; programming the MP3 player, GPS computer, and even the cruise control before actually hitting the gas.
As our interfacing opportunities increase, so does the potential for human–object miscommunication.
Machines may work like clockwork, but they handle surprises like robots— which is to say, poorly. We rely on them when we shouldn’t and find ourselves (ironically) lost after following the directions of a computer that can neither see nor drive, mopping up after a stubborn washer that refuses to stop when we open the lid midcycle, apologizing to the police on our doorstep for our well-intentioned but overly vigilant security systems.
What’s missing from the human– machine relationship, says Norman, is a sense of respectful partnership. His book is full of examples of what a better tête-à-tête might look like. A Microsoft Cambridge “smart” home actually seeks to make its occupants smarter, allowing family members to leave messages on digital surfaces viewable anywhere throughout—or outside—the house. It’s a vision of home as digital administrative assistant rather than as butler. A Georgia Tech smart home can watch you cook and—if you have to break away to answer the phone—remind you where you left off. Bad memory? The house also monitors your prescriptions and can let your family do the same. After all, who knows you best?
“Both groups of researchers could have tried to make the devices intelligent,” Norman points out. “Instead, both groups devised systems t h a t would f it smoothly into people’s life styles. Both systems rely upon powerful, advanced technology, but the guiding philosophy for each group is augmentation, not automation.”
Automobiles are another example of machines that could become less automatic and more “social.” Radio frequency identification and similar technologies already allow cars to communicate with tollbooths, so why not with other cars? It will be a long time before such car-to-car collaboration eliminates the need for traffic lights and speed limits. In the meantime, cars that could better negotiate their position, speed, and distance with one another would most certainly prevent wrecks.
What’s most important, says Norman, is that the inventors of the future transcend the binary distinction between the practice of art and the science of engineering and move toward a comprehensive “science of design.” The notion harkens back to sixteenth-century Florence, a time and place where broad knowledge and boundless curiosity were considered as valuable as narrow expertise or a declared major. If a more generalist approach yields objects that better reflect the coherence of nature— rather than the whim of marketers—then the objects of tomorrow will be unquestionably smarter. ❑
About the Reviewer
Patrick Tucker is the senior editor of THE FUTURIST and director of communications for the World Future Society. E‑mail email@example.com .
This review originally appeared in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2008...more
The Coming Convergence: The Surprising Ways Diverse Technologies Interact to Shape Our World and Change the Futu Book Review
The Marriage of Inventions
The Coming Convergence: The Surprising Ways Diverse Technologies Interact to Shape Our World and Change the Future by Stanley Schmidt. Prometheus Books. 2008. 336 pages. $27.95
It is eighteenth-century France; Joseph Marie-Jacquard has just invented a mechanical loom that uses punch cards to weave cloth in a set pattern, a device that—when eventually combined with electronics—will lead to the invention of the PC. Two hundred fifty years later, the tech bubble pops, sending the prices of overhyped computer and Internet companies tumbling.
In 1896, Orville Wright tests the hypothesis that a machine heavier than air can fly, so long as the wings are shaped a certain way and there is sufficient propulsion. The experiment is a success. About 100 years later, thanks to innovations in building construction as well as flight technology, terrorists steer hijacked aircraft into the World Trade Center and U.S. Pentagon, killing thousands in a matter of minutes and setting off a series of events affecting many millions more for years to come.
Jacquard and Wright never imagined their inventions would cause such disasters. They could not have anticipated how other inventions or innovations would merge with their own creations to produce new technologies, opportunities, and perils. In The Coming Convergence, physicist, science-fiction writer, and Analog editor Stanley Schmidt argues that, as the pace of technological discovery accelerates, the world will witness more rapid and startling convergences over the next 50 years.
Schmidt begins by outlining key technological comminglings that have occurred throughout history, and their mixed results. The invention of the microphone made possible the amplification of “quiet” instruments like the guitar, leading eventually to the electric guitar and to rock and roll. The same technology, combined with the piano, produced the synthesizer and eighties New Wave—a bold step forward or an unfortunate one, depending on your affinity for that particular genre.
The technology of X-ray diffraction, which can be used to analyze the molecular nature of an object being X-rayed, led to the science of genetics and the mapping of the human genome. In the years ahead, genetic science will propel biotechnology to ever higher plateaus, helping researchers find cures for diabetes and even certain types of cancer. But genetics is also allowing millions of parents practicing in vitro fertilization to select the sex of their offspring and even screen for conditions like autism, fulfilling, in part, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World scenario.
What discoveries and innovations will create the convergences of the coming decades? In 2002, the National Science Foundation published Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, a report that identified key technologies likely to shape the future; chief among them were nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science.
“The report,” says Schmidt, “describes a ‘golden age’ and a ‘renaissance’ but will such a future really be that, or an unprecedented kind of horror—or something in between, with elements of both?... Powerful technologies can be used for powerful benefits or great harm.”
The degree of benefit or harm caused by these new convergences will depend greatly on how nanotechnology advances in the coming years, says Schmidt, stating, “That area, perhaps more than any other, holds the potential to interact so strongly with all others as to produce changes far beyond anything else in human history.”
He forecasts that, while biotechnology, information technology, and artificial intelligence will all advance in the next few decades, the impact of advanced nanotechnology on all three fields could radically transform human existence. Nanomedicine could bring forth in situ replacement organs. Nano-engineered artificial red blood cells (respirocytes) could hold oxygen longer than their organic counterparts, allowing people to hold their breath under water for hours on end. Space vehicles constructed from carbon-walled nanotubes would be both more durable and lighter than those made from titanium, allowing such craft to ferry humans ever deeper into space.
Nano-designed computer processors might show up in cybernetic implants (allowing for higher brain functioning), or in high-performance computers, and eventually massive parallel processing. Nanofactories could reconfigure bulk raw materials at the molecular level, transforming trash into clothes, materials, or even food.
None of these forecasts will be especially new to anyone who has read the work of K. Eric Drexler, Ray Kurzweil, or J. Storrs Hall, whose book Nanofuture (excerpted in the September-October 2005 issue of
THE FUTURIST) Schmidt draws from heavily. But for the uninitiated, Schmidt provides a good summary of the most popular forecasts of the day. Where Schmidt’s book stands out is in the strength of his historical narrative. In his careful retracing of the connections and convergences of the past, he reminds us that innovation— whether manifest in a better machine or a better system—isn’t a static process. It’s a chaotic back and forth between inventors, their creations, and society, a process very much beyond any one person’s control.
—Patrick Tucker Originally published THE FUTURIST July-August 2008...more