Pick A Future Winner

Theoretically, one benefit of knowing what is going to happen – is being able to prepare for that situation.  There is a better chance of taking advantage of future eventualities if one is prepared for those possibilities: public systems, policies and events can be better utilized for the general good if we can plan today with some foresight of tomorrow.

And it is also true that one might profit from that knowledge.  One of the reasons prognostication seems to focus on technology is that the ability to know and invest in the “next big thing” carries some heavy profit potential.  (And to some extent technology is more discreet and easier to isolate and identify than political or social movements.)

Predicting the winning products of tomorrow  – and the lifestyles those new products enable – has been a continuing effort for centuries.  Sometimes, retrospective views of the future have been collected into books, like The Wonderful Future That Never Was: Flying Cars, Mail Delivery by Parachute, and Other Predictions from the Past (Popular Mechanics) (Hearst, 2010).  This is a recent book edited by Gregory Benford  (and the editors of Popular Mechanics) which holds up past predictions of the future from the 1930’s-40’s-50’s to show, in some cases, how close the prognosticators came.  But mostly to show how much they missed.

It is disappointing to many  to see how much was missed: the flying cars, the free energy, the integrated cities and so forth.  But in some ways, we may have exceeded many of the predictions in the area of communications, and the results  of advanced communications in business, entertainment and personal life.

Would it have been possible to predict the future of specific inventions – jumping forward from a crude beginning to the more sophisticated object we have today?

A recent article – Mr. Edison’s Kindle – posted in the Technologizer blog, suggested such a possibility.  It posits the idea that one of Thomas Edison’s (lesser) inventions may have suggested the future of electronic publishing – represented by the Amazon Kindle.  And the piece then explored more than a dozen other early inventions of the early 20th century that might have hinted at – or laid the groundwork for – modern technologies we have come to love, like portable music players, wireless phones, podcasts, all-in-one-printers and more.

Ironically, the most improbable connection may be the title example.  Mr. Edison in 1911 proposed printing on thin pages of nickel that could be used and re-used to show content, what the authors claim as a non-electronic version of a personal publication device.  More than a bit of a stretch – but the article was intended to be impressionistic, not representational.  Edison did indeed have some pretty whacky ideas that never materialized in real products – including this one.

But, in spite of the occasional reach, the examples are worth reading about, fun to consider and inspire some thought.  Are you in the presence of a device that might evolve into yet another world-bending paradigm shifter?  (Maybe I will be when my iPad2 arrives?)

With this bit of insight – carrying the past into our present – do we learn something that would enable us to assess current technologies of our present – and project a vision of what they might become in the future?

An interesting project in this regard is a proposal for “A History of the Future in 100 Objects.”  This project is in the process  of gathering funding at KickStarter – an innovative way for individuals to fund independent and creative research and development.

The project – looking more than fully funded at this writing – was inspired by a BBC program, “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”  The program explored a special online exhibit and timeline collected at the British Museum, which was intended to represent important milestones in the history of man through 100 key artifacts.

Selecting the objects that will also represent the future is obviously a daunting challenge.  And who will know whether it’s accurate?  But the extraordinary evidence of insight provided by crowd-sourcing such soft challenges – offers an intriguing opportunity to examine what a “higher” level of consciousness might create.

— Rich Bowers

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Glorious Shoulders: Celebrating 350 Years of the Royal Society

Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  The strength of that acknowledgement began formally 350 years ago, as the giants began to gather physically and through direct communications to explore the world around them.  The result was – and remains – the Royal Society, a uniquely British but worldwide-influencing academy of most every great scientist since the 17th century.  The anniversary is well celebrated in Seeing Further: The story of science , discovery & the genius of the Royal Society, edited by Bill Bryson (The Royal Society, 2010).

Imagine yourself, for a moment, as a gentleman in a dark, cold London in November 1660.  Having just walked through a cold rain to a 5-story building in what is now central London, to a place known as Gresham College.  It is only 6 months after the end of the unpopular Cromwell government and the return to the restored British throne by Charles II.  After nearly 12 years of upheaval, the repression of the Puritans, and the uncertainty of the future, the atmosphere had now changed radically.  Charles was very nearly the antithesis of a Puritan:  something of a hedonist, with strong interests in learning and discovery.  Color was making a comeback in fashion and other parts of culture.  It would not be difficult to imagine a general public expectation of hope, particularly among educated men, who considered themselves students of exploration and discover.  Like how it feels to emerge from a dark scary cave into the bright sunlight of home and comfort.

In this mood, you are standing in a small dimly lit room, fire burning for warmth, with 10 or 12 other gentlemen, chatting about daily life and questions that interest you.   Most everyone you see is an established  investigator of the natural world.

Someone taps a glass and the group quiets and directs its attention to one end of the room.  Some snag a seat, some stand.  The host , Lawrence Rooke, a faculty member of the college, welcomes the group to his rooms, and introduces a 28-year-old Londoner named Christopher Wren to give a lecture about his interest in astronomy.  Besides Wren  (who will become one of the most influential architects in England), other attendees include Robert Boyle (who was and would grow in recognition for his chemical and physics experiments and findings)  and Robert Hooke (a foundation thinker in theory and the philosophy of science).

Following the talk, there is general group discussion about scientific issues of the day.  It is suggested that this group meet again – on a regular, weekly basis.  Someone volunteers to inform the King and solicit his approval – if not support – for the group to continue.  The idea is very positively received.  The group, over time, will take the idea very seriously indeed.

The rest of the visitors this night, and for hundreds of years to come, would lay the foundations for scientific research, and make the discoveries that give us our current understanding of our world and the ways in which we can shape it.

These men – and those who followed – are the pyramid of shoulders on which virtually all of today’s science and scientists stand.

The Royal Society began in an era of the curious enthusiast, the gentleman with the education and the income that enabled him to spend time on probing mysteries of interest to him.  But it continued and thrived through the most aggressive age of scientific definition, organization and discovery in human history.  Members of the society invented the very scientific method used to advance scientific exploration, created a discipline that enabled scientists to evaluate each other’s work on terms that made for a level playing field, enabling literally the comparison of apples and oranges, and to evaluate the best facts from the bogus, and move towards an ever-evolving truth.

Seeing Further is an exploration in essays by some of the cleverest and most astute observers of our day: James Gleick, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, Henry Petroski, John D. Barrow, Neal Stephenson, and Margaret Atwood among a host of others (22 in all).  Virtually all the essays contain surprising insights and fresh information as they profile many key members of the Society over the centuries.  One of the best moments was by Stephen Schneider (late chairman of the IPCC committee that kicked off our current concern about global climate change and its causes).   I have read no finer description of the interconnectedness of phenomena and disciplines and the urgency with which we must look beyond our artificial boundaries to determine the real truth of our current climate situation.

And, of course, Bill Bryson has made a successful career of explaining complicated things in easy-to-understand terms.  His love of science and knowledge in general seems to shine through with his own chapter and interjections, along with the range of selected contributors.

Seeing Further is a worthy popular and accessible work to showcase the genius of the Royal Society’s membership.  It is a unique institution with a unique impact on the world.  The book is well worth the time to revel and absorb and incorporate this history into our own world views.

— Rich Bowers