Recap: Big History – techniques for analyzing possible futures?

Big History – techniques for analyzing possible futures?

The study of history has always been pursued with the goal of gleaning insights that can help shape the future.  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Santayana is reputed to have said.  What can we learn from the past that enables us to find better paths, and avoid disastrous pitfalls – as we move into an inevitable future.

History is traditional studied and taught in relatively thin slices.  Whether it’s the Peloponnesian Wars or the US Election of 1968, the story begins from a base of a certain status quo – the results of history up to the point of the beginning of this bit of the story – and goes from there.  The base is assumed, given.  An almost infinite amount of complexity is embedded in that given base – but we accept it to get to the heart of the little story we want to explore.

But that thin slice of story selected from the totality of all the history that got us to that point – may not be as telling as it seems.  It may be an interesting story – but taken out of context, any lessons we may draw from it may very well be mis-directed or confused.

Some years ago an Australian professor, David Christian, got the idea that the only real way to capture all the context that gets us to the slices of story that we can understand – is to study the complete history of what we are – all the way back to the Big Bang.  Christian began publishing about the idea around 1989.  Some years ago, the idea caught the attention of Bill Gates, who decided to fund a program to spread the concept.  Thus began the saga of “Big History.”

Big History is a multidisciplinary approach that  begins with the the birth and evolution of the physical universe, then gradually resolves to the origins of life – which begets mammals and then humans – and then finally the social, artistic, political – “civilized” – epochs in which we have deeper details and information we see as relevant to our lives, and structuring a future.

However, a basic rule of the study of the future is that the past is an unreliable predictor of the future.  We may be able to extract trends and patterns, but specific events and results are out of our reach.  That’s perhaps the single lesson we can see in any study of the past.  Patterns that seem destined to continue forever are inevitably interrupted by statistically improbable events (“black swans”) that knock the pins out from under  the common wisdom, and a new pattern emerges – only ultimately to suffer the same fate.  Sometimes the change is slow – as in the decline of the Roman Empire.  Sometimes the end comes quickly – as in the downfall of IBM from its catbird seat in the 60’s and 70’s, or AOL in the 90’s.

In the classic story of a mathematically predicted future – the Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov – the meticulously described future foreseen and prepared for by protagonist Hari Selden, is thrown way off track by a mutant named the Mule.  In Asimov’s tale, the path of events ultimately winds its way back around to Selden’s vision.  In our experience, we never really seem to return to a pathway, always finding a new one.

So how can Big History help us get a handle on the future?  The proposition is that the structure that has developed for the organization of the evolution of our world – might in some way be applied to the study of possibility ahead.  But obviously, we can’t use specific events or personalities to speculate out much further than a generation or two.  To a large extent – looking forward is a lot like trying to assemble a puzzle turned face down, able only to see the shapes of the pieces, but having no way to put them into context with each other.

Big History divides the past into “thresholds,” gateways that mark a quantum leap in change that can be observed and understood.  So we wonder if that idea might be applied to the future.

What might the thresholds be that will shape future generations?  These must be large, wide concepts, not narrow ones.  Perhaps global political unification.  Perhaps the availability of immortality.  Perhaps the acquisition of limitless energy.  Perhaps the population of other planets and the expansions of humans across the solar system, galaxy, universe?  Perhaps any number of other possible thresholds which will change our species and our planet forever going forward.

One big difference, of course, is that we have the benefit – in look backward – to see the results of the conflicts at the thresholds – and understand what trends emerged the winner, what course dominated all evolution thereafter.  In studying the future, we can’t really determine what circumstances will carry the influence to make the Big Change.  All we can really do is look at two or more alternatives, choose among those possibilities, and create scenarios that might result from one choice winning over another.

So studying the future in this way will lead quickly to an array of bifurcating pathways, dividing at the threshold points, each with their own stories, their own implications for the next step.  The possible advantage of this approach is that it does help to structure a consideration of the future.  Instead of looking at an amorphous wave of events rushing forward – we can imagine the organization of related events into a choice of sufficient scale to qualify as a “threshold” – in the same way the considerable scale of circumstance allows the study of significant divergences in the past.

Maybe this approach is meaningful, perhaps not.  It might be that we artificially constrain ourselves so greatly that we ignore real influences that will change the future.  We won’t know until we have some experience with the idea – and that experience will take real time, substantial time, and probably considerable amounts of it.  So we may not see the results.  But we do get the pleasure of creating the exercise and launching it into the breeze of time, which will carry it forward unto some barely knowable reality.


Another great discussion!.

Recap: Hyperloop and It’s Impact on Central Ohio October 19, 2017

Topic: Hyperloop and It’s Impact on Central Ohio

In 2016, Columbus was awarded $50 million in the Smart City Challenge primarily to analyze and experiment with issues in transportation.  Almost in parallel with the effort resulting in this award, Columbus interests have been supported an initiative to build a new form of mass transportation – Hyperloop – in a new connection with Chicago and Pittsburgh, with travels times on the order of 30 minutes to Chicago.

Hyperloop is a concept created and promoted by multi-savant Elon Musk.  In essence, passengers would travel in a tube (think wingless fuselage – in a tube which creates front-end vacuum that compels a maglev-type engine at super high speeds, until a terminus is reached.  There are many technical challenges.  The costs have not been calculated, but they will be very high.  And certain socio-political issues must be resolved – like acquiring the land and the rights-of-way for the structures (pylons and tubes) to have a place to go.

Because of the high expense and complexity, Hyperloop wants to focus on only one or two routes to begin with.  And so they are sponsoring a competition of sorts, to determine which of the over 100 sites which originally volunteered, might be suitable for a working prototype.  The Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh run was late this summer selected as a Top Ten finalist for this this privilege.

So what would it mean for this area? Once operational, 30 minutes to Chicago and less to Pittsburgh might displace a lot of airline travel to Midway and O’Hare.  What would that mean for other airline development?  Would our tourism business increase from the influx of Chicagoans coming to Central Ohio?  Or would the traffic – for entertainment and fun – go the other direction, leaving a net loss in this area?  What industries might Columbus attract with this transportation feature installed?  What might we lose?

Who would pay for it?  How would it be paid for?  Would the benefits to Central Ohio justify a tax of some sort?  Do we exercise the right of public domain to acquire land and rights-of-way.  This may be run by a private corporation – or public-private partnership (PPP) – should taxpayers be asked to subsidize the new system?  (We seem to be asked constantly to subsidize and underwrite stadiums and arenas for sports teams.)

We discuss these questions and more – with some details about the operation of the technology.  Following are some resources, that might help bring an attendee up to speed.


Another great discussion in an exciting agenda emerging for our meetings this year. Hope to see you in the 21st!

Recap: Future of Truth in a Post-Truth World

This month’s discussion of truth in a so-called post-truth world will be the biggest event of the year for Columbus Futurists.. It will be huge!  The biggest audience ever, the best ideas ever!  And this will be our report after the event, whatever actually happens!  (Hopefully, obvious satire …)

Why?  Because we have entered an age where truth has become a highly personal matter – my truth and your truth don’t have to match.  At least, that’s what some people contend.  Some people rely on alternative facts.. Facts that aren’t quite true – or might be radically off the generally accepted truth – but are still facts,  We might think of them as “aspirational” facts.  They may or may not be true, but they are seeking more support in the polls.

The challenges to “truth” and “facts” – ultimately a challenge to “authoritativeness” –  is of particular importance to Futurists, and anyone interested in trying to grasp the possibilities of the future.  It is confusing.

  • “Fake news” has come to mean both fictional stories generated to mislead, AND real stories whose veracity is called into question because someone uses the label.  We have experienced  outrights mendacity, compounded by a semblance of a bureaucratic structure which seeks to back up and strengthen the falsehoods.
  • Recently, there are reports of a forged NSA document being shopped to news organizations as a trap – to tempt them into publishing news about a document that then is shown to be fake, in order to ruin news credibility (Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, 7/6/2017).

Without confidence to rely on generally agreed sources for accurate information, how can one project the evolution of that information into a possible future?

There have been many pieces written on this subject – sorting out those which deal with the substantive issues can be a challenge.  Here a few you might consider – if you find others that you have found useful, please feel free to share:

  • What makes a truth a reliable truth? How much truth is necessary?
  • We are facing a “crisis of authority.” What makes a source reliable?
  • How can false information be identified?
  • What tools do we have – or need – to navigate the Sea of Veracity?

Some articles to consider:

Not just politics:

Another great discussion in an exciting agenda emerging for our meetings this year. Hope to see you in the future!

(Some discussion notes attached in a Word doc.)

Recap: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Higher Education

Topic: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Higher Education

There are very serious people today imagining and considering the implications of a “world without work,” with algorithms performing cognitive tasks once thought only humans could perform. It is commonplace in our contemporary society to say that the purpose of higher education is to prepare young people for work. But if predictions of a world without work come to pass, then the linkage of higher education and job preparation would be torn apart. What will be “the primary purpose of higher education” when artificial intelligence has made human employment redundant?

Columbus Futurist David Staley presented three scenarios for the future of higher education under such conditions, and as a group we will imagine a scenario where the purpose of a university education is teaching students and AI to “think together.”

Here is an article David wrote for a special section of the Columbus Dispatch:  Here Come the Machines, Again

Some articles to consider:

Recap: The Future of Multimedia – An Interactive Tour


Topic: The Future of Multimedia: Visual, News, Music & Social

This discussion was led by Columbus Futurists member Onyemobi Anyiwo. He took the group on a journey recalling how we received information – news, music, movies – and communicated with friends and family – starting with 1967, and then jumping 10 years forward until we reached present day.  Very interesting not only to see how technology and social behavior has evolved – but also how we recollect those changes.  Many people in the room had no memory of the earlier times – they weren’t born yet!

The exercise made the discussion less abstract – lent an air of reality as everyone remembered how their tools and their preferences had changed over the years,

Finally, the discussion looked ahead – what would the situation be in 2027 – 10 years hence? The possibilities are at once kind of clear – a continuation of current trends – and obscure – as we don’t know what unexpected disjunctures in technology might be waiting for us.

From the promo for the meeting:

The last 17 years  has seen dramatic changes in the ways we receive media content. 20th Century Media “Goliaths” have been slain by 21st Century Media “Davids”.  Home video companies like Blockbuster & Hollywood Video were hurt by Cable On-Demand & Pay-Per-View services, and eventually finished off by Redbox and Netflix.

Music stores like Tower Records which used to be staples of shopping malls across the country, have closed their doors due to the creation of the MP3, their subsequent sharing via P2P networks (Napster, Kazaa, etc), as well as the purchase and streaming options offered by Itunes, Amazon, Pandora & Spotify.

Cable News, which introduced the 24 hours news cycle, is unable to keep up with the likes of Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms in terms of delivering breaking news.

Speaking of which, even cable television itself is faltering as more and more people are joining the “cordcutting” revolution and opting for streaming services powered by media sticks & boxes, such as Google Chromecast, Kodi, Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, Apple TV, etc.

But even the new media titans aren’t safe themselves from being supplanted by newer up-and-comers. And technology like Augmented and Virtual Reality promises to deliver more interactive types of media that we previously have only been able to imagine. So the question is: What is the future of media? Where do we go from here?

Some suggested reading resources (any one of these articles serves as fuel for the discussion):

Another great discussion in an exciting agenda emerging for our meetings this year.

Recap: The Future of the Evolving Worker

Topic: The Future of the Evolving Worker

(meeting 4/27/2017)

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ” – Alvin Toffler

Humans in general seek out meaningful work.  Part of that need is based on sustenance – it is a time-honored tradition to trade our time and skills for compensation by the beneficiaries.  And another part of that need seems to be an inner drive to seek out meaningful ways to spend our time – whether compensated or not – to validate one’s self-worth, to contribute to a personal legacy, or other psychological reasons.

The structure of the relationship between the provider of time and skill (employee) and the beneficiary (employer) is undergoing radical change.  Much of that change is based on the radical changes in commercial enterprise caused by the influx of technology.  Other aspects of change cascade from initial technological impact, to a fundamental restructuring of social relationships in almost every dimension.  It seems like we are waiting on one last development to flip the balance.  Much like one last grain of sand on a perfect cone can cause the entire structure to collapse and assume a new form.

We have some idea how the nature of jobs – and, more generally, work – is changing.  But what must we as individuals – and as a society – change to keep up, and accommodate new rules for finding sustenance, and for finding personal meaning and satisfaction?

This changing picture for people – and all the adjustments and changes they will have embrace for a future success and a future economy – is the topic of our discussion this month.

Some suggested reading resources (any one of these articles serves as fuel for the discussion):

Building on our discussions of blockchain  and the future of jobs in the last two meetings – this focus on people – a key factor in shaping the future – is a primary consideration in projecting an economy for coming generations.

Recap: The Changing Picture of Jobs

Forum: March 23, 2017

Topic: The Changing Picture of Jobs

— Our meeting generated lively discussion – how are jobs changing, how are our jobs changing, what conditions will a new generation of workers face in specific job categories?  Following the meeting, a couple of relevant articles appeared, which I include here for the record.  And this discussion will certainly inform our next meeting, focusing on people – people who will need and want meaningful work in the future.

Rich Bowers

Chasing the future of the employment opportunity has long been a social and political priority. Since World War II, it has been a foregone conclusion that the way to a good job and a life of success was a good education.  The definition of “a good education,” though has been changing: a good education in a profession that is in demand, then a good education that focused on STEM fields, then an education that focused on creative or so-called “soft” skills like project management, or communications.  In spite of that wisdom, stories abounded of people with levels of education in highly specific specialties that were unable to find employment in those fields . Meanwhile. middle-management and lower skill-level jobs were shedding workers at high rates, and re-training, and skills updating became priorities.  Billions of dollars in students loans, millions of displaced and under-employed workers – all chasing a job.  And like a wisp of wind – just when about to grasp it – the job would vanish.  Not just be withdrawn or reduced in number needed – but in many, many cases – the job itself simply performed tasks that were no longer needed to be done.

Perhaps it is in our definition of “job.”    The “gig” economy, the advent of Uber, the “auction” mentality that has sprung up in so many creative professions – along with the impact of animation, fluid centers of manufacturing and declining costs of transportation of goods and – most significantly – the underlying foundation of virtually free communications technology – has resulted in a new trajectory for employment and the meaning of “earning a living.”

This changing picture of jobs – and all the dimensions and dynamics that have created our current situation is the topic of our discussion this month.

Some suggested reading resources:

One final point – building on our discussion of blockchain last month – and the impact this technology might have when kinks are worked out – consider this quote: “The spread of blockchains is bad for anyone in the ‘trust business’ – the centralised institutions and bureaucracies, such as banks, clearing houses and government authorities that are deemed sufficiently trustworthy to handle transactions,” The Economist argued back in 2015.”