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Apart from reading the tea-leaves or peering into a crystal ball, the principle tool of the technological futurologist is still the linear extrapolation of past developments – the projection forward of current or recent trends. Of course, the main problem with linear extrapolation is that you can’t predict the new, the surprising, the breakthrough technology, or the emergence of a new style. The other problems of this approach are to do with scope (have you missed some essential development?); and the intrusion of the kind of personal bias that means that your strategy may be coloured by your own wishful thinking or predelictions. You can negate these problems largely by averaging the projections of many other futurologists.

Another tool of the strategist is what you might call ‘creative imagineering’ – I include in this area three kinds of creativity: the creativity of engineering, the creativity of fiction, and also the insights, critiques and predictions found in the work of intellectuals – media philosophers, critics and academic researchers.

A map of the ‘new media opportunity-space’ that I designed around 2001. This was one of many attempts to visualise this emerging ‘media-space’ – effectively the new artists ‘palette’ for content innovators.

Fictional ‘Imagineering’ is really important in this area– after all, it gave us the name ‘cyberspace’ itself, (back in 1983, an example of McLuhan’s observation that artists are cultural antennae, operating right on the frontiers of change. (“the artist … is always thought of as being way ahead of his time because he lives in the present”), Sci-fi writers and intellectuals have fed the imagination of digital artists and designers really since the Sixties – through the work of Herbert Marshall McLuhan, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Herman Kahn, John Brunner, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut , Brian Aldiss, – and many others.

‘imagineering’ – creating the future by invention

One kind of ‘imagineering’ has punctuated the history of hypermedia: the multi-disciplinary teamwork of computer scientists and engineers. Examples such as Douglas Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Centre,  the Atari Research Centre, Bell Labs, the Media Lab, Xerox PARC, the Viacom New Media Kitchen, the Apple New Technology Group, and recently, the Disney Studios spring readily to mind (let alone the hypermedia research at Brown University, and work in England at Middlesex, the RCA, Central St Martins, Martlesham and Cambridge PARC. Latterly the multiple disciplines included in these commercially-funded teams have been broadened to include cognitive psychologists, telecoms engineers, AI experts, games designers, and designers and practitioners from the wide range of media disciplines that are now converging in this digital domain.

These imagineering teams have been responsible for many of the big breakthroughs in human-computer interface, networking, and many other aspects of computing and digital media.

The Augmentation Centre gave us the Mouse, screen windows, e.mail, groupware and a working hypertext system. Atari – with Alan Kay, Brenda Laurel, Jaron Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman, gave us lots of games, Virtual Reality and the dataglove. The Media Lab produced a string of interesting developments including the first interactive video-disc: the Aspen Movie Map, Put That There, and all the technologies so well reported by Stewart Brand in the mid-80’s ( Stewart Brand: The Media Lab – Inventing the Future at MIT 1987)

.  Look at Xerox PARC: – Alan Kay with the Dynabook idea, the GUI, and Smalltalk, Bob Metcalfe with Ethernet, Larry Tesler (who went on to project manage Newton and many other products, including Hypercard, at Apple), John Warnock of  Adobe, many others.

Lately Michael Eisner has taken on this ‘imagineering’ mantle, creating Disney Imagineering Fellows – currently including Alan Kay, Seymour Papert, Marvin Minsky, Danny Hillis, as well as Jeff Katzenberg, George Lucas and others. Inventing the future is the best way to predict it.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it”   Alan Kay

inventing the future by imagination

The other visions are expressed in fiction and as a product of the critical analysis of our techno-culture, and the work of artists and architects. Herbert Marshall McLuhan remains the constantly most surprising for me – all this stuff he wrote in the Sixties still seems to be totally relevant now, and indeed, we now inhabit the global village of his imagination.

I’ve been a sci-fi fan since New Worlds appeared in the late Sixties – Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius tetrology, and Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head resonate from this period, and I’m a great fan of John Brunner – a really under-appreciated English SF writer – Sheep look up, Stand on Zanzibar and The Shockwave Rider – these are examples of the radical, modernist, high-tech sci-fi of this period – and they were a locus of literary innovation, reflected in these novels and in the pages of the Moorcock-edited New Worlds. These writers and many others from the States have gradually sketched a patchwork montage of the future. With the arrival of Gibson, and Sterling and  the ‘Hard SF’, / ‘Mirrorshades’ / Cyberpunk genre of the mid 80’s, writers began to flesh-out more specific visions of the technofuture.

John Brunner's 1975 vision of the networked future...

As an indication of how influential this kind of imagineering can be, you only have to look at the work of Gibson, Stephenson, Vinge, Rucker, Sterling and other cyberpunks. I’ve only got space here for a few quotes:

Gibson quotes/ Stevenson quotes etc..

McLuhan: “Men are suddenly nomadic gatherers of knowledge, nomadic as never before, informed as never before, free from fragmentary specialism as never before – but also involved in the total social process as never before: since with electricity we extend our central nervous system globally, instantly interrelating every human experience.” (McLuhan: Understanding Media 1963)

Gibson: “Cyberspace: a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…. A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the hum an system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” (Gibson: Neuromancer 1984)

Vinge “He powered up his processors, settled back in his favourite chair, and carefully attached the Portal’s five sucker electrodes to his scalp. For long minutes nothing happened: a certain amount of self-denial – or at least self hypnosis – was necessary to make the ascent. Some experts recommended drugs or sensory isolation to heighten the user’s sensitivity to the faint, ambiguous signals that could be read from the Portal.

…And just as a daydreamer forgets his actual surroundings and sees other realities, so Pollack drifted, detached, his subconscious interpreting the status of the West Coast communication and data services as a vague thicket for his conscious mind to inspect, interrogate for the safest path to an intermediate haven..” (Vinge: True Names 1981)

Stephenson: “Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Elysees of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturised and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. It does not really exist, but right now millions of people are walking up and down it.

The dimensions of the Street are fixed by a protocol, hammered out by the computer graphics ninja overlords of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Global Multimedia Protocol Group. The Street seems to be a grand boulevard going all the way round the equator of a clack sphere with a radius of a bit more than ten thousand kilometres. That makes it 65,536 kilometres around, which is considerably bigger than Earth.” (Stephenson: Snowcrash 1992)


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