Update: The audio from our conversation is now posted on YouTube.
Recently I had the pleasure to participate in a public conversation with science fiction author Bruce Sterling. The occasion was the inaugural event of the Obermann Center's yearlong series, Designing the Future, at the University of Iowa. The conversation took place on the stage of the Englert Theater, a great vaudeville era theater that has been restored to its original grandeur. That juxtaposition of past and future was not lost on me, nor was the gentle irony of seeing the names of geeks on the same marquee as a musical act.
For those of you who do not know him, Bruce has won multiple Hugo awards, one of science fiction's highest honors, for his fiction. He is also an active blogger for Wired, a consultant on several projects, and generally a cool dude. Bruce is also well known for coining neologisms, those linguist viruses that infect our imaginations. From "major consensus narrative" (aka, "the truth") to "Wexelblat disaster" (aka, "a secondary disaster triggered by nature's interaction with human technology"), they are the linguistic legerdemain of a gifted storyteller.
Futurists as Grief Counselors
Bruce and I began by addressing the future and ways to think about change and disruption. We ranged quickly across current and potential disruptions – post-genomic biology and medicine, nanotechnology and personalized manufacturing, cognitive radio and the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles and grand AI, and privacy and information flow in the digital age – but spent most of our time discussing the cultural aspects of Clayton Christensen's innovator's dilemma. Technological nuances, though sometimes daunting, are rarely the most difficult aspects of change. Rather, it is organizational and culture hysteresis that limits technology uptake. It is here that understanding the human condition – in all its historical and cultural context – really matters.
When change comes – and it always does -- all of us find it organizationally and culturally difficult to abandon cherished beliefs, especially when some of those beliefs have been overrun and obviated by new truths. At these points, a futurist is both grief counselor and cheerleader. As grief counselor, one must help others through Kübler-Ross's stages of grief, reaching acceptance as quickly as possible; lingering in anger and denial only invites further loss. As cheerleader, one must highlight the opportunities afforded by the new technology and encourage rapid adoption and adaptation to capture first mover advantage.
Change is never easy. It is why few corporations survive and prosper for more than a few decades. One need only compare the constituents of today's Dow Jones Industrial Average with those of fifty years ago. Have you traded any Victor Talking Machine stock lately?
Humility – innate or imposed – is the handmaiden of change. Why do I hear the echo of Shelley's Ozymandias here?
Advice to a Young Student
As this was a university-dominated audience, it was not surprising that Bruce and I were asked if we had any advice for students about how to face and embrace the future. Though I would not presume the wisdom of P.B. Medawar in Advice to A Young Scientist, I did offer three maxims:
Hang out with people not like yourself. They will stretch your intellectual and social boundaries and challenge your belief system. They are also valuable partners with skills complementary to your own. So, if you are a science and technology geek, make some friends with the arts and humanities crowd. If you are an entrepreneurial type, socialize with those who build things and understand social memes. If I learned anything over the years, it is that successful individuals, whatever their domain of endeavor, find and partner with people of complementary expertise. Together, the group can do things the individuals could never do separately.
Take some risks. If you cannot take risks at age twenty-five, you never will. This is the time to stretch your wings and try new things. You are young enough to recover from failure and try, try again. Most importantly, understand that failing to take risks is itself a risk. Nothing in life is certain. As for that "death and taxes" notion, well, taxes do change, though I remain circumspect about the proximity of the singularity.
- Make new and original mistakes. Experience is an excellent teacher, far better than success, in fact. However, experience should not be your only teacher; the tuition cost is very high in the school of experience and hard knocks. Instead, understand what has succeeded and failed before, build on successful approaches, but do new and different things. As Linus Pauling wryly noted, the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.
Here's to the future, that delightfully unpredictable and endlessly fascinating mirage that retreats before us with each step. Still we strive, as Blake reflected:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.