Sunday, September 05, 2004

Futurism I

Students of social trends have long ago learned to use the mirror of the future as a guide to what's going on in the present. What are people imagining is their future lot?

For example, it's quite interesting that the World's Fair has fizzled in this day and age. The corporate giants aren't bullish enough on grand vision events to stage one.

Along the same lines, look at Epcot, Disney's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Disney has completely backed away from Walt's vision. The word 'Epcot' is no longer broadcast as an acronmym for anything in particular, and the exhibits are downright retro at this point. The Kodak Pavilion hypes 1980s technology, or early 1990s at the latest.

Mission creep (or concerted repurposing, however you want to spin it) is so obviously symbolized by what's happened to Spaceship Earth itself (the BuckyBall, the golf ball, the geodesic thingy) -- it now sports Mickey Mouse ears, while a disembodied hand along side waves pixie dust on it. The message, to my eyes: we don't really know what this means, except we'd like to use it as our logo. It means The Mouse rules, or something like that.

To some extent, I think our being bottled up about the future, unable to make the next push, is by design. Fuller, himself a premier futurist, knew the birth would be difficult, and indeed the birth canal he sketched in Grunch of Giants is one to give us pause. It doesn't let us turn away from the difficulty of debugging a legalese to make it more suitable.

We've inherited a creaky, rickety old operating system (if "system" even pertains) and those who profit by it don't want to think or talk in terms of overhaul. They equate "overhaul" with "disaster" as if any major redesign just has to be bad for the bottom line.

That in itself is an assumption that deserves to be put under bright lights, and examined in some detail.

Let's go back to the dot com revolution, for example. This was prototypical of a Design Science Revolution, in that it was technology-driven. One might argue that it was hijacked and subverted by a money-making scamming mentality that sought to divert attention from underlying essentials, and focus on the gaming.

The game was the IPO, with privileged insiders raking off millions by flipping the new issues, getting kickbacks and so forth. It didn't really matter if the business was solid -- it just had to look high tech, have the superficial glow.

I recall being propositioned to move the New York City as a CEO of some dot com. The brains behind it sent me a spec sheet, a kind of prospectus. I read for technology, and saw nothing but buzzwords, a rephrasing of what it means to be an ISP (internet service provider). So what? But that wasn't the point. The point was the IPO, and he already had it scripted -- I'd take it through the hype phase, until the serious money was in, then I'd bail, to be replaced by someone who knew how to keep it running, if such could be found. I was somewhat flattered of course, to be propositioned to run a sexy startup, but I knew enough to turn it down.

Some people come away from the dot com experience disillusioned by the technology, but I think the real moral of the story is that casino-style Wall Street capitalism isn't yet mature enough to do any really serious planning. The short term gaming and scamming approach is doomed to fail, when the business models, if they're to work, need to be somewhat well thought out. But that's not what the new crop of investment bankers and financeers are up for doing, in large degree. They think hype is all that matters. And then they blame the technology, which may be quite solid, when the bubble bursts.

So am I arguing for some Soviet-style 'command economy'? No. The organicism of free enterprise is needed, the competition is needed, so that lots of experiments fail quickly, and the remaining business models show us how it might be done. Command economies are likely to put too many eggs in too few baskets, and come up empty handed -- failures every bit as dramatic as the dot com crash, but not so analyzed (because command economies tend to be secretive, closed), and so even harder to learn from.

I'm more inspired by Dee Hock's 'chaordic' metaphor, which is in turn inspired (by Visa in his case) by the example of the Internet. These protocols are really complex and detailed (cite the RFCs), but they're globally implemented and they work. That's a model that works. Linux too.

Open source and free software philosophers typically have greater than average awareness of Fuller's design science option with good reason I think: they see themselves as potentially inheriting the mission, as critical world game players, and/or navigators aboard Spaceship Earth. I think this self-perception is somewhat justified, and I encourage it, as we cannot afford to leave it all to the politicians who see themselves in this way.