Tall trees! (And the futuristic cities in which they may live)

In the future, I expect my cities to have trees.  You may or may not have thought about this expectation, and you may or may not agree.  But if you do, there are many actions required to ensure that future cities have trees.


Vincent Callebaut: Asian Cairns

This may not be on your radar of urgent environmental issues in the current political climate.  But our long-term future cannot be driven only by urgency.  We have to act out of aspiration too.  In the short term (0-20 years) that means fighting ridiculous vandals who cut down trees; prioritizing keeping trees alive during our long California drought (or your local climate calamity); and supporting local ordinances that protect old trees and forests. It means valuing their natural and economic benefits.  In the long term (50-200 years) it means re-imagining human habitats such that trees can thrive alongside, above, below, and within them.  I want my arcologies and mega-structures and futuristic dwellings on earth and in orbit to learn from and incorporate trees.  Tall trees!

You may now drop the needle on this post’s eponymous sound track, “Tall Trees” by Crowded House.

Let’s start by looking at some actual tall trees for inspiration…   Continue reading

Face the Future with poetry, art, and love

Last week I had the absolute privilege to be one of two dozen game masters (community managers and sense-makers) on the largest Foresight Engine the Institute for the Future has ever run: Face the Future, under the capable leadership of Jane McGonigal and experienced execution of Sara Skvirsky.  Furthermore it was a little like group therapy given the timing (right after the 2016 election) and the audience (high school students and teachers involved in Facing History and Ourselves, a group dedicated to teaching how the holocaust and other genocides depends on the decisions and silences of everyday people).

The topic could not have been more timely, or more provocative: the future of empathy. Take 10 to watch the provocation video at least, with content developed by my frolleague Jamais for the New Body Language edition of Future Now magazine (again, links forthcoming). I run down my three blog posts on the game blog below the fold.

Continue reading

Invisible Tattoos: In search of intimacy in the panopticon (updated)

High off the creative rush of Inktober 2016, I wrote a short story the other day.  I wrote it in the world of my desk-drawer-half-written-novel, in which the San Francisco Bay Area of 2115(ish) is blanketed by a soaring, window-filled arcology.  I’ll get back to that ambitious undertaking eventually, but nothing stops me from worldbuilding in the meantime.

It starts like this:

Stories about people’s tattoos are the worst. Listening to them tell about the pattern and the inspiration is boring, repetitive, and whatever meaning they capture on a person’s skin is utterly opaque to any other person. The aesthetics though, can be pure. Clean. A statement of commitment. A moment of clarity captured forever.

No one asks me about my tattoos during my work day, or even out at public clubs with friends. It’s not that they’re hidden under sleeves or skirts, though some are. They are not for common display. Their aesthetics are private; selective. And they are not drawn in ink, but in light and cells.

You can read the full story here.


The futurist debt I owe to the Institute for the Future for this story stems from two streams of work: the soon-to-be-released New Body Language research I led (UPDATED: listen to my release podcast with Mark Fraeunfelder!), and it’s continuation under my colleague Bradley Kreit Everything is Media.  We drew on signals from cutting-edge DARPA funded research on implants, artists and hackers, and entertainment both popular and fringe.  We also included my talented colleague Jamais Cascio, who has long explored the notion of the panopticon and it’s participatory incarnations in the present and nearish future. My contribution this year was to think about the implications for intimacy, hidden meaning and interpersonal care. The contrast of these two streams of foresight research beg the central question of this story: in a world where everyone could be watching all the time, what would you do to have an utterly personal, strictly intimate experience?

But I was also inspired by extracurricular science and art.  The morning I wrote this I was reading about this fascinating study about how plants use light. This small finding, about how light may be beamed from leaves to roots, helps us get closer to understanding how living organisms perception of wave-based energy (light, sound etc) interacts with chemical signaling (molecules in host and symbiote tissues) to go about the business of living and growing. Signals of light excite plants and set of more chemical signalling than photosynthesis.

I’ve also been thinking quite a lot about the skin microbiome, both professionally and on my own.  Throw a little CRISPR on humans and epidermal chimerism in there, and you get the possibility of a tattoo that altered the substance of human skin and its interaction with different fungi and bacteria.  In other words, tattoos that are completely invisible unless excited by certain kinds of light and promicrobial mists.

Finally, we’re already in a world where privacy is something that you pay for (one way or another).  Private clubs have been the work-around for a variety of intimate experiences, up to and including sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  What would be more intimate than sharing invisible tattoos and dropping acid with 20 strangers with whom you share nothing else?






Getting my voice back

The three readers I have will know that I started this blog in part to overcome a fear of public writing. (I suffer from no fear of public speaking – stick a mic in my hand and I’ll present for hours.) The fact that I have not pressed *publish* on this blog in 3 years is a testament to both the triumph of that fear, and simply different priorities in my life at the time. Also Facebook took over my online presence for a time. But I’m back. Recently I’ve found my writing voice again. I’m going to try to do some catch up in the posts that follow.

My Inktober 2016

I’ve never done Inktober before.  I haven’t really done ink drawings since high school, when I briefly launched myself into pen-and-ink pointillism.  And then stopped because imitating an ink jet printer is not fun.

But this was a really fun experience. I had one friend, one family member, and one colleague playing along.  That helped.  Here’s my favorite:


I’ve set the whole collection to public in this FB album. I enjoyed playing by the rules, starting and (with two exceptions due to travel) finishing each drawing on its assigned day.  While early on my husband was critical of the idea (“real writers and artists practice every day, not one month a year”) he was quickly converted to the wisdom of giving working stiffs like me an opportunity to rediscover talents I had let lapse.

For me, Inktober revealed surprisingly large pockets of my day that were available to creativity.  I had lost them to TV, video games, staring at the ceiling, and occasionally exercise.  I’ve only finished four ink drawings in the month since then, but that’s still 4/month more that previously.  I’m not waiting until next year to make art that I enjoy making.

It prompted me to explore nature photography, to look at abstract concepts more concretely, and to see what is actually there.  In other words, it helped me “see with ever more perfect eyes in a world in which there is always more to perceive.”

Mutants, Mindfulness and Muddled Tenses 

In my line of work, it’s understandable to occasionally be confused about tenses.  Lately, when that happens, I think about Isaac Azimov. More accurately, I think of a weird French animated film from 1988, Light Years aka Gandahar , the English translation of which Azimov happened to write. The tag line in English was, ” a thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved.” The plot involves time travel, duh. But what made the biggest impression on me as a child was the way Azimov translated the speech of the Deformed, mutant Gandaharians who aid the protagonist in the various eons of his quest. For example:

There seemed to be no present tense in their language. A thing “was-will-be.” The concept of the present is just an anomaly in the continuity of what was in the past, into what will be in the future. This tickled my nerdy little mind as a child, in between bouts of utter distraction by the cracked out synthesizer laden soundtrack. Whenever I’m feeling despondent about some quality the present lacks, I think about history and when that quality was, and the future and when that quality may reemerge.

Mindfulness, inverted.

Learning how to practice mindfulness has been a struggle for me, as my teachers seem to discount the future as a distraction from the present. The future is…well, really pretty important to me. This has caused some bouts of rebellion, against myself in my attempts to re-wire my brain into something generally more resilient.

Vivian and I used to debate whether there was such a thing as “mindful futures thinking.” We generally concluded “no.” But I think the long view of the Deformed, their fusion of acceptance and patience, is that elusive idea of mindful futures Viv and I were searching for. (Although I didn’t remember it clearly enough at the time to make my case. I’m reading Ready Player One now, so my head’s all twisted around the 80s sci-fi of my childhood. The rest of the 80s pop culture references sill allude me.)

When I started writing fiction as a child, I almost always wrote in the past tense. It was just easier that way.

When I started writing as an anthropologist, the past tense was the way to go for almost everything, except for brief vignettes or seriously highfalutin theory.

My current challenge is learning to write well in the present tense. The perpetual, perfect, perplexing, maddening present that infuses every sentence I write with a question lingering in my mind about WHEN IT TAKES PLACE. Take this meta paragraph, which describes how I have-will give scenario presentations:

I walk up on stage. I’m thinking about my first line. It’s in 2012, in the present. I’m thinking of my fifth line. It’s in 2022, in the future, and I have to bring the whole audience with me. In four sentences, we have to know we are here and now, and then agree to believe we’re some other time, some other place. I’ve done this before, many times. Sometimes it worked, others, not so much. When we talk about the future, all sorts of traps get sprung in people’s heads. We try to get around them. I’m trying to get around them. I’m trying to bring people into the future, while fooling their brains into listening to it for long enough to suspend their disbelief that the future won’t look like that and that won’t happen and just…imagine. The future is now. The future is the present.

If all the tenses in that paragraph confused you, welcome to my life. Unless you write futures, you have no idea. If we’re now in 2022, how do you talk about the now-past-then-future, say, things that happened in 2018?  If you lapse into past tense here, you’re likely to give your audience temporal whiplash, and generally lose the non-native speakers completely.  The solution here is to stay in the present tense, carefully dancing around pseudo historical land mines.

But despite all that challenge to our tense constructions, scenarios let us wrap our heads around futures. Even if they’re wrong, less likely to be accurate, less plausible, than other forms of foresight, they’re more tangible, and I think in many cases, more useful, in my opinion.  But is it the best solution to the tense problem when writing and speaking serious futures?

When I first started interning at IFTF, I discovered the challenges of writing in the future tense. Tenses. At that time, there were hardly any scenarios in the recent IFTF cannon. A vignette here and there, a lone report, but mostly there were forecasts. Descriptions of trends. Reports from the perspective of the present about future possibility.  There’s the strong forecast tense, ” this will happen.” There’s the weaker iterations, “will likely/may/might happen.” I got the hang of these pretty quickly. But there’s some really interesting evidence emerging that there may be some drawbacks to framing futures in this way, with the strong distinction between present and future.  My colleague Gabriel Harp gave this a much more thorough and nuanced treatment than I will here, under the provocative heading, “Does talking about the future make it less likely to happen?” Now this research is based in cross-cultural linguistics, which is all kinds of fascinating, and makes my muddled tense rant above seem shockingly ethnocentric.  Dr. Sohail Inayatulla has some pretty awesome lectures on his youtube channel  about cross cultural concepts of the future and how they shape thinking, which is similarly all kinds of fascinating.

In short, “what is the best tense” is totally the wrong question.  Even “how can we keep this not confusing” isn’t nearly ambitious enough.  The real question is, how do you know, based on your audience, what the most provocative, comprehensible and persuasive tense will be?  How do you develop cultural agility for futures thinking?




++?????++ Out of Cheese Error. Redo From Start.


~Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times

Why? Because:

People who didn’t need people needed people around to know that they were the kind of people who didn’t need people.
~Terry Pratchett, Maskerade

Yeah. You read that right.

Likewise, bloggers who don’t need readers need readers around to remind them to blog even though they don’t need readers. (Thanks Winchester.)

Wanted: Adaptive Encouragement

Or, Health Horizons S&T Map Blog Posts, New Year’s Edition.

I am sick, writing in bed, but that seems to be good, since I don’t really want to do anything, so I might as well write.

Bang! Posted.


It’s that time of year again. The global holiday of January 1, and with it, the annual ritual of self-improvement: setting New Year’s resolutions.  It’s a time when we’re called on to reflect on our lives and the behaviors we might want to change—and bombarded with ideas on how to do so.  It’s the time of year that makes me crave the realization of one of our Science and Technology forecasts: Adaptive Encouragement.

Adaptive encouragement: From self-quantifiers to life doulas

 Imagine a digital advisor that interprets your raw health data and offers continuous support along with interactive data visualization and recommendations for changing—and maintaining—daily routines or medications. 

 Embodied in intelligent programs, mobile devices, and the cloud, a life doula (like a birth doula) will remind us of our goals in moments of weakness. It will offer suggestions and encouragement in context to help us make healthy choices. 

 This kind of adaptive, personalized support will improve chronic illness management with automated diet tracking, in-home blood marker monitoring, and realtime analysis of genetic, metabolic, and protein data.

A quasi-intelligent automated system that takes the heavy lifting out of learning about your habits and changing them? Sold!

This vision is part of a future when roles like life coaching are automated and extended through ever-present technology.  It also points to the possibilities of adapting care systems to optimize the well-being of people with chronic ailments: rather than a slap on the wrist at the doctor’s office, you get a gentle vibration to get you out of your chair and moving.  Haptic feedback and sensitivity, emotional support and peer interactions are the future of this softer side of mobile health, beyond the expert-fed prescriptive reminders. This is a future of gentle nudges to show us the actions that will help us increase our capacity for well-being, but also remind us to do nothing when that’s what’s really best for us.

Our colleague Alex Charmichael over at the Quantified Self wrote this forecast, and I’ve heard it echoed in the desires of my of the quantified selves I’ve been interviewing for our project for the RWJF building and refining the QS Guide to Self-tracking Tools. For those of us who generally only embark on self-improvement binges once a year, there are a lot of lessons and tools we can learn from both the continuous and episodic efforts of the QSers.  One tool I learned about in interviews that might be of particular interest to New-Years Resolvers is Health Month—a game that helps you focus on making progress towards your goals on a daily basis.  (The game starts promptly on the first of each month, so start on Jan 1st to get credit for your progress!)

Most importantly though, one of the key lessons I’ve heard that’s especially crucial for  new years resolutions is self-compassion in all your self-tracking and self-improvement efforts.  Shame and frustration at little slip ups can do a lot of harm—so this year, try staying future-focused and forgiving.