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.

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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:

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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.

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~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.

Writing, death, and vat-grown kidneys

Hey, wasn’t I going to blog more and stuff?  Did somebody die or something?

Oh wait.  Actually, yes.

So my SB challenge and so many other things have been on hold for the past week.  I’m not done grieving, and won’t be for a good long while, but I do need to start writing again.  My kick in the pants came from the realization that it was Viv’s turn to do the regular blog post in our blogifying map forecasts series.

I started writing it and then I stopped.  I decided to share her words instead.  It still took me most of the day to track down links and proof and whatnot. It was both cathartic and helpful to tiptoe around the cognitive dissonance of writing about forecasts bathed in optimism bordering on hubris with ruminations on mortality rattling about my brain.

Here’s the post:

Replacement parts: “We can rebuild him, we have the technology”

Regenerative medicine will replace, restore, maintain, or enhance tissue and organ functions, dramatically improving patients’ health and quality of life, and potentially reducing the cost of their care. Tissue engineering will heal diabetic foot ulcers, reducing the need for amputations; organs grown in a lab will ease our dependence on donor transplants; and tendons, cartilage, and bone regrown with autologous cells will be used to repair injuries and joints. Advanced prosthetic devices and biomechatronic-based limb replacements will interface with the body’s nervous systems to give users a range of natural function and movement.

 When we first presented this forecast at a conference, our colleague Vivian told a story that illustrates the potential, and some possible pitfalls, of the growing capacities of regenerative medicine. It was part of a complicated dance of vignettes and exposition with Vivian, Bradley and myself that will remain one of my fondest memories of working here.

Viv presenting, by Rachel Hatch

Image by Rachel Hatch

Of course, when you get sick enough, you end up having to go to the doctor for help.

That’s what finally happened with Eric, who has Type 2 Diabetes.  He is a very successful 56 year old lawyer.  He has a history of working too much and not taking very good care of himself.  He was overweight, ate poorly, and didn’t track his blood sugar levels consistently.  As a result, he has had some serious complications from his illness.  Last year, he developed a foot ulcer that just wouldn’t heal.  The doctors had to amputate his foot.  His eyesight also deteriorated because of damage to his retina.  And his doctors have been warning him that he may need to go on dialysis.  Eric’s body is failing him.

Remember that TV show in the ’70’s?  The Six Million Dollar Man?  Do you remember the show’s tagline?  “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”

Continue reading

One for the road and I’m back on the town…

…with a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down.  (The Constellation’s Southern Gothic has been my soundtrack to life the last few weeks.  It’s getting weird up in here.)

Welcome back, therapy blog.  Oh, didn’t I tell you?  I started this blog partly as exposure therapy for my fear of public writing.  That’s also part of why I’m so inconsistent about actually posting things.  I’m surprised it isn’t more of a thing in this day and age, but there are apparently other “scriptophobes” out there.

HOWEVER…I picked this as my first game of the SuperBetter beta I managed to squeeze into, so dagnammit, I’m gonna be writing (here and at the orders of magnitude more trafficked IFTF blog) in the next six weeks, come hell or high water.  My epic win is around posting consistently, but seeing as how I’m studying quantified selves at the moment, I’m thinking of tracking and keeping mission journals of minute/word count ratios as well.

Consider this my first skirmish against a minor henchman: Scorn of Off the Cuff Posting. Take that back to your foul master, Auditor Perfecto.  Score one achievement: Admitting You Have a Problem.