One of the major goals of our affiliated
nonprofit, the Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF) is to attract
more research toward the high predictability of certain types of
technological change. This is something many professional futurists
today still fail to recognize.
Clearly many of the specific events in the world seem unpredictable.
Furthermore, our time horizon for any kind of certainty with such
events (the so called "prediction wall") shrinks closer
to us, the faster and more powerful the world becomes. Yet at the
same time growth in various technological capacities has become
increasingly more predictable (the "prediction crystal ball")
since at least the 1890's. If you look at the data of Ray
Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Nathan Mhyrvold, and others, since
the 1950's and 1960's we have discovered a range of eponymous constants,
or "laws" (e.g., Moore's,
Cooper's, Poor's, Sayle's, etc.) that predictably describe technological
growth over long spans of time. This is a new social phenomenon.
The data are becoming quite compelling that certain types of technological
acceleration are now the "levers that move the world,"
having a global effect that is far out of proportion to human agency.
The more capacity data we get, in fact, the more predictable future
capacity growth becomes. In general, that doesn't seem to be true
for any other forecasting area I've studied. So we have these two
discrete foresight domains, one becoming steadily harder to predict,
the other becoming steadily easier to predict. A global insight
is about to emerge as to why this is the case, and it will likely
come from a fusion of physics, biology, and information theory.
My suspicion here is that various technological capacity growth
trends are part of a process of universal development, whereas most
technological change follows evolutionary pathways, which are intrinsically
unpredictable, chaotic, and contingent, but a special subset can
be understood developmentally, following pathways which are convergent,
statistically inevitable, and increasingly predictable, as one learns
to see the developmental framework.
If one looks at a developing organism, one sees both evolution
(at the molecular scale and over life cycles) and development occurring
simultaneously within the system, at the same time. We are presently
learning to see the universe this way as well. Both evolution and
development seem to be going on in our social and technological
environments, and distinguishing the two can give us great foresight
into the nature of the future, and the natural accelerating framework
that subtly influences and constrains every social choice we make.
There's pretty good evidence that the human being doesn't get significantly
smarter with each generation. In fact, we've actually measurably
regressed in recent decades in our math, science, analytical and
written verbal fluencies, as a number of longitudinal studies like
TIMMS have shown. First
world humans face an epidemic of obesity, a surplus of leisure,
and are more entertained (and distracted) than ever before. But
at the same time the "house" around us gets exponentially
more intelligent, transparent, and dramatically more resource-efficient
(in all computational measures at least) with each passing year.
The confluence of these powerful forces must clearly have some longer
term ecological effect, in a world with declining human population
and rapidly accelerating technological capacity.
We always need to guard against observer-selection bias. But the
paradigm of universal evolutionary development is actually "infopomorphic",
rather than "anthropomorphic." It makes the key assumption,
and perpetuates the central bias (which may be wrong) that information
processing is the one thing that continually accelerates in over
the universe's life span, and does this by periodically jumping
to new, more local, and more resource-efficient substrates over
time. This process of increasingly independence of technological
development from the resources that initially create it has been
observed by a few professional futurists for decades, notably Buckminster
Fuller, who called it "ephemeralization" in 1922.
But to date it has not become a central observation in our field,
it is not taught as a central tenet of futures education, and few
practitioners today would argue its unique significance for our
Most features of sociotechnological change follow a pattern of
punctuated equilibrium, not smooth acceleration. Kenneth
Boulding made an observation in 1970 that technological
change had a significantly greater impact on the average human being
at the start of the 20th century than in the decades since. Michael
Elliott has noted that the truly labor-saving technologies
for use by homemakers have been much less important in the second
half of the 20th century than in the first half.
Yet while some types of change flatline or even regress cyclically
for long periods, a number of technological capacities and informetrics
have consistently grown at a double exponential rate over the entire
20th century. Most curiously, several of these, like price performance
in computing, seem largely immune to human social cycles (like the
Great Depression). Kurzweil and I suggest this is because these
special accelerations are more due to human discovery (of intrinsic
accelerations available in the physical microdomain) than due to
human creativity/innovation. In other words, certain accelerations
don't require a lot of manpower, capital, or genius, just a common
intelligence, curiosity, and desire to tinker in a very special
place: the microcosm, "inner space", a more virtual, ephemeral,
and miniaturized instantiation of that which we have done before
in more macroscopic and resource intensive ways.
This kind of transition is exactly what happened during the thousand
year "Dark Ages" after the fall of the Roman empire. As
any good history of technology will tell you, technological innovation
continued to accelerate rather smoothly (both in Europe and globally),
even as city sizes shrank and cultural repression and superstition
set in at the scale of human social and political systems. The technological
accelerations occurred in special subset of highly useful innovations,
much more local and "culturally appropriate" for the times
than the centralized engineering of the Roman era.
So it seems that a lot of technological acceleration always goes
on "under the hood" of the engine, mostly hidden from
our view, before it can develop enough sophistication to have a
meaningful effect on human problems. But the central acceleration
appears very real, and many physicists suspect it will continue
as far into the future as we can currently see. So we might benefit
a lot by studying these issues more closely. As a systems theorist,
I suspect that comparing across systems/substrates/platforms will
allow us to more easily see predictable developmental trends and
to distinguish them from the typical unpredictable evolutionary
change we see in most average samples of world events.
In sum, I feel that the best of today's professional futurists
should be selectively making falsifiable predictions as part of
their work, and then going back and analyzing their performance
against reality. Only by doing this, and by continually educating
themselves on the insights of modern science and technology, including
the emerging paradigm of evolutionary development, can we better
discover the zone of predictability, which includes not only physical
law but various types of accelerating technological change.
While I don't expect to convince many professional futurists of
this perspective in these early years of developmental future studies,
the process of idea exchange on these topics with various futurist
groups, such as the Association
of Professional Futurists, has been very beneficial.
If you are also a strategic futurist, I recommend you participate
in a least one professional community, and do your part to influence
them as they continually reengineer their standards and process
in search of better foresight and value for their clients.