The future is bad for you, and always has been

Fear of the new - a techno panic timeline

It is always the next technology which is going to precipitate social collapse. Yet somehow the social collapse has never quite happened (though maybe next time…). More than that, last year’s (or last century’s) threat to society becomes this year’s golden age.

So from a splendid compendium of moral panics by Tom Standage, we learn that:

The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge.

That was written in 1790. Today, those who attribute remarkably similar effects to computer games or to social media yearn for the golden age when children read novels instead of corrupting their minds and their morals through the pernicious influence of newer technologies (Susan Greenfield is a particularly fine example of this phenomenon – entertain yourself in passing with this useful guide to writing one of her articles).

Every time we look back, the moral panic looks ridiculous. Every time we look forward, for some it feels all too real. Can wisdom really only come with hindsight?

And yet of course, looked at another way, each of these (and many other) technology changes has precipitated a form of social collapse – but this is overwhelmingly a good thing, not a bad thing. Few of us would prefer to live in the world of 1790, free of the taint of novel reading, safe from the licentiousness of the waltz, but locked into a rigid social stratification and a world where even the richest lacked so much we take for granted. That’s not to say that social (and economic and political) disruption is pain free or to indulge in a crude teleological view of past and present. But I am pretty clear that the fact that, as I write this, my son is refining his understanding of three dimensional gravitational dynamics through the medium of Kerbal space program is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Next year keeps coming. It has done relentlessly since well before 1790, and will again a few hours from now. We are not obliged to fear the future.

All of that is prompted by a timeline illustrating the fear of the new from 1494 to 2010, of which a small part appears at the top of this post – click on it to see the whole thing. Or you can buy the book it is taken from, which is to be published next week.

History, weak

It’s history week at the Cabinet Office, a series of internal events designed to remind the current generation of policy makers both that there is always something to learn from history and that their work will become history in its turn. It being Cabinet Office, there are ways of emphasising history not open to every organisation: we sat in the room from which Churchill went out onto the balcony to announce victory in Europe to the crowds below.

But it was a couple of tables at the back of the room which prompted this post. Casually strewn across them (but not so casually that white cotton gloves were not strewn around as well) was an eclectic set of historic documents. One group were records from 1984, on their way to the National Archive to be released next year under the thirty year rule. They were in files which were visually indistinguishable from those produced decades earlier and which would continue to be produced for a decade or so longer

And I was reminded of a post I wrote three years ago about the end of the file as a unit of work organisation and the implications for our ability to know what we know. I think it still bears reading.

If progressing the work continues to diverge from creating records of what has been done, the raw material of history may be thinner in future than it has been for centuries (and history here means medium term institutional memory as much as it does the work of historians). That problem will not be solved by exhortations to do better filing: it will be solved, if at all, by tools which support what people are trying to do in the short term while quietly adding what may be needed for the longer term – which is easier said than done.

Three years on, I have seen nothing which makes me think that problem is going to go away, though I would be delighted to be told that I am wrong. Historians and policy makers will both need new skills and new tools to operate effectively in that world, with landscapes much less clearly mapped than they once were.

That’s not really the end of history, of course. As I said back then,

History will, of course, look after itself. It always has. But the future history of our time will be different from our histories of past times, and that will not be because we have an eye to the future, but because we are always relentlessly focused on the present.

When does the supermarket close?

concept shopping trolleyIn 1999, I wrote a paper with the zeal of the converted, about how online shopping was going to kill supermarkets. It wasn’t that I thought everybody would abandon them, it was that I thought most of the profitable customers would, leaving the supermarkets with high fixed costs and unsustainably low margins.

In 2009, I noted that since I had written that paper, Tesco had trebled both its turnover and its profits. That didn’t say much for my forecasting skills, but I concluded slightly folornly that perhaps it was my timing which was wrong in 1999, not my argument.

Now it’s starting to look as though I might have been right all along, with two telling news stories last week. The first is that the relentless growth of big supermarkets may have had its day:

Tesco slashed its UK expansion plans in half with around 110 development sites no longer slated to be turned into supermarkets and a further 40 plots of land next to existing stores were put on the market after store extensions were abandoned.

The second story was all in the headline: UK online grocery sales forecast to double amid shakeup of retail market.

Meanwhile, Tom Loosemore was reflecting not on predicting a change in the world, but on making one happen. It’s ten years since he and a gang of other subversives created They Work For You, which is Hansard on steroids.

In last week’s Spectator there’s an article by Peter Lilley. It is subtitled thus:  “Today’s MPs are no longer scared of the whips. Instead, they are scared of their constituents. That’s a good thing.”

The piece heralds the role TheyWorkForYou has played in helping constituents hold their MP to account.

Good.

It’s ten years since we started building TheyWorkForYou – a decade’s lag between cause and effect.

There shouldn’t be any surprise about any of this. The first electric motors were replacement steam engines. It took decades for factories to be designed around distributed power rather than centralised power. As Diana Coyle put it, ‘technologies have to be used as well as invented’, before she went on to say:

The error of hype is because new technologies often have such great wow factors. The error of not noticing profound change is precisely because many people find it hard to see the cumulative effect of all the many contextual changes needed for a technology to be widely used.

Famously, Zhou Enlai is said to have responded to a question about the significance of the French revolution by saying, ‘it’s too early to tell’.

Supermarkets are not about to start closing their doors. Parliamentary democracy is not about to collapse or even radically mutate. But the web is only twenty years old. The disruption is just beginning.

Public and strategic

JET test mock up

Most of the time, the hottest place in the solar system is the core of the sun. Some of the time, the hottest place in the solar system is tucked away in an obscure building on an anonymous industrial estate on a former airfield in rural Oxfordshire.1 There they use extreme heat and power to smash atoms together to release energy from their fusion.

This is JET, the joint European torus. It was planned forty years ago, has been operating for thirty years and, if all goes well, in another thirty years its successor’s successor will be producing electricity with virtually no fuel and virtually no waste.

It may not happen, of course. There is the old and pointed joke that nuclear fusion has been thirty years in the future for at least the last thirty years. But at Culham, the home of JET, they are adamant that the physics and maths of the problem has essentially been solved. All that is left is engineering and scaling up. As Brian Cox put it a few years ago

What frustrates me is that we know how to do it as physicists, how it works. It is an engineering solution that is within our grasp. I don’t understand why we don’t seem to want it enough at the moment.

If – or when – it does work at commercial scale, the potential impact is enormous. For all practical purposes, the fuel needed is unlimited and the waste produced insignificant.

This then is strategy of the grandest kind. And it is a profoundly public strategy. Compared with the normal range of a blog which claims to be about public strategy, this is heady stuff. I don’t understand the physics and engineering here much beyond the level needed to have my mind thoroughly boggled, but I like to think I know a bit about public strategies. I spent three fascinating hours touring JET and MAST2 at Culham last week – anybody can go, though the tickets are hotter than Glastonbury, so you have to book months in advance.

So here are a public strategist’s reflections on fusion, prompted by my visit.

1. Ambition measured in decades

It is a frequently heard criticism of governments that they are incorrigibly short term in their thinking, driven by electoral cycles and by ministers’ knowing that they are unlikely to be in post to see the consequences of their decisions. There are plenty of examples people can point to of that, and they often do. You can mount an argument that the public sector is very bad at deciding and pursuing long term strategic goals, but it’s had to deny that there are some kinds of long term goals which only governments pursue at all. The symptom of that is often commercial viability, but that’s a measure of uncertainty more than anything else.3

NeutraliserWhat only governments can do is long term challenges where the goal may be clear, but the method for approaching it is not. The most famous example of that is the space programme. In a post mainly prompted by one of the most extraordinary pictures to come from that whole endeavour, I quoted Bruce Baugh making exactly that point.

This is a statist venture from beginning to end, and demonstrates the ability of the modern regulatory state to undertake and complete large useful scientific endeavors. There is, so far, simply nothing comparable in the corporate sector, and it’s worth keeping in mind that when people talk about doing away with any but the most minimal state, this is one of the things that’d be done away with along with someone favorite caricature of the pork barrel.

It’s not that it’s logically or conceptually impossible that a mission like this could happen any other way. It’s just that three hundred years in to the industrial revolution and nobody’s yet done this kind of thing any other way. And that’s worth noting along with sheer wonder of the achievement itself.

It isn’t yet clear that the bet on fusion power will pay off, though the odds are looking considerably better than they once did. But is clear that without a public strategy, the bet would never have been placed and, whatever the potential, we would never have known if it could be realised.

2. Sustaining public support

The fact that only governments can make long expensive bets on the distant future doesn’t mean that they can do it readily or easily. In public policy terms there are two fundamental requirements. The first is sufficient wealth to make the investment at all. The second is sufficient public support to allow it to be made.

In the case of fusion power the first requirement is managed by spreading the cost. The ‘E’ in JET is for ‘European’. Its replacement, being built in France, will effectively be global. The second requirement is in some ways more interesting. At a time when governments around the world are making painful Lone workingchoices about expenditure, continuing to pay the stake on a thirty year bet may look indulgent. So why do it? I suspect that there is no single tidy answer to that. Some of it could be about devolved decision making to bodies such as the EPRSC and the availability of supra-national funding through EURATOM. Some of it may be an element of double or quits – that having spent so much time and money getting this far, it would be foolish to throw in the towel just when it might be getting somewhere. Some of it may be simple obscurity. Some of though is clearly trying to influence people to look favourably on what they do -which I appreciate, since it is presumably why they offer visits in the first place.

3. Simplicity of purpose

Perhaps the most famous mission goal in history was set by President Kennedy in 1961:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

A year later he further boosted the political weight behind Apollo, and positioned it as a defining moment for the national psyche.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Nobody has pulled off anything quite like that before or since. The strength of Kennedy’s position was not that he was executing a well defined plan. There was no plan, and there couldn’t be, because nobody knew how to set about the Power indicatortask. But the goal was impossibly aspirational, absolutely precise – and very simple.4

Fusion research shares some of those characteristics, though without the advantage of inspirational speeches from US presidents. The goal is clear and its achievement will be unambiguous: either a fusion reactor produces sustainable net power or it doesn’t. The principle of how it should work was clear as soon as the audacious idea of mimicking the sun was formed. But what actually needed to be done to make it work in practice cannot have been at all clear at the outset. Having a clear plan is invaluable. But a strategy based on simplicity of purpose is critical.

4. Pragmatism of delivery

Grand visions of simple strategic purposes may be essential, but they don’t deliver anything, as any inventor of a perpetual motion machine will eventually tell you. Lewis Carroll nailed the basic principle of strategic delivery well over a hundred years ago:

Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.

Vessel EarthDelivery is relentless pragmatic and prosaic. There is no glamour at Culham, there is nothing futuristic.5 A lot of the ancillary equipment looks dated and a bit shabby – though mostly reassuringly solid. This is down to earth steady progress built on foundations of robust engineering.6

Strategic fusion

What, if anything, can we learn from all of that for public strategy?

On the face of it, an obvious conclusion might be that programmes such as this are so exceptional in their length and complexity that there are few if any lessons to apply to the more mundane tasks of government. If those were the strategically distinctive characteristics of the fusion programme, there might be little more to be said.

But while those are the most obvious characteristics, I am not sure that they are really the most distinctive. What really stands out is the combination of precision of purpose and painstaking pragmatism in achieving that purpose. There are very good reasons why political goals and decision making rarely reach that level of simple clarity – but all the more reason to keep that as a standard to aspire to.

All pictures were taken on the visit – more can be found here.

 

  1. On some accounts, it is the hottest place in the universe. But there is no need to quibble about details.
  2. MAST is the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak. Tokamak is a contraction of тороидальная камера с магнитными катушками (toroidal’naya kamera s magnitnymi katushkami — toroidal chamber with magnetic coils), abbreviated in the Russian style by syllables rather than initial letters. So MAST is a Russian contraction nested in an English acronym. It probably reveals too much to say that I am entertained by that.
  3. For a powerful recent example, read this essay by Tim Heffernan about the future of copper mining, “When working out the cost-benefit analyses of new developments, mining firms look ahead a quarter of a century and more. Their potential investments measure in the tens of billions of dollars; their calculations, understandably, err on the side of caution.” That sounds like – and is – an enormous undertaking But it is a bounded one: the challenge is not that the problem of getting copper out of the ground is not understood, it is the massive and sustained programme management needed to do it in a way which is profitable in the long term.
  4. Of course it was also deeply rooted in the cold war. Kennedy wanted to conquer space in no small part because he feared that the Russians would control space and thus earth as well.
  5. On the contrary, there are orange carpet tiles.
  6. Turning JET on briefly draws 2% of total national grid capacity (so is carefully timed not to coincide with the end of Coronation Street) and because even that is not enough, has two enormous flywheels acting as mechanical batteries. That sort of power engineering is just one example of the infrastructure needed before the fancy stuff can even begin.

This was the unknowable future once

Looking for something else, I have just stumbled across some notes I took from a book I was reading almost exactly ten years ago (and which had been published that year). Normally I try hard to give proper attribution to quotations, but this time it might be kinder not to:

It seems clear that, unlike mainframes, PCs and the internet, mobile systems are not going to become the dominant platform anytime soon, and are unlikely to fundamentally alter the way that businesses and other organisations are run.  In other words, despite all that can and will be done with mobile systems, the wired internet will remain the more important economic force.

If forced to make a choice, how many of us would give up our PCs and keep our Palm Pilot, Pocket PC or screen phone?  Not many I think.  And it is this inherent subordination that makes it hard for wireless systems to become the IT industry’s overall centre of gravity.

It’s easy to point and laugh. But I don’t think I wrote those lines down because I thought them self-evidently stupid – though I can’t actually remember, so I may be underestimating my own prescience. More importantly, it prompts a nagging question: which of the assumptions we make today will look like folly by 2023?

The same set of notes also has a line from Clay Shirky (the source of which has survived, rather to my surprise):

Whenever people see a numerical measurement, they will change their behavior to increase the numbers, no matter what they are, or whether they have any intrinsic value.

That one feels rather more timeless. That’s not altogether surprising. Human nature is rather more constant than the tools through which we express it.

Imagining the future

There is a lot of pseudo-scientific claptrap published about the future. There are people who carefully extrapolate trends, construct complex scenarios, weight many outcomes, some of whom necessarily get some things right through sheer chance, but many of whom appear to rely on nobody checking back from the future to see how well they did.

The future doesn’t have to be analysed, of course. It can also be imagined. Some imaginings are pure and unashamed fantasy. Others are based on thoughtful consideration of what the not very distant future might look like, based on the often overlooked premise that ‘the future is going to be like the present, only with extra layers’ – though tempered by the earlier thought from the same author that ‘trying to second-guess the near future is increasingly impossible’.

But imagination is not just for science fiction writers. More than a little surprisingly, Consult Hyperion, who describe themselves as ‘thought leaders in digital money and digital identity’ organise an annual competition ‘to develop links between the financial industry and creative practitioners from around the world’.

This year’s challenge was to design a future financial crime. I got to see the shortlisted entries being presented last week, and they have now been published online. I was particularly taken with the eventual winner, Bigshot:

What happens at the convergence of Anonymous Routing, Crypto-Anarchy and Crowd Funding?

In 2013, the individual is capable of wielding more power than ever before. The proliferation of anonymous, web based technologies will enable this yield exponentially, creating the potential for devious criminal activity on a scale never before possible. Imagine a world where dangerous minds have a public platform to solicit support from anyone with an internet connection.

That world is imagined in this video – well worth three minutes of your time.

As well as being an entertaining piece of dystopian thinking, I think it’s worth thinking about the approach more generally. Kudos to Dave Birch and the Consult Hyperion team for having the imagination and confidence for introducing this kind of experimental creativity into a sector not renowned for it. But the cross fertilisation of business strategy and creative arts has equal potential elsewhere. Back in 2006, I noted the splendid performance of the Helsinki Complaints Choir, which does precisely what the name suggests (and is worth another eight minutes). And in a sense, this reframing of the context, forcing a different view of an issue, is what service designers do as, for example, this extract from Snook’s principles shows:

We generate innovative concepts by making space, mentally and physically to be creative and take risks. Design is not just about incremental change and service design but about systems and transformation.

It would be great to apply artistic creativity more widely to understand the futures we might build and the futures which might create the environment in which we build. Perhaps Bigshot will give us the means to crowdsource it.

Marginal changes and macro impacts

Fifteen years ago, I predicted the demise of the supermarket. Four years ago, I noted that that hadn’t turned out to be the greatest of predictions:

I wasn’t quite daft enough to think that everybody was going to do their food shopping online.  My argument was slightly more subtle, though it has so far proved no less wrong:  it was that enough of the cash-rich, time-poor customers from whom supermarkets make most of their profits would defect to make the job of serving the lower-margin customers insufficiently profitable to sustain the overheads of large sheds with even larger car parks wrapped round them.  As it turned out, Tesco roughly trebled both its turnover and its profits between 1999 and 2007, which demonstrates fairly clearly that they know more about running whelk stalls than I do.

Now Andrew Curry has written two interesting posts about the collapse of HMV and some of its wider implications, in which he points out that:

In passing, some of the lazier commentary on HMV points out that younger people don’t tend to buy hard-format entertainment content. But hard format sales of CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray still account for three-quarters of the market. And if you’re in a declining sector, the decline is going to be slower if your remaining market is an older demographic that has more money than younger consumers do.

Now clearly there are two kinds of internet disruption in the music industry and only one for groceries: the physical object can be bought from an online retailer (which, as Andrew notes, was the basis of the Channel Islands tax scam); or the object can be dispensed with altogether and and the product downloaded in pure electronic form. In the interest of scientific rigour in the writing of this post, I have just downloaded a CD (or rather, of course, not a CD, though I am not sure what other word to use instead) from Amazon. It took 91 seconds. That’s not a level of instant gratification which Ocado is ever going to be able to beat.

But even with that important distinction between sellers of inherently physical goods and sellers of potentially virtual goods, the basic gearing effect remains interesting. HMV, Andrew points out

still sells 38% of all hard-format music and 27% of all DVD and Blu-Ray discs. These are market shares that are conventionally regarded as being monopoly levels. So there’s something dysfunctional about an economy in which a retailer with this sort of share can’t make sustainable profits.

In effect, it seems that there is a level or rate of reduction of demand which retailers struggle to adapt to, even if on the face of it there is still plenty of business to be done. And while established retailers might struggle, as incumbent players generally do, to adapt to radically changing circumstances, there’s not much sign of upstart competitors filling the space either.

It’s hardly surprising that you don’t have to lose anything close to all your customers for your business to become unviable. What may be more surprising is how small the drop needs to be before the issue becomes critical.

Public services don’t tend to have quite those pressures and quite those metrics. The pursuit of channel shift is core to the government’s strategy, not a threat to be avoided. And yet. How many potential HMVs are there scattered around the public sector? And how many of those are managing to become John Lewises instead?

 

 

Infrastructure, superstructure and not enough sockets

It can be hard to reverse bad decisions. It can be hard to recover from having failed to anticipate the future. It can be hard not having enough power sockets in hotel rooms.

There is an old (but sadly discredited) story that the design of Roman chariots constrained the design of the space shuttle. It would be a good story if it were more true, but it’s still quite a good story even if it’s not true at all. It is undoubtedly the case that the decisions we make today will constrain the choices available to be made in the future, just as it is true that decisions made in the past constrain the choices we have today.

Sarah Baskerville didn’t like her hotel room in Dundee. I understand and have shared her frustration that power sockets are few in number and badly placed in far too many hotel rooms. But the problem isn’t – or isn’t just – cheap hotel rooms, it is that fixed wiring tends to be around for much longer than the pattern of usage it is designed to support. The most extreme case in my house is a room with eight wall sockets which between them currently power over thirty devices, but this too is an instance of a more general rule. To adapt (I think) Brad DeLong, you need more power sockets even after you allow for the fact that you need more power sockets. The clear corollary of that rule is that you will always run out.

The wiring of a hotel room doesn’t need to have been specified all that long ago to feel grossly inadequate now (and often, in my experience, as much about location as absolute number, making short term fixes even harder).

We are used to the flexibility of software and increasingly of devices – of the superstructure of modern living. We want that flexibility to extend to infrastructure, but on the whole it can’t, or can’t without considerable expense, which amounts to much the same thing.

That isn’t a new or gadget specific problem. We can’t have air conditioning on the underground because the way the tunnels were specified over a hundred years ago means there is no room for it. Cyclists dice with death on the streets of London because of a consistent design philosophy which gives precedence to cars and in which billions have been invested. We use copper cable to carry data not because it’s a good way of doing it, but because it’s the installed way of doing it – and it takes superhuman efforts to overcome the inertia of the installed base.

We just have to deal with the problems inflicted on us by those who went before us. Is there anything we can do to avoid inflicting similar problems on those who follow us? Probably not, as that’s the same as asking whether we can predict the future but not be caught out by unforeseen discontinuities – it could happen, but it almost certainly won’t. As Charlie Stross puts it

The near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.

If hotel room designers had paid more attention to the 9%, it might be easier to plug in all the gadgets. But in a hotel room generation’s time (however long that may be), when there are wall to wall power points, perhaps we will be in a 9% zone where we won’t need any of them any more, or even in a 1% zone where there some means of storing and transmitting power which makes the whole infrastructure utterly redundant.

So what can we do, beyond reminding ourselves yet again of the wisdom of Yogi Berra (or perhaps somebody else) that it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future? We can attempt to insulate different layers of architecture from each other, to minimise the extent that the faster moving are constrained by the slower moving. We can increase the speed of obsolescence and renewal, trading modernity for hard cash. We can do more to ensure that design thinking reflects the 9% as well as the 90%, though again at a cost, since some of the 9% will never go mainstream. We can choose to give our money to hoteliers with more sockets and better wifi than their competitors.

But in the end, perhaps all we can do is try more explicitly to counter our tendency to get the balance wrong in how we look at the very near and slightly further futures. As Roy Amara, who played a big part in putting thinking about the future onto a more rigorous basis, put it:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.