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Futurology and Academia

Futurology is often derided as a pastime of trendspotters and luftmenschen. But the recent European Patent Office “Scenarios for the Future” report rehabilitated the genre a bit. I’ve mentioned before that an IP prof has to be a bit of a prognosticator; I’m happy to see Carlin Romano developing the theme (far more eloquently than I could) in this recent review of the Future of Reputation and The Future of the Internet:

Both . . . books, excellent and ultimately upbeat in their separate but related missions, will increase our literacy in their complex yet still intelligible fields. . . .”The best way to predict the future”, the US computer scientist Alan Kay remarked in 1971, “is to invent it.” Pre-emptive description, however, ranks second best. The chief identifying criterion of the future is that it continuously steps back from us, making nothing about it, strictly speaking, true or false.

Both Zittrain and Solove exhibit a common trait of technologically oriented futurists: they tend to assume current values and a wish to preserve them in the face of fresh logistical forces. [Yet] Solove’s examples, such as Jennifer Ringley, the twenty-year-old student who opened her whole life to regular webcam monitoring in 1996 and didn’t shut down until 2004, remind us of truths more explored by Frankfurt School philosophers than American futurists — that technology also changes our values, or at least adjusts them. The iPod, for instance, pressures us to tolerate forms of distraction formerly considered rude, such as the teenager who makes her purchase without removing her earphones.

Both Solove and Zittrain deserve Kierkegaard’s accolade, that to occupy oneself with the future is “an indication of man’s nobility”. Like many “cyberphilosophers”, they are discovering the future in the present with less wonted gloom and doom — and more incisive solutions — than many traditional literary and humanistic pronouncers on the subject.

As someone who has written on the ways new technology can shape values (and believes in the continuing relevance of the Frankfurt School)–I greatly appreciated Romano’s sharp review of these two important books.