What is Futurism anyway?

October 21, 2012

Tonight I attended a party to celebrate the recent marriage of a friend.  I found myself being asked over and over again: “So what is Futurism anyway?”  I couldn’t resist responding that that it was an art movement in Italy around the early 1900’s.  I do actually like a lot of futurist art.  They often tried to depict this sense of motion to capture the frenetic pace of modern life.  I am not too into the violence and fascism though.

But then I had to get serious and come up with a decent answer.  And that is why it’s a good idea to hang out with people outside your scene sometimes.  It forces to you articulate ideas that you often take for granted.  So I would say things like: Futurism is thinking about the future and wondering about what will happen.  Science Fiction is futurism.  Futurist consider the idea that technology is accelerating exponentially and ask what the consequences might be.

And a lot of people responded quite positively to this.  People feel these changes around them.  The impact of automation on jobs is becoming more evident.  We talked about the importance of education in these changing times and how budget cuts and skyrocketing college costs are putting kids into indentured servitude.  We talked about how China might come to rule the world. I trotted out my standard bearish comments regarding China’s corrupt financial system and it’s lack of transparency and rule of law.

A scientist who recently drank the Kurzweillian kool-aid and had actually visited China was part of this discussion.  He mentioned that systems with different paths to accomplish similar ends were more stable.  I took this to be an endorsement of pluralism and I complained that China’s police state doesn’t allow for this.  Another guest chimed in that top down rule can’t work and bottom up societies have more ideas.  But our newly minted Singularitarian friend countered that the Chinese rulers carefully tweak the different elements of society, allowing more freedom in certain areas and restricting it in others.  I don’t understand how this system can possibly work, but it’s hard to argue with the growth numbers.  (Well the specific numbers are probably fudged but there has clearly been lots of growth.)

I talked to another fellow who was into machine learning and who had doubts about the whole Deep Learning project that Norvig was recently crowing about at the Singularity Summit.  His opinion was that Deep Learning has been around for a while and that any recent success of the algorithms might be getting conflated with the benefits conferred by big data.  He said that other algorithms should be tested against this big data to see if they perform almost as well.  He mentioned support vector machines as one alternative, but these seem to require labeled training data, which Deep Learning doesn’t require.  So arguably, Deep Learning is nicer to have when evaluating big unlabeled data sets.  Anyway, when I asked Monica Anderson, she endorsed Deep Learning as being a thing, so I remain impressed for the time being.

My Deep Learning skeptic friend was also wary of Quantified Self.  I think his point was that over-quantification was being slowly forced upon people.  This hilarious scenario of ordering a pizza in the big data future immediately came to mind.  But as much as I love the ACLU, I don’t have much faith that they can protect us against big data.  I actually think that being into QS might better prepare people to deal with big data’s oppression.  At least QS’ers become more aware that personal data can tell a story and they are exploring how some of these stories can be self-constructed.  Hopefully this will help us navigate a future where nothing is private.

A recurring theme when thinking about the future is that humans will somehow get left behind as technological progress skyrockets beyond our comprehension.  A lot of humans are already getting left behind, economically and technologically.  Someone who can’t use search is at a massive disadvantage to everyone that can.  I try to be positive sometimes and point out that mobile devices are spreading throughout the developing world or that humans can augment to keep up with change.  But while we may live in an age of declining violence, I can see why some would still complain of sociopathic corporate actors and the policies being promoted that withdraw a helping hand from those in need.

At one point in the evening, toasts were made to the newlyweds and a passage by CS Lewis celebrating love was read.  I looked around as the various couples reacted to the emotional piece and I thought of my own girlfriend.  I thought about how we had been through death and madness.  Yet we managed to stay together, supporting one another, loving each other after all these years.  I thought about how deeply lucky we are to have one another.  I felt great happiness for these newlyweds with the courage to undertake this struggle for love.  I know us futurists can be cold, almost autistic in our dispassionate rationality, but it may well be love and empathy that will serve us best in the coming future where so little is certain.

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