Welcome to the InfoWorld Futures Project interviews—a series of in-depth discussions with members of the InfoWorld Futures Board, a distinguished group of leaders in technology, communications, science, publishing, advertising, and more.
Our first interview is with Paul Saffo, director at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, CA. Paul is an extremely knowledgeable and widely respected observer of the evolution of technology. His views are frequently quoted by journalists who are seeking a broad view of the meaning of current developments in the field. Paul has been spending the past year on sabbatical at Stanford University exploring the history of past technologies as a means of better understanding the present. Paul is also very articulate about what a “futurist” can and cannot do, and the value of having a long-range perspective in a time of rapid change.
Conducting the interviews is Richard Adler, InfoWorld’s Futurist in Residence. Richard is the president of People and Technology, a research and consulting firm in Palo Alto, CA. He was previously a program director at the Institute for the Future and associate director of the Aspen Institute Program on Communications and Society. He has taught communications at Stanford, UCLA, and the University of San Francisco. He is the author of a number of books and studies on new media, including a forthcoming report on The Future of Advertising.
Adler: We’re in Palo Alto, California. I’m with Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future and this is the first of a series of interviews for the InfoWorld Futures Project.
Paul, how do you describe what you do at the Institute for the Future?
Saffo: Well, I’m a forecaster, which means I’m not a futurist and I do not predict. My job is to map a “cone of uncertainty” that spreads out from the present at any given moment of time or any given topic, and say what lies within it.
The reason why it’s forecasting and not predicting is predicting assumes a deterministic universe. God has a plan that’s all written out, all you can do is get an advance peek at the plan. But why bother peeking since you can’t change it?
Forecasting assumes that the cone of uncertainty is also the cone of possibility, that by thinking logically about what likely outcomes might be, one can influence those outcomes for better or worse. And so our job is mapping that uncertainty to help people understand what is possible.
Adler: Most businesses in this country these days seem to be operating in fairly short time-frames. And with the advent of computers and the Internet, that time-frame seems to be getting shorter and shorter. In fact, I was reading about a company that does its “annual business plan” quarterly, and now they’ve moved to doing their annual plan monthly because things change so fast.
What is the value of taking a longer-term view of the future in an environment like this, and how do you go about getting beyond that short-term perspective?
Saffo: Well, a longer view of things is like the artificial horizon on an airplane—it’s an important instrument to use to keep a sense of where you’re coming from and how your direction is changing. With events pushing up right against our noses, it’s easy to lose sense of long-term direction, trapped in a constant reactive mode. Looking at the long-term, getting a broader horizon on things, is a way of not losing one’s direction. But it also has practical impacts.
Getting Out of the Box
Adler: You have said we are in a period where “everything is changing, everything is up for grabs, and nothing makes any sense.” How do you go about getting a coherent view of the future in an environment that’s like that?
Saffo: Well, no problem can ever be solved within the same frame of reference within which it’s posed. And by taking a long-term view, you’re automatically forcing yourself to think outside the box. And things that seem to make no sense on a breaking news basis, if you set them in a larger context, very often they suddenly fit and patterns become clear.
So when there’s a breaking event, I ask: What are its implications 20 years from now? And conversely, here’s an event or a trend which will only mature 20 years from now, but what does that mean for Monday? What are the whisperings of change that come down from the future and influence what we can be doing in the short run? So just thinking long-term automatically changes the context of identifying issues and solving problems. It’s the easiest way there is to think out of the box there is.
Adler: From your experience, what are the kind of mistakes that you find people typically make, or that you might make when you try to envision the future?
Saffo: What we do at the Institute is just apply common sense. There is no black art to our business. It is the same logical, common sense that everybody uses everyday of their lives.
When you buy a house, and you decide between a fixed rate mortgage and an adjustable mortgage, without explicitly realizing it you are making an informed forecast of the long-term prospects for the United States economy. Even if you’re planning to refinance, you’re still staying, “Here’s where the economy’s headed long-term.”
And you look out the window at the weather and that’s the classic common sense forecast. So what we do is a more systematic and disciplined form of the common sense forecasting that everybody does.
Now the secret to my business is that what I really am is a historian of technology who spends most of his time examining technologies that don’t exist yet because…
Adler: What does that mean?
Saffo: How technologies diffuse in this society—which is a fancy way of saying how people adopt technology—has not changed substantially in four centuries. Things seem like they’ve changed a lot because we’re by nature fascinated with the novel…it’s a common greeting to go up to someone and say, “Hey, what’s new?” Well, when you look real carefully at “what’s new,” you realize that what’s new is the thinnest veneer resting atop a vast mass of what’s old and what hasn’t changed.
And the moment you recognize that the change that fascinates us is occurring as a thin layer atop a large body of things that have not changed, that completely changes the way you think about forecasting. Because it means you have to pay lots of attention to the constants. The way to understand what’s changing is to first understand the constants.
No One Wants Information
Adler: Give me a couple examples of some of the constants.
Saffo: The most constant is human behavior. You know, at some level, what we all want is expressed by the Maslovian hierarchy of shelter and security and comfort and the ability to associate with other people. And it can be translated out: for example in the information environment that here is a clear hierarchy of consumer desires.
The dirty little secret in the information revolution is that nobody wants information for its own sake, ever. At the top of the hierarchy [of what people want] is entertainment. I mean, we will do just about anything at any time to amuse, divert and entertain ourselves. You know, go on vacations where we get soaking wet and put up with the inconvenience of camping out. We’ll entertain ourselves just about any time.
A distant second is communications. Talking to other people. Third is transactions – buying and selling things. Information is a distant fourth, or maybe even fifth.
Once you have a sense of the hierarchy, the trick to making the things that are lower on the hierarchy desirable to consumers is to push them up. The stock page is boring unless you want stocks. If you want stocks, it becomes a support for a transaction later. A telephone book is not very exciting unless you’re trying to reach a friend to communicate. And some of the most boring activities actually become entertainment. For example, to me, watching train cars go past on a train line is about as lethally dull as I can imagine. But there are great numbers of hobbyists who devote large parts of their time looking at train cars going past as a hobby.
The most important rule [of forecasting] I actually learned as a small child was from an old cowboy where I was raised. He taught me to never mistake a clear view for a short distance. Just because something seems terribly obvious and terribly necessary does not mean it’s going to happen quickly. Think of all the things we’re still waiting for that seemed so obvious in 1980.
Technology and Change
Adler: You’ve said before that computers and communications come more and more into the forecasts of the Institute. Is technology driving change now? I mean, is that different from before?
Saffo: No. It’s my belief that technology does not drive change. Technology merely enables changes. It creates options and opportunities that as individuals and as communities and as entire cultures we choose to exploit. And it’s our response to the technologies that drive change. In other words, first we invent our technologies and then we use our technologies to reinvent ourselves…our families, our societies, and our entire cultures.
Adler: Can you give an example of how we do that?
Saffo: We do it by adoption. It’s by choosing to buy something or not to buy something or use it.
The great variety of ways in which technology is used in different cultures is a case in point. Take something like pagers: they are used one way by cardiac surgeons and doctors; used another way by housewives and kids. In Shanghai, before cell phones caught on, everybody wrote little code books of numeric codes, and they sent each other numeric code pages. Here if you get a page you know it’s a phone number. There you get a page, you say, “That’s not a phone number; that’s a code.” And you look in your little code to see what it means.
Adler: So, it might mean something like “I’ll meet you six o’clock at the coffee shop.”
Saffo: Right. So something as simple as a pager is extraordinarily diverse in its uses.
Mass Movements and Cultural Manias
Adler: Other than technology, what other forces do you really keep your eye on in terms of bringing about change?
Saffo: Well, I am a technology forecaster, so what I am really doing is following the ripples of technology outwards as they move through different elements in society. In a sense what I really am is a cultural anthropologist studying information technology. As such, I do pay a lot of attention to mass movements and cultural manias.
If there is a single book that everyone should read to make sense of the year 2000, it is that pre-Victorian classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay. It’s still in print. In fact, it was the book-of-the-week choice for Amazon earlier this year.
There’s a wonderful sentence in the forward to the edition, I think, of 1856, that said, “Men, it has been well said, go mad in crowds and only come to their senses slowly and one by one.”
Adler: And there aren’t a lot of opportunities to be alone these days.
Saffo: True. You know, we’re performing a great unwitting experiment on ourselves. While we pay lip service to our Constitution, the simple fact is that privacy is disappearing, but not in a way we expected. It’s not that privacy will go away completely. It’s just that privacy is becoming steadily less a right and steadily more a commodity, an ever scarcer commodity that we buy and sell at a price.
For example, if you want to buy something and you want to be sure that transaction is private and confidential, you use cash. But there’s a price you pay: first, it’s the inconvenience of getting the cash; secondly, it’s the danger of carrying the cash around; and third, if you go into a store that you have a frequent buyer’s club membership in, well, you can’t get your buyer’s club if you want to remain anonymous. We’re getting to the point where in some parts of the world, cash is getting ever harder to use.
Adler: So do you think that privacy is an obsolete or obsolescent concept in this world?
Saffo: I think that privacy as a concept has been a moving target for a very long time. There are already different notions of what is the focus of the privacy. In Western society, we’re obsessed with the rights of individuals. In other cultures, it’s the privacy of the community, and the individual is subordinate.
You see a similar sort of thing in the evolution of capitalism today. What we’re really seeing, ever since the collapse of the former Soviet Republics, is that the new battleground is no longer between capitalism and a completely different system, but among different dialects of capitalism. And we’re seeing a species radiation of different capitalist forms that emphasize different cultural units.
In the United States we have a form of entrepreneurial capitalism that is really typified by Silicon Valley: the lone entrepreneur, the small company. But emphasis on the individual above all. What you see in Japan is a capitalism that is more Confucian in nature, emphasizing the community. And yet a different form of capitalism is emerging in China. It’s extraordinary how much diversity there can be to even the simplest of ideas and technologies.
Adler: And do you think capitalism is the wave of the future in its glorious diversity, or is there something beyond that?
Saffo: Capitalism as we know it will disappear as it reinvents itself. Being adopted by others will cause a species mutation if capitalism is going to survive and grow and become the foundation later for the global economy of the next 100 years. But in so becoming it will probably also become something that is unrecognizable to, say, John Kenneth endangered species.
Adler: One of the impacts of technology that has been talked about a lot lately is the abolishment of the need for intermediaries. With technology, you’ll be able to go from the manufacturer or the creator of a product directly to the end user and you’ll be able to squash down the distribution channel. Is this how you see the evolution of the distribution channel?
Saffo: Absolutely not. Conventional wisdom is almost always wrong. Barely three years ago, for example, people were talking about how the Internet was the death of advertising…and they were saying this with a straight face. It did not take a rocket scientist to spend a minute or two of reflection to say, “No, this is actually a full employment act for advertising.” In an information-overloaded world, where information is moving ever more quickly, you’re ever more reliant on indicia of predictability, reliability, and interest. I’ts athe re-invention of advertising.
The latest conventional wisdom idea is that computers eliminate middlemen. There’s even a word for it: disintermediation. It’s a term that was coined in England in the ’70s during banking deregulation and then spread to the United States in our banking deregulation. It was a terrible term back then; it’s an even worse term when applied to network-based economies.
Disintermediation is a mirage. It only seems real if you take a static view of the economy. It is true that we’re casting out old middlemen who cannot adapt to the new networked environment. But we’re putting in new middlemen and more middlemen than before, because computers make transaction costs cheaper. What happens when you lower the price of something? You do more, not less. The real process here is, forgive me, disinter-remediation. You’re disintermediating old players, intermediating new players…and those include a couple of old players who reinvent themselves.
A good example happened in book selling with the founding of Amazon.com. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, had a vision of selling books in a way that was never done before. And he went from zero to hundreds of millions of dollars [in sales] literally overnight because he saw a niche that everybody else had missed. And he did it by breaking all the old rules of book selling. And that threatened the established book sellers and the largest one—Barnes & Noble—was most threatened. They tried to first buy Amazon. Couldn’t buy it. Then tried to knock it out by a strategically timed lawsuit just as Amazon went public. And now they’re building a Web page of their own.
This is the genius and the secret about disinter-remediation: information systems complexify. They open new niches, create new opportunities, and make space for more players who could never play before. If you had a personal Web page you could do the following: Say the new book by John Seely Brown comes out and you say, “Fabulous book!” And on your Web page you have a list of your favorite books, and one is John Seely Brown’s Computers and Organization, whatever it is. And next to it you have a button that says “buy this.” And I visit your Web page, I look at that, and I say, “Well, if Richard likes that book, it’s probably pretty cool. I’ll buy it.” I push “buy it” it takes me straight into Amazon where his book is. I buy it, they capture your URL and you get 6% of what I pay Amazon for John Seely Brown’s book.
Adler: It’s all those links that are creating a new Web of relationship, of economic relationships.
Saffo: That’s why there are more intermediaries. Transaction costs drop and there are more links than ever. But this is also a case in point of why nothing’s new. I can give you plenty of examples from the 20th Century that would utterly convince you that computers intermediate and that there will be more middle players. But I can go back to the late closing years of the 1400s and early 1500s and demonstrate conclusively how a different information technology, that based on the printing press, did exactly the same thing in the old towns of northern Italy.
The printing press literally moved the focus of knowledge from the cathedral to the marketplace. And it’s imbedded in our language. The modern language of commerce all traces its roots to words that began to be used in that period: credit, discount, value, net price, to pick a few. Credito, valudo, desagio, neto all were invented in the hill towns of northern Italy in that period.
Think what you need as a cornerstone for modern mercantile capitalism. You need a class of numerate businessman. Before that, the equivalent of shopkeeper’s math was the exclusive province of princes and their advisors. The commoners didn’t have it. They got it, and they were off and running. There was an explosion in transactional forms in the closing years of the 1400s. Modern commercial paper, letters of credit, letters of excise all come from that period of time.
Adler: So what is the equivalent set of skills today? Is it something to do with digital literacy translated into where we are?
Saffo: Just as the de Medicis relied on a then new-fangled form of information technology called double entry bookkeeping in order to keep track of their wealth and an information overload in the 1500s, today it’s rocket scientists applying…so-called rocket scientists on Wall Street applying chaos theory. The tools this time are C++, HTML, complexity theory.
The Phantom Computer
Adler: Are we past the personal computer revolution? Are we on to the next thing?
Saffo: The importance we give the personal computer is actually an artifact of a tendency to confuse cause and effect. The personal computer revolution in one sense never really happened, because the personal computer was merely an artifact of processors cheap enough to put one on everyone’s desk. The PC was a symbol of the new processing democracy that suddenly we could have access to it.
If you think about it, what we call the PC computer is this mutable cloud. It’s a moving target. Once upon a time in the early ’80s, it was defined by what it processed for us. As networks became ubiquitous and now especially with the Internet, it’s defined by what it connects us to. And the only thing that stayed the same is the general shape of the box on our desk.
So the personal computer is really a phantom. And in general, it’s an important phantom for another reason, which is the importance of any given computer in our lives in an inverse function to its visibility. If you can see it, it ain’t important.
It’s a little bit like Blanche Dubois who says, “I always rely on the kindness of strangers.” We are completely and utterly dependent upon the smooth functioning of machines that we never imagined existed. I could walk into your office, take a sledge hammer, smash your desktop machine, and after a moment of shock, you’d pull out a pad of paper and pick up your phone and go right back to work.
But if I went down to the local phone office and smashed their ESS-7 switch, your work would come to a grinding halt. And life would be even more miserable if I went and smashed the computers controlling the power grid that supplies power to your house or that pumps the water out of the Sierras to your local water district. The machines we can see are unimportant; it’s the invisible computers that really matter. Which is why personal computers are sort of a distraction.
Adler: But how do we account for its allure? Is it the sense of power that it gives us because we controlled our own technology that we could turn off and turn on without asking anybody’s permission?
Saffo: Right. Henry Adams wrote that wonderful essay 100 years ago, “The Virgin and the Dynamo.” The virgin and the great dynamo that he saw at the great exposition in England were both extraordinarily potent symbols. The personal computer may be the most potent technological symbol of this century, even though it arrived so late. More so that even television.
Adler: What does it symbolize? What is that power?
Saffo: It symbolizes personal control. TV delivered the world to our living rooms but all we could do was press our nose against the glass and watch. The computer allows us to not only see the world delivered before us, but to reach out and touch the rest of the world beyond. And that’s the important part.
Adler: Or to go into a sim-city or sim-world and actually be in control.
Saffo: Yes, as a god. You can have Seven League boots, suspend the laws of physics or, as that wonderful saying of Yahoo is, “we help you waste your time more efficiently.”
The Age of Sensors
Adler: Another major change that you see coming has to do with bringing the analog world in closer alliance with the digital world. What is that about?
Saffo: The ’80s were shaped by cheap microprocessors. It was a processing revolution. The ’90s were shaped by cheap lasers, delivering lots of bandwidth over fiber optic lines and more optical storage, and that triggered an access revolution which we’re in today. Just as the personal computer was a symbol of the ’80s, the symbol of the ’90s is the World Wide Web.
Well, the next shift, the next nonlinear shift, is going to be the advent of cheap sensors—eyes, ears and sensory organs for our computers and our networks. And that is a profound change.
Today we have two parallel universes: an analog world that is loosely called reality and largely is, everywhere except here in California; and a digital world of our creation. And those worlds barely touch. Our machines occupy the digital world and have no idea that wrapped around them is this analog reality. Your desktop machine can’t see out. It can’t see anything. It doesn’t know if you’re there or not.
Imagine something so simple as putting a video camera on your personal computer so it says, “Oh, Richard just left the room. I can turn myself off.” Or you walk in the room and it turns itself on. But what we’re about to do is put eyes, ears and sensory on our devices and allow them to look into the analog world around them. And we don’t really know what goes on in the digital world. We stare at it through the port-holes of our screen, but we really don’t know. And we’re pushing those worlds together with a very wildly unpredictable result.
One thing is for sure: people who fret about computers being central in our lives today…they ain’t seen nothing yet. Worrying about how central computers are in our lives today, compared to what they will be 10-20 years from now, is going to look as ridiculous as someone in 1965 saying how utterly dependent they were on computers because mainframes with punchcards were doing payrolls.
Computers have barely begun to penetrate our lives. There are big surprises ahead. This year we’ve been obsessed with that oldest of computer canards, when is a machine intelligent? I think it’s impossible to build a machine to be intelligent unless it has an awareness of the physical world. It is that awareness of the physical world that will push a device from being a collection of circuits to being something that we would call sentient. And my suspicion is when that intelligent device emerges, it will be completely by surprise and not by design.
Adler: It seems to me that machines are going to have to be a lot more sophisticated in how they interpret what they’re looking at, because right now they can barely discern a face or a signature.
Saffo: Well, I’m not an expert in the subject, but I follow the canons of the artificial life community that a comparatively small number of circuits, comparatively small number of features can yield what they call emergent behavior, something that is surprising and unpredictable. So I don’t think you need a monster computer, but I also am certain that long before we have computers intelligent enough to make clerics nervous we will have machines intelligent enough to be completely autonomous agents in the analog world.
Adler: How serious a problem is information overload today?
Saffo: People worry about information overload, but they don’t understand what it is. Information overload is not a function of the absolute volume of information in one’s environment, but rather it is a function of the gap between the volume of information and the quality of sense making tools. Information overload was just as painful and immediate for scholars in Germany in the 1470s as it is for stock traders on Wall Street in the 1990s. And one constant is that no matter how good our tools get, how quickly, they will always lag behind the volume of information that’s out there.
Adler: Just looking at the Web, it seems like the volume of information that has become available to all of us has been increasing at an exponential rate, and yet our ability to distill it or find what we want or make use of it seems to be increasing at a much slower place.
Saffo: The Web points up the fact that you can’t just have an undifferentiated mass of information and then apply tools to it like some sort of cyber-steam-shovel. The most important tools are the tools intrinsic in the structure of the information itself. The Web is powerful because it has structure and organization. And so the Web is at once a medium and a tool.
Adler: Say a little more about that.
Saffo: Once up on a time we had a distinction between application software and the data that ran in it and that distinction is blurring between application and data. And it’s going a step further on the Web. The Web is at once a medium and an organizing medium. It has intrinsic in its environment the link-making capabilities to organize information and it has information itself. So it’s a flip of the coin what’s more important on the Web … the information or the structure it imposes on information.
Adler: And you’re not worried about the fact that information of all qualities, all kinds, good, bad, indifferent, intelligent, nutty, is all there in kind of equality?
Saffo: I think there’s good reason to be concerned in the short run, but history really informs one to be a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. No matter how screwed up things get in the short run they tend to self-correct and we end up better in the long run.
The future is not going to be some Utopian Nirvana. It is also, one hopes, not going to be a place where we discover a new hell of our own making. The most likely outcome is that we will do what we have always done, which is muddle through somewhere in the middle with some short-term ups and downs, but more or less follow a fairly sensible trajectory.
Adler: You’re not concerned that the rate of change itself is increasing at a fairly steady pace and therefore whether we’re able to keep up?
Saffo: The simple fact is the rate of change is not increasing. When it comes to specific technologies being adopted, this is happening as slowly as it’s always happened. The acceleration effect we are feeling is caused by the fact that more things are changing at the same time. And it’s not the impact of specific technologies on our lives that causes that effect, but the cross-impact of multiple technologies interacting simultaneously.
Take Silicon Valley. It’s easy to draw “success” in Silicon Valley. It’s an S-curve. As much as people recognize the shape and hope to hop on the hockey stick, they ignore the elements of the curve. They ignore that long tail at the start before take-off occurs and they forget that there’s a symmetry to it on the other end, and they forget that life on an S-curve is no fun. You hope and you pray as a start-up company, an innovator, to get onto that curve, but once you’re on the curve you realize that staying on it is really hard. And basically as a start-up company riding out that curve, your company re-invents itself every two or three weeks.
Adler: And that’s the place where the change is most acutely felt.
Saffo: As the ripples continue to spread out from electronic technology, we’re all feeling the impact of that acceleration. And change really is a process of punctuated equilibrium in the same sense that biologists view evolutionary biology. There are periods of acceleration and periods of consolidation, acceleration, consolidation. But if you map it the change is pretty constant over time, there are just periods were it accelerates slightly and decelerates slightly, but it’s always, always going forward.
Adler: But it has to do with our time horizons because we’re often much more aware of the slope of the curve, rather than factoring it in over a period of time.
Saffo: Well, I think Mark Twain could have been speaking for all of us when he said, “You know, I’m all for progress, it’s change I object to.” Our idea of progress is that everything else around us changes in order to preserve those things we hold most dear.
Adler: Let me quote one of my favorite lines of yours, and ask you about it. You said that “progress isn’t built on the spires of successful technologies; rather it’s built on the rubble of failed technologies that went before.” I’m curious as to what might be some of the currently fashionable technologies that are likely to supply the rubble for the next generation.
Saffo: The very best example is Jaron Lanier’s observation about standards. Jaron talks about something he calls “karma-vertigo.” He says is that we are all preoccupied with trying to get standards established, and that’s a good thing. But few people realize that once standards are established they stay around for vastly longer than we would wish and are used for purposes we never intended. And that’s where vertigo comes in because if people realized the consequence of the standards karma they would be completely immobilized.
A good example of technological rubble is e-mail. When you send an e-mail, think of the stratographic column of standards that your piece of e-mail is sitting on top of. There’s the simple mail transfer protocol, and then some operating system stuff. Below that is ASCII, and ASCII is a good case of a limiting technology. It doesn’t do compound letters that other cultures need, so everybody has to modify it to fit their needs. And ASCII was not even intended for e-mail. It was invented in the 1950s for a machine that never quite existed. And yet there are layers below that. There’s grammatical convention and at the very bottom is the alphabet.
So the idle musings of a bored Babylonian farmer sitting by a canal many thousands of years ago, pressing a stick into wet clay, provided some of the inputs that determine how we use keyboards and computers today. But it really is a stratographic column built of the rubble of older standards that were just packed in and built on top of.
Adler: So what you’re saying in that they’re never discarded, but they are truly are built upon, layer upon layer?
Saffo: Yes, but built upon and changed and selectively taken and used for new purposes…I mean, by saying that the new technologies are built on the rubble of the old ones, what I’m saying is nothing does go away, but it stays around in unexpected ways.
Back to the Future
Adler: Let me end up with a couple of personal questions about your relationship to the future. If you could know one thing about 100 years from now, as the 21st century comes to a close, what would you want to know?
Saffo: You know, I can’t think of a single thing. I mean, I just don’t think that way. Even though my job is forecasting, I really do think of myself as a bystander watching the evolution of the present. We all have that temptation, what would you like to know? What whisper from the future? I do not consider myself an oracle. Oracles are very dangerous things to be around. It’s a case where a little knowledge can be a dreadful thing and that’s why I like forecasting better.
Adler: You were saying at the beginning of our discussion that the further out you go into the future, the wider that the cone of uncertainty gets, so that you end up with a realm of considerable speculation before you get out too far.
Saffo: Right. And also a message from the future puts you right back into prediction contradiction, which is if you could know with certainty something that would happen in the future, it’s fore-ordained, that means it can’t be changed, and at least in my philosophical system, that’s a logical impossibility.
Adler: One more logical impossibility: imagine that you got thrust into a distant future, a thousand years in the future. What item from this world would you want to bring along with you from this present world if you were into a very strange and foreign future world?
Saffo: One item that’s as much a talisman as a tool, and that’s a compass. It happens to be a very practical thing. But a compass is actually a marvelous example of how even the simplest of technologies have important choices, and how identical technologies can be put to very different uses. The Western compass is a symbol of outward expansion, our exploration, our city building. It’s a compass that’s at the heart of the surveyor’s transit, of an explorers’ instruments. But there’s another compass from the East that was very different and that’s the lo-pan of the Chinese geomancer.
Our compasses were used to conquer nature. Their compasses were used to do the geomancy that allowed people to try to live in harmony with nature by placing their structures in harmony.
So a compass is at once a symbol of human accomplishment but also a good reminder to maintain one’s humility in the face of technological change. And it might be something we’re showing the people from the future. And perhaps if they’ve been around that long, they’ve learned humility.
Adler: Well, thank you Paul. This has been delightful!