Bruce Sterling, black swans and goldilocks

Being an organizer of the LIFT conference is also tricky and often lead you to avoid attending the conferences. That said, I managed to watch Bruce Sterling's introductory keynote. Bruce addressed what was important in 2007 that may shape 2008. In a sense, looking out in the rear mirror to see the near future. Which led him to state "What’s the punchiest thing one can say about the past year? That’s the way it was, now get out!". The first point of this keynote was that a big part of the good things that happen to us on this planet occur BECAUSE people make it out of bed in the morning ("The main reason people prosper if because they get out of bed, showing up is 90% of the job!").

He then described how 2008 might be boring ("It's a crap year!") caused by economic downturn, global warming memes. And in the tech world, the situation looks even worse to him: what is exciting when Microsoft wants to eat Yahoo ("Is MS really about innovation when Bill Gates leaves MS to go cure malaria?").

So what may shape 2008? Is it possible to produce focuses insights about it? To Bruce Sterling, a powerful driver can be something that came unexpected, out of nowhere and largely covered in the press. Before jumping into it, the gave a disclaimer "You will probably not like it but you'll get why it's important to other people": Mrs Carla Sarkozy.

The first point he started with is to consider why talking about this in a tech conference like LIFT. To him, it's because they met at a french tech summit about the current problems encountered by the music industry and P2P policies. So to some extent it's an "internet policy romance" where Carla Sarkozy (the "Madame Du Barry of the Digital Renaissance") can be considered as a black swan. If you're not familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb's work, a black swan is a "a large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations", a ‘wild-card’ event that cannot be predicted with accuracy (in the foresight jargon). An history like this, as he said, "writes itself" and rules the world... showing that there are certain histories ("believe it or not") who dominates.

Using this metaphor, he then presented the two driving forces related to this black swan: ambition ("carla is ambitious") and publicity ("carla and nicolas are notorious, they can't turn the press off, they feed the press") with a matrix like this:

The next part of the talk was a depiction of what each square of this matrix would imply and are their what probabilities. The high ambition/high publicity square between the classic weirdest/useful scenario ( “Future tends to be weird, … but glamour has its use.”). The scenarios (and this topic) he presented may seem awkward BUT: what was interesting here was this sort of template/matrix to explore the future, a similar technique as the one we employed last year at the LIFT07 workshop about the city of the future. And of course, another black swan for the 21st century was definitely the Internet, as he pointed out.

The end of the talk were rather advices/behavior to adopt towards the future. For instance: “Let me tell you something you can take certainly in 2008, it’s to find the very character of our time. You can smell the future, you can embody it", "you cannot predict the future but you can describe it" or take futurism as the goldilock hypothesis as the future is either "too hot, too cold, just right".

Thus, he basically tied together foresight research techniques, black swans theory, goldilock hypothesis, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and the Internet to discuss a sort of attitude towards the future. Some discussions with people+blogpost reading showed that lots of people thought he was "ranting against" this weird french couple. This was not a rant by any means, rather an exemplification of the foresight method and how unexpected events as well as driving forces can be employed to described scenarios. He wanted to state that if we do not have the proper analytical tools, we won't understand it. It requires to get the the driving forces: “Like an american who learns the rules of soccer, you probably still won’t like it very much, but you will understand why it matters to people, you’ll be able to put into a useful perceptive and get on with you own life.“