Sunday, April 10, 2011

What is a Near Futurist?

What is a Near Futurist? ©Solomon 2002
An over-simple definition might be the following…
Ner Fue”•chor•ist n. a technologist and/or business person providing near-term solutions and opportunities in the domains of business, society and culture, that involve appropriate and/or novel uses of existing or emerging technologies. 
To truly answer our question above we must ask, what is a Futurist? The profession of Futurism has existed in world culture, academia, and some visionary corporations for centuries. In the millennium just passed, Nippon Electronics Corporation developed a one-hundred year business plan not long after the Second World War. That’s futurism! Even so, even given its long history, today you will not find the word “Futurist” defined in most dictionaries.
The first great Futurist may be Renaissance inventor, artist, anatomist and dreamer, Leonardo Da Vinci. But, even ol’ Leo was not without precedent. The philosophical sages of ancient Greece, and their engineering counterparts had their eyes on the future.  They, after all, were the folks that gave birth to our present conceptions of Utopia and Distopia. They all held to the still current creed of Futurists that the best way to get to the future is to invent it.
The first futurist of the industrial age may have been the novelist Jules Verne, alive in the mid-19th century. In his fifty-four novels he predicted such technologies, and their positive and negative impacts on society and culture, as the television, the modern submarine, globe circling aircraft, and space flight. Even today scientists are attempting to perfect a practical version of artillery capable of lofting satellites to orbit and beyond, as envisioned in Verne’s “From Earth to Moon”.
At the same time than Verne was publishing prose on the eastern side of the Atlantic, the American poet Nathaniel Hawthorne proclaimed, "Is it a fact -- or have I dreamed it that by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!"  He was speaking of the implications of the telegraph as a means of global telecommunications, more than a century prior to the creation of the Internet.
A century later a French monk and philosopher named Teilhard de Chardin wrote a book called “The Phenomenon of Man”. In it he envision something then technically impossible; a world-wide “nervous system” that he termed the Noosphere. This was another glimmer of what would become the Internet, but his ideas were decades away from the creation of the enabling technology of the personal computer.
In it’s first incarnation Futurism was the province of authors, philosophers and their ilk. There work had little impact beyond stimulating the public to think about the possibilities that current technology may have held for the future. Their descendants of today tend to be writers of what is know as hard science fiction, science fiction based on extrapolating what presently emerging technologies may hold for generations distant or not so distant.
Two decades after de Chardin’s work, a fellow named Stuart Brand anticipated the eventual creation of electronic telecommunications. In the mid-1980’s, well before the word Internet was known to anybody outside of academia, Brand and his co-hort Larry Brilliant created the WeLL, the Whole-earth ‘Lectronic Link, and gave birth to the world’s first public electronic community. It survives today numbering about ten-thousand chattering individuals, a mere hamlet in what has become the globe circling Internet and its child the World Wide Web.
Brand’s was among many in the later half of the 20th century whose careers signaled the creation of what I term a Near Futurist. They are more in the mold of the great inventor-businessmen of the early part of the last century, but with few exceptions do not act on such a grand scale. They have practical problems to solve. They’re not out to put America on wheels, like Ford. They don’t collect piles of junk on a lab bench to provide young engineers with fodder to scrape together new devices out of bee’s wax and sewing needles, as Edison did. They just need to make their companies work better through technology. 
Steve Jobs is a paramount example of the present day Near Futurist. He’s got a company to run, and he doesn’t need a focus group to tell him what to craft out of piles of sand, glass, petroleum and electricity. If Jobs was alive in 1905, and he asked potential customers what they wanted in an automobile, he would have been instructed to build faster horses. Almost nobody had yet seen a horseless carriage. The Near Futurist does not look back, but forward into a true future that can be apprehended, created, and made profitable to his or her concern.
Unlike his or her predecessors, the Futurists, the Near Futurist deals with technology presently at hand and find appropriate and often new uses for it. The obvious example is Brand’s connection between the PC, finally becoming a mainstream fixture in offices and spreading into homes in the 1980’s, and a then little known device called a modem. He put those two technologies together, thought about the fact that people like to affiliate with like-minded, or at least open-minded, folks. And, they had already paid for the privilege of doing so in countless rock concerts, political parties, social and fraternal organizations, model ship building clubs, and so on. Brand made a business of the scheme.
Business! That’s the key. The Near Futurist may have the soul of a dreamer or a poet, the zeal of an inventor, but most likely has a title such as CIO, CTO, or even CEO. For that matter they might be called a Sys Admin or Help Desk. In any case, their prime focus is not on what might be possible a century hence, but on what can be operationalized in the next five years or less. They aim for what lies on the horizon in the less than a decade; a blink of the eye given the rapid pace of advancement and commercialization of new technologies.
The Near Futurist is also a problem solver, a systems thinker; how does a business system or transaction work, what problems and bottlenecks are inherent in that system, and how can technologies be applied to wring “friction” out of those systems?
Steven Solomon
Writer and Near Futurist

In The Maze of a Networked World, We Help You See Around Corners

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