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The futurist: Living the life of bubble people


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(Editor's note: This is the first ot two parts.)

Having been born and raised on a small rural farm in South Dakota, I grew up with a very narrow perspective of the rest of the world. With only two TV channels and three radio stations to pick from, our news options were very limited.

As a teen-ager, watching the nightly newscasts on television, I was thoroughly amazed at all of the things happening around the world, and yet none of them were happening near me. I truly felt like I was living in a bubble, far away from all the excitement. But I wasn’t alone. People everywhere were still getting used to the new technology, and limited TV and radio access wasn’t just a South Dakota issue.

For the most part, I didn’t know what I was missing, so inside my bubble were all the families and neighbors I hung out with. Much like me, they didn’t know what they were missing. In understanding “bubble cultures,” there are micro-bubbles like the farm community I was raised in, and macro-bubbles that affect entire countries, planets, or civilizations as a whole.

Few people realize that humanity today is being confined to a macro-bubble. Our limited grasp of today’s technology, coupled with our limited understanding of the world, and just the limitations of being human, blind us from seeing our true potential. In short, we’re living our lives as bubble people, limiting our view of the world to what we know, what we can prove, and what “the experts” say is possible.

But the bubble we’re in is not permanently confining or unbreakable. Over the past few centuries, we have indeed been stretching the size and shape of our bubble, but even though it’s far bigger today, we still have a long ways to go to see what’s on the outside.

So is there an “outside” to our bubble?

The short answer is yes. In fact, the most exciting areas of the future will happen outside our current bubble. For this reason, I’d like to take you on a short journey to the other side of the bubble and an expansive view of human existence in the years ahead.

Eight Dimensions - Pushing the Envelope of Human Existence

In the past, I’ve talked about how technological unemployment is a double-edged sword. On one hand people’s jobs are being automated out of existence, but at the same time, we’re freeing up human capital. It’s rather preposterous to think that we’re somehow going to run out of work in the world, but having jobs aligned with the work to be done is another matter entirely.

I’ve also talked about the “Laws of Exponential Capabilities,” where the technologies being developed will give us exponentially greater capabilities. When this occurs, accomplishments of the past will seem tiny in comparison to accomplishments in the future. Many of the columns I’ve written pertain to idea of catalytic industries like the Internet of Things, flying drones, big data, driverless cars, smart homes, health tech, 3d printing, VR, swarmbots and sensors that will be creating many of the jobs in the future.

But going beyond today’s seedling industries are any number of human endeavors capable of creating entire new playgrounds for business, industry, and human accomplishment. Stepping into this topic further, I’ve framed my thinking around the eight dimensions for expanding the bubble of human existence.

For those of you who think three-dimensionally, expanding our bubble is like pushing on ever facet of an octahedron, growing the size, reach and capabilities in each of the X, Y, and Z axes. 

The labels I’ve assigned to each of these dimensions include the following, and I’ll explain them in more detail below:

  1. Honorability
  2. Awareness
  3. Purpose
  4. Mastery
  5. Reach
  6. Potential
  7. Durability
  8. Freedom

Why humans?

Are humans really destined to master the universe? If so, what have we done to deserve this esteemed position? There are many who would say that the world would be a far better place without people.

If we started making a list of all of the negative attributes humans possess, it would begin with words like dirty, dangerous, self-centered, moody, greedy, unreliable, hateful, destructive, self-centered, and perhaps ten thousand other descriptors that paint a very dim picture of who we are and what we’ve become.

For this reason, I’d like to propose the first dimension for expanding human existence - “the honorable human.”

The Honorable Human

Before we can ever be entrusted to receive the venerable keys to the universe, we must first prove we’re worthy of this grand undertaking? While we have achieved great things in the past, the mysteries that remain locked “behind door number three,” will make our cumulative achievements to date appear as the tip of a needle in a universe filled with an endless supply of needles.

So what constitutes an honorable human? Is an honorable human someone with great integrity, loyalty, and trustworthiness that you can always count on to do the right thing? Is it perhaps an evolved form of the transhuman that will arise from the singularity? Will it be a form of machine intelligence that enables us to take the higher road in every adversarial situation?

How will we ever know what attributes a person or persons will need to be deserving of this privilege? Does it have to be all of mankind or can it just be a select few? The irony is that the people we are most likely to entrust with our future are those with great courage, strength, ethics, and willing to tackle life’s greatest challenges. However, in today’s world, one person’s greatest hero is often someone else’s greatest enemy.

We find ourselves divided by righteous differences, and these differences can lead to some very destructive consequences. Righteous destruction is still destruction. Similarly, a righteous conflict, battle or killing is still a conflict, battle or killing. Does an evil act that comes from good intentions somehow nullify the results?

At the same time, will we ever value someone without strength, conviction, drive and passion? Probably not. For this reason, our quest for expanding the bubble of human existence begins with a still indefinable goal of unlocking the honorable human in each of us.

What is it? What will these look like? How do we get there?

Extending Human Awareness

In 1998, a column I wrote for The Futurist Magazine took issue with the state of computer displays. Viewing the vast and growing Internet through a little square box on our desk was, in my opinion, the equivalent of watching a baseball game through a knothole. 

As a solution, I proposed we experiment with a variety of different shapes for displays starting with my favorite, a spherical display, well suited for viewing global activities such as travel itineraries, animal migrations, pollution flows and weather patterns.

Even today, 15 years later, we still find ourselves viewing the online world with primitive two-dimensional flat displays. So when I heard about one satellite company’s vision for developing a real-time globe, with up to the minute live video feeds of virtually every square inch on earth, naturally it caught my attention.

It wasn’t just the spherical displays or video feeds of the earth that peaked my imagination, but the overall convergence of data. The number of sensory devices monitoring the earth is about to explode, and it occurred to me that a cross-pollination of data flows would radically alter our way of life.

  • Satellites monitoring the earth will grow from thousands to millions.
  • Embedded sensors will grow from billions to trillions.
  • Street cams, smartphones, wearables, and other connected “things” will grow from billions to trillions.
  • The amount of data generated will burst from petabytes, to exabytes, to zettabytes, to yottabytes.

Our growing number of data-generating devices will vividly increase awareness of the world around us. Increased awareness improves our ability to predict, and superior predictability will lead to greater control. Super awareness gives us the ability to pinpoint critical inflection points, and make changes before something serious happens.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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