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Interview by Caleb Prewitt

Published on May 2, 2012 by mz

[This is an interview I did with Kansas City-born artist Caleb Prewitt for his thesis at Montclair State University]

Michell Zappa is a UK-based futurist. He is the founder of Envisioning Technology, a forecasting firm that crafts reports on emerging technologies across a variety of industries. His projections for the next 40 years are available on the Envisioning Technology homepage, www.envisioningtech.com.

CP: So to begin, I was wondering if you could just talk about technology forecasting as an idea– what purpose does it serve?

MZ: Well, it’s important because technology underlies everything we as a society do. I see technology as the sole differentiator between us today and us in medieval times. We haven’t changed biologically in the last 500 years or in the last 10,000 years. We’re still essentially the same people, only we live twice or three times as long, we explore the planet and the atmosphere. Everything we do, every enhancement– not only biologically but socially– is driven by technology. So we separate ourselves from the past through technology, which I find fascinating. And I think we’re at a point where the rate of change, which is already mind blowing, is going to start visibly increasing in front of our eyes. And if we’re already sort of worn out or in a state of constant future shock from the speed at which things change or are replaced, it’s just going to get worse. Or better depending on your point of view.

CP: That’s Kurweil’s idea.

MZ: That’s Kurzweil, exactly.

CP: So you think we’re nearing a tipping point?

MZ: I do. I mean, mathematically there’s no distinction between where we were 100 years ago and where we’ll be ten years from now, because it’s all part of the same curve. But the tipping point is something very human– we will start noticing the change with more clarity than now. It’s going to look like a wall to us, even if it’s still that same growing curve.

CP: You know, it’s funny, I was rewatching some old sci-fi shows from the ‘90s not long ago, some of the Star Trek spin-offs and things like that, and the thing that struck me was how old-fashioned it all seemed. It was set 300 years in the future or something, and yet it just seemed so antiquated, as though technology had changed but culture hadn’t. They were envisioning the future from what they knew, but in ten years the world had changed radically and their vision was already out of date.

MZ: Well some of the early cell phones were explicitly based off Star Trek designs, and there’s an X Prize now to come up with essentially a tricorder, a handheld medical device. But what you’re saying is true of course, and that’s an inevitability of any forecasting. We’re living in today, and we can only extrapolate from today and imagine what could change, but it’s the unforeseen things that make it interesting. Star Trek plays it safe, but other sci-fi writers are more daring, like William Gibson, because they uproot everything we take for granted. You have to do that. If you ignore all the givens but still hold to the curve of technology, that’s the only way to truly imagine what the future will be like, because over time all the givens start rotting away, as they do in any society. But I agree that it’s a very hard exercise and very few people do it well, mostly sci-fi writers. Corporations, for instance, hire futurists, but that’s tricky because you’re essentially bound to envision a future where your company’s products remain relevant.

CP: So that brings up the question, how much of this is predicting the future and how much of it is coming up with creative ways to shape it?

MZ: That’s sort of where my personal interests lie. Shaping is hard; predicting less so. That’s relatively easy, mostly a matter of reading a lot and putting things together. Actually making a difference is very difficult, because that’s where you have massive institutions– governments, businesses– and it’s in their best interest to perpetuate a vision of the future that is most suitable to them. You have to look down the line and shape society in the direction that’s best for you. Very few companies can pull that off. Steve Jobs did. You could say he was the ultimate futurist because he undermined his own business a couple of times because he saw bigger change on the horizon. Not many people have the guts to do that.

CP: I was looking over the list of sources you provide on your site, and it’s mostly non-fiction, works by other futurists like Ray Kurzweil, but I noticed you included Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan. And on the one hand it seemed odd, being the one work of fiction, but it occurred to me that the reason why those books are so satisfying is that they don’t think about technology changing so much as society changing, getting stranger and stranger.

MZ: Yes. I’m trying to find a way to point that out. If you imagine being cryogenically frozen 50 years ago and woken up today, society would seem very strange. And someone from the ‘20s even more so. I think most people sort of see the future as a more high-tech version of the present, but it’s really not that. It’s people using technology to do all sorts of unimaginable things, for better or worse. And I don’t think there’s enough forecasting that accepts that as a given.

CP: What do you see as the primary driving force behind innovation or change?

MZ: I think it varies tremendously depending on where you find yourself in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy. On the bottom tier you see tons of new technology, from fighting disease to clean drinking water and infrastructure. That’s where the megascale projects are crucial, things only governments or transnational institutions like the UN can implement. But at the top of the pyramid, that’s where things get interesting. Things like personal expression and radical individuality start driving technology, things like being able to drastically alter your body. Being able to say, replace a hand or a leg with a better, artificial one. I’m sure 15 years from now people will be upgrading their limbs for kicks, or their skin or eyes.

CP: We’re talking about some pretty substantial shifts. How do you think we go about preparing ourselves for a future that’s stranger than we can imagine?

MZ: That’s the million-dollar question. I don’t have an answer for you, necessarily. This is our biggest challenge as a society, keeping up to speed with what everyone else is doing. Especially since technology and innovation are not evenly distributed, and the rate of change is so steep. It’s already tough just keeping up with what’s happening; incorporating it into our institutions, like our education system, that’s going to be extremely challenging.

CP: Carl Sagan used to write about that, about the perils of falling behind our technology. There was a time once when everyone essentially understood how most of the technology in their lives worked. And then as science progresses and people become more specialized, we reach a point where technology just becomes like magic to us, incomprehensible.

MZ: I think that’s the best metaphor, magic. When that happens, you have two fronts to fight. One is understanding the actual groundwork behind the technologies and the other is understanding what to do with it. I’m personally okay accepting that technology might seem a little magic, because I’m more concerned with how it’s used. I know a lot of people disagree, but I think it’s fine not knowing exactly how the thing works. I’d rather focus on using it; I think that’s where human creativity really comes into play. But there’s another side to that, and that’s programming, which has been the focus of a debate on education here in the UK. Programming should be the new math or biology. Schools will have to include it, sooner rather than later, because it’s becoming essential. There’s a book called Now You See It, that talks about the role that scribes played in medieval times and how programmers are the 21st century scribes. Only a very few people know how to do it, and everyone needs to know, because–

CP: Well because we run the risk of creating an elevated class. And the rest of us are stuck lower down on the totem pole because we lack a vital skill set.

MZ: Exactly. And I think it’s only a matter of time before schools and governments realize that. It hasn’t quite caught on, but I think the UK is fortunate to be having that conversation now. Imagine where we’d be as a society if only a few people still knew how to read and write.

CP: One last question. I want to talk about the idea of crossover between disciplines, say between science and art or technology and literature. How important is that exchange of ideas between fields?

MZ: Take computers as an example. That was something when I was in high school that was taught as a separate course, a computing course or a typing course. And that’s something that will eventually fall by the wayside, because now that technology is in everything. Computers are a part of every field now, they’re interconnected with everything. I think there are fundamental reasons to view technology as overlapping other fields. That’s where the creative frontier lies.