Creativity and control have always been necessary, if uneasy, partners in the advance of human ingenuity and technological and social development. At times we need the discipline and tools of control in order to enable creativity, at other times we must release control in order for creativity to blossom. This ageless cosmic dance is now entering new domains once unavailable to direct human intervention.
These include: more powerful and precise tools that unite computation and matter, bestowing upon us the ability to functionally re-design our minds, our senses, and our environments; the proliferation and ubiquity of visual media across our electronic communication networks, and the shift from text-based culture and cognition to a way of thinking and communicating that engages and rewards other sensibilities; and the power of ad hoc collectives of distributed agents, especially when combined with nimble prototyping technologies, to solve problems and transform traditional strategies for innovation.
As the stakes of human action increase, wielding the power of design requires both grace and humility, and the wisdom to know when to lead and when to let go.
In 2009, the Technology Horizons Program will explore these new ways we have begun to mediate, manipulate, and re-design our world, and what that means to the way we live our lives.
Our three core research themes are:
• When Everything is Programmable
• The Future of Video
• The Future of Lightweight Innovation
When Everything is Programmable
Trends we have been exploring in Technology Horizons in the past few years, such as the layering of digital information on the physical world, sensory rich data streaming 24/7, use of a host of technologies to extend people’s cognitive and physical abilities, blending of physical and digital realities, the emerging maker mindset-- when taken to their foreseeable culmination--are pointing to profound new powers to computationally design, i.e. program, our world. Imagine a world in which almost every material object (including our brains and bodies) is programmable, running code to achieve desired results, from particular moods to how the physical and social worlds around us function. Because once we have all the data and we can decode what the data means, the next logical step is to design to spec. What will these new powers mean for our individual and collective identities, as well as our fundamental relationships to our environment and to each other? In 2009, we extend the investigation of how layers of information and computation are embedded, ensconced, and entangled in the material world, into the examination of how we will use new technologies to intentionally and directly design and program our minds, our senses, and matter itself. We will take deep dives into three areas:
Programming the Mind
Powerful new scientific understandings and technologies are emerging that will significantly increase the level of precision and control we have over the manner in which our minds function. Already we have neuro and cogniceuticals that increase or modulate mental focus, attention, and memory. As our understanding of neurochemical processes increase, will are likely to acquire the ability to press chemical “buttons” to quickly and effectively change the way our minds work. Stimulation of certain regions of the brain, either by direct electronic current or by transcranial magnetic stimulation, has been correlated with particular outcomes—such as increased attention and recall. Already, we have seen crude brain-computer interfaces that allow directly channeled communication and interaction between mind and machine. As our precision of use with these devices grows, so will our ability to “dial” our minds to certain states. As our minds become further extended into the material world, and machines more fully integrated into our minds, what new affordances and blindspots will these relationships create? Who will control them and how will we use them? What will this mean for organizations? What types of practical and ethical dilemmas will our increased ability to program the mind create?
Programming the Senses
A large population of the “hearing impaired” (those with cochlear implants) have a level of control over their audible world that those with “normal” hearing can only imagine. Because sound is routed through an electronic receiver, and processed by complex computational algorithms before being transmitted to the cochlea and auditory nerve, a cochlear implant recipient can filter out certain sound frequencies (like high pitched noises), and tune into distant conversations using a directional microphone. As new sensory replacements and augmentations are developed, we will see more widespread use of technologies that allow us to modulate and partition the sensory world around us,
We are likely to add new senses to our repertoire of five, and create new kinds of sensory blends. Imagine a future in which we could sense danger in a way similar to many animals, or reprogram our senses so that we can hear the color blue. How will this impact how we experience the world and what is available to our perception and consciousness?
Quantum dots, 3-D printing, claytronic atoms (catoms), dynamic physical rendering, rapid prototyping, flexible displays, and other forms of nanoscale assemblage are among the emerging technologies for programming (or hacking) matter. These, combined with mobile cloud computing, context-aware environments, and ubiquitous sensing, point to a world in which the objects, materials, and built environment are radically plastic, programmable, and responsive. We will investigate these converging technologies to uncover how these new levers and levels of control will alter the ecology of machine-to-machine, human-to-machine, and human-to-human relations.
The Future of Video
The ascent and currency of visual media signals a transformation on the order of the shift from manuscript to print. As the web continues its metamorphosis from a text vehicle to an image (moving image) vehicle, spurred on by the availability and adoption of such technologies as the phonecam, the webcam, voice (and video) over internet protocol, tiny handheld cameras like the Flip, and online video platforms like YouTube, it seems ever-more likely that video will overtake the written word as the predominant communication form for coming generations.
We are seeing the emergence of a new digitally-mediated oral society—one that will alter the way we shape our identities, communicate knowledge, create authority, and experience our sense world. A new public sphere, bringing together the semi-literate as well as the hyper-literate, will generate new channels for art, commerce, politics, and education.
Video comes with its own language, a language with a multitude of spontaneously generated and evolving vernaculars. We will examine trends in vernacular video, from lifecasting to collaborative content creation, with particular attention to the way technology, culture, and policy shape (and are shaped by) this massive participatory movement.
We will outline the new key players in the emerging realm of vernacular video: companies, organizations, campaigns and networks that are putting the power of video into the hands of individuals and channeling it to the world, and consider the implications for media, entertainment, political and social movements, indigenous and diasporic communities, marketing, and educational sectors.
Throughout antiquity and through the middle ages, even when reading alone, the written word was “read” aloud, audibly. Those who read silently were remarkable, viewed askance by their peers. We will be looking for the equivalent of ancient ‘silent readers’ in today’s media landscape, pointing to tomorrow’s “innate” habits and practices. We will seek out the ways (and the significance of) individuals and groups turning towards electronic recording and communication of sight and sound in search of something more personal, more meaningful, and more immediate.
The Future of Lightweight Innovation
As the global economy slows down, the pressure to innovate faster and cheaper will only increase. Over the next decade, we will see a rapid expansion of lightweight models for innovation, drawing on new ideas about organizing research and development, and new tools for collaboration. Just as web startups now move from idea to implementation without traditional incubation, more and more of new product and service development will happen outside of existing pipelines. As open innovation casts a wide net for ideas, it will merge with lightweight infrastructures that put the tools into everyday people's hands as well. In this research area we will define key features of the emerging lightweight innovation models and analyze strategies for employing such models in different kinds of organizations.