Who owns the story of the future – and what does it have to do with information?

I am always drawn to events professing to talk about the future, especially if it gives me a chance to listen to William Gibson (@greatdismal) in person, and so I was at the British Library for one of their panel discussions in the series The Future: Science and Society, earlier this week.

The other commentators were by no-means lightweights in their respective fields (writers Cory Doctorow [@doctorow] and Mark Stevenson, economist Diane Coyle and chair Jon Turney) but obviously I was not the only starry-eyed Gibson fan in the room, which was packed with the sort of people who cannot resist treating their idol to a rambling monologue on metaphysics, drawn from the random clutter of their inner psyche, during question time.

No matter – for in addition to hearing some of William Gibson’s clever, considered comments, I could not help the comforting smugness which enveloped me as it became clear that for many people in the audience, “the future” was all about information – (ha!). Mark Stevenson reminded us that “.. it is not called the information society for nothing..”.

Ostensibly, the discussion was to draw out ideas from current scientific research on what our future may look like – thus the mix of science/sci-fi writers on the panel. Although Mark Stevenson mentioned he had been talking to people at IBM and MIT who were engaged in “amazing stuff”, I did not catch what this might be. I did count four mentions of Star Trek though, and have to admit that although my almost word-perfect knowledge of the original series episodes far exceeds my knowledge of most of the other sci-fi writers that were mentioned, I feel well equipped to deal with the future as foreseen in the 1960s Kirk/Spock era.

The future, it seems, is very personal. And William Gibson commented that it is only possible to write about the future from the perspective of the present. He wondered about the reception that his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), would have had if he had described today’s world of personal wifi, AIDS, international terrorism and the non-existence of the Soviet Union in his early 1980s vision of the future. So I guess that hints at the future we envisage as being a product of our personal view of the present.

Diane Coyle provided the economist’s perspective – that the future is all about investment, and that investors rarely look beyond the next 5 years – the near future. There was then discussion around whether there were any “far future” ideas any more, and whether we were currently experiencing such an enormity of technological advancement that we were simply “rendering” what we already have – a rather good analogy from a member of the audience. Other voices commented on the fact that technology already exceeded its promise, and gave as an example the lack of augmented reality apps. I have seen some interesting early instantiations of augmented reality (Aurasma, and the Museum of London’s Street Museum app) but have to say for the moment I agree that it doesn’t propel me very far forward. Maybe in time though.

To information then, and the concern that so much information will never be digitized that finding it will be impossible. Cory Doctorow argued that Google had digitized over 90% of books anyway, and that the rest would soon be dealt with. I am not sure his figures are quite right – digitization is not always that easy or straightforward, and, for sure a lot of documents have not yet reached the scanner. The enthusiasm for digitized material may lead to relevant items being missed in a search – unless you happen to be an information specialist – the question being rather whether anyone is looking hard enough, in the right place, in the right way.

In response to the issue of relevant documents being lost within “too much information” Diane Coyle argued that it was about attention; most information can be found, but is missed because no-one is looking at it – for example if it is listed beyond the first page on the Google search results listing.

On the flip side, we moved on to “bit rot” where information is lost because the technology to read it no longer exists. Cory Doctorow again voted for confidence in technology, stating that if information was held on “spinning platters” then it could be transferred to another type of spinning platter indefinitely. No-one considered whether this was always cost-effective though.

And to one of my favourite concerns – that nothing is ever deleted, and the more dire the image, the more likely it is to pop up again and bite you at some inconvenient time in the future. “Its tweeted in stone” – William Gibson’s observation, seemed entirely apposite.

So what about the story of the future – and who writes it? I don’t think the discussion answered this, although I was pleased to think that the future will clearly contain a lot of information which will need to be organized, and that thus, LIS specialists could still find employment. Interestingly the information related concerns were all problems of the present, so at least we are recognizing that things that are problematic now may go on to be a bigger nuisance in the future.

Other discussion centered around what it means to be human, and what we mean by “progress” – more knowledge, or a “better society”. And what is a better society – longer lived? Better informed? And how can we know how the future will be fashioned by our present?

William Gibson wondered if the inventors of the pager knew how much it would change drug dealing.

Humanity’s motto, he concluded, could well be “ who knew?”