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SciFly NYC // 110 // Speculative Signals

Weekly Events 1/20 - 1/26

Hey SciFly Readers!

This week I want to talk briefly about 'signals' and signal-scanning.
After taking the second week of the IFTF course, "Ready, Set, Future! Intro to Futures Thinking" I watched a couple of videos about signals, how to know when you spot one, and a wonderful piece on the Future of Work in 2030 that IFTF did.

In the video, they The quote IFTF's Executive Director, Marina Gorbis who says, "A signal is 
a specific example of the future in the present" and follow-up with a comparison to one of my favorite William Gibson quotes (hint hint, SciFly's motto is a remix of it) "The Future is already here, it's not just evenly distributed".

Going into the class, for some reason, I thought there was going to be this super-special definition of signals that I didn't know about, it sounds so deep, so fancy, a 'signal'. But what I realized is that I have been jotting down signals since I was a teenager, on scrap-lists, note-pads, weird copy-paste jobs, etc. Signals are the things around that you that make you go, well, hmmm, that is interesting, wonder what it means.

For me, the first time this happened was in my best friend's car circa 2009. We were all driving around doing nothing (typical for a summer home from college), probably headed to check out Robert Moses Beach or look for ghosts at Mt. Misery road. As usual, one of us asked a question wondering about something, not really expecting any sort of answer. Except for this time, my friend pulled out her brand-new iPhone and looked it up on the spot. I remember just sitting there, mouth-open, telling my friends, 'You know this changes everything right?" That is how you know something is a signal. 

I don't know why I placed this onerous burden on myself to 'learn the art of signal-scanning' formally when all I do is read science-fiction, wonder about everything I see on the street, TV, in articles, etc. I guess I thought that you had to be trained to find signals, where to look, how to know they are a signal. The instructor of the course says that they are a clue that things might soon become different. 

I had a mini-twitter fight this week (well I chimed into one someone else was having) about whether or not you have to have academic training to call yourself a futurist, to which I vehemently replied, no. Just like you don't have to have design training to be a great designer, I don't think you have to go to school to be curious about the future, what is around you, and attempt to decode the signals you are seeing - to a point.

As I've said before, all you really need, in most things in life, is to follow 3 steps.
1. Pay Attention.
2. Understand what you are paying attention to.
3. Share your insights & tell stories about what you learn.

Ironically, it turns out my 3 things are very similar to what the poet Mary Oliver said as her instructions for living a life (as another user told me):
1. Pay Attention.
2. Be Astonished.
3. Tell About It.

If we are going to use these steps as a barometer. Then things like signals would be paying attention. I don't think you necessarily need training for that, depending on your personality type. 

Sometimes I try to tell my partner about a signal I have observed, or wonder out loud at how something might emerge in the future from it. Within 10 minutes, they have asked me to please STFU because I am depressing them, and if I keep going, excitedly sketching out how we'll have weird personal drones that follow 'influencers' around all day, and how we should come up with a fun derogatory name for them now ('droners' 'godlettes' 'omnis'???) before it's too late, they just walk out of the room.

Signals excite me and astonish me, helping me to dig deeper and want to understand what they mean and how they will combine with other things. For other people, this process is exhausting, scary, pointless, or an act of pure and unfettered fantasy that doesn't seem to have bearing on the here and now. 

And that's okay.

So when I say that I think anyone can be a futurist, I do. If you have the mindset to want to pay attention, be astonished, and tell people about it, that is a pretty huge start. But it's okay that maybe not everyone else wants to as well.

When it comes to how a school would help you to be a 'professional futurist', I think it's more about networks and community. Going to MFA D+T at Parsons was the first time in my life that I felt I was somewhere I really belonged, where the people around me were all paying attention (some more than others), being astonished, and talking with one another about it every day. It felt like we as a community could whip ourselves into a fervor going down a path of collective imagination about some emerging technology, or social pattern we were studying as part of our design work. We had lectures on blockchains for platform cooperatives, AR for music, the ethics of AI, and did projects where we had to put ourselves in the shoes of people today (and in the future) who would be experiencing this technology and resulting social change, asking ourselves what it would feel like, and if it was something we wanted.

Taking the IFTF course has made me feel a lot better (so far) about my imposter syndrome around being a professional futurist. I've realized that I have naturally been doing what I thought was a really formal process that had tons of steps and rules. Instead, their method for interpreting signals (which I really like) is to ask three questions:

1. What does the change represent? From what to what?
2. What is driving this change? What is the future force behind it?
3. What will the world be in 10 years if this signal gets amplified?

A pretty simple framework, and one I'd like to explore more as I keep reading, watching, listening, and practicing my sense-making so I can look for fun new signals around me. It reminds me of something I read (and can't find the link/source of) that said every new technology replaces something, amplifies something, and taken to it's extreme, causes something else (I think cars v. carriages, knighthood, and traffic jams were involved in the explanation). 

Anyway, excited to keep learning about methods for analyzing signals, and realizing I should have a better process for actually jotting them down in a way that makes them easier to analyze later. I'd be interested in a shared signals repository if anyone wants to play around with this idea with me. :D

Thanks again for listening and keep reading for great speculative events!

"The future is here, now let's distribute it." 

Doc Martens

SciFly is a design studio dedicated to leveraging speculative design and science fiction to imagine and prototype alternative futures enabled by today's emerging technology.


Monday | 1/20

Tuesday | 1/21

Wednesday | 1/22

Thursday | 1/23

Friday | 1/24

Saturday | 1/25

Sunday | 1/26

OnGoing [classes, exhibits, shows etc.]


What I'm Reading

Here is a quick snapshot of my favorite books, podcasts, and articles this week.

Precision Fermentation: What It Is, and How It Could Make Farming Obsolete
by Edd Gant

New graphene battery recharges blazingly fast, and it’s already on the market
by Andy Boxall

The making of Mojo, AR contact lenses that give your eyes superpowers
By Mark Sullivan

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