LIFT09: The future in permanent beta

The LIFT conference, dedicated to discussing the social implications of technology, came with a special twist this year. Bypassing the here and now, it attempted to directly link yesterday and tomorrow: "Where did the future go?" was the big question.

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
6 min read

I've been conference-hopping through Europe for the past two weeks. In Berlin, I discussed new "quality of life" concepts for Germany, and in Geneva I listened to speakers who held Utopian visions from an earlier era accountable for what could have been but wasn't. My own personal well-being was more mundane. I schlepped two big suitcases with me and saw the sun shine only twice. When you travel so much, you start to feel like Tyler Brule: quality of life is defined by the quality of the airports you pass through, the quality of the Wi-Fi connections, the quality of the hotel room showers, the quality of the food in the random restaurant next to your hotel, and the quality of the casual human interactions along the way. Really, it's that simple. Travel, as we know, makes the human all too human, bringing to the forefront the five basic human desires that David Rose described in his LIFT09 talk: the desire to know, the desire to protect, the desire to heal, the desire to communicate, and the desire to travel.

Indeed, life is basic when you travel, yet I am frustrated with my inability to process the complexity of everything I hear and see on the road. I know I should blog about all the panels I've attended but I can't even decipher my notes anymore because they're a week old and life has changed. "We must write the story before we forget," as CERN's James Gillies noted in his LIFT09 talk about the origins of the Internet. We live in the now and here, and there is no there there.

Mindful of this preamble, the LIFT09 conference, dedicated to discussing the social implications of technology, came with a special twist this year. Bypassing the here and now, it attempted to directly link yesterday and tomorrow: "Where did the future go?" was the big question during the two days in Geneva, and the program was carefully designed to draw lessons from "a history of the future" in order to develop more enlightened concepts for tomorrow. Re-booting the future, so to speak.

In keeping with the current grim economic mood, the conference bemoaned the shallow glory of sci-fi future visions that, to date, haven't lived up to their promise. What is worse though? Dystopian visions that have become real or utopian visions that haven't? For Patrick J. Gyger, a Swiss historian, curator, and writer, it is clearly the latter. He revisited former notions of the future and investigated what became of them: "What happened to the flying car?" Well, it actually made it to market, like many other product aspirations, yet without much fanfare. Or as Gyger dryly remarked: "The future is here and we're not impressed." Instead, a profound disillusionment with technology-driven visions of a better life has kicked in (space travel, end of poverty, the smart Internet, anyone?), and free-market capitalism has betrayed the idea of sustainable prosperity.

Nicolas Nova applied this retro-skeptical view to the world of business, walking the audience through "the recurring failure of holy grails." He presented a nonchalant history of product flops (from the picture phone to the smart fridge to location-based services), which were in his judgment all hampered by "over-optimism," "lack of knowledge," and "blind faith in the Zeitgeist." Yet I found his definition of product success flawed as it was obviously based on the principle of mass adoption – a questionable proposition in times of increasingly fragmented audiences and micro-markets. Which new product – besides maybe the iPod and the iPhone – has really gone mainstream in the past 10 years? Many of the products and technologies Nova stigmatized as "failures" have found their audience in some form and created significant value both for their inventors and consumers. Yet we simply fail to recognize their success since it occurs in market niches and communities.

Both Nova and Gyger heralded a more pragmatic model of future-oriented thinking. But I'm not sure if I share their skepticism toward grand visions. What if the future has arrived, however – to paraphrase William Gibson – it is so widely distributed (that is, buried in fragmented micro-markets) that we don't notice it?

Stephanie Booth

In any case, for a no-show, the future was still suspiciously present at LIFT09. Matt Webb (co-author of "Mind Hacks") described "the pleasure of watching things unfold" and recommended a "narrative" process for invention and creation (of which his Olinda radio prototype is a brilliant example), highlighting in particular the role of writing in the context of design: "Design is a way of walking over the landscape of possible worlds."

Clive van Heerden, senior director of design-led innovation at Philips Design, showed some of Phillips' PROBES videos that explore 'emotional sensing' – from electronic tattoos to skin dresses to food creation.

Fabio Sergio, creative director at frog design's Milan studio, laid out the power of "design thinking for the future." He used the case study of Project Masiluleke (a large-scale initiative that leverages mobile technologies to combat HIV/AIDS in South Africa) to illustrate a model of design that "is not about creating compelling visions of perfect futures but rather shaping betas of presents of a future we want to live in." Quoting an Italian bus customer ("In the past you had to stamp the ticket. Now you simply have to caress the machine."), he spanned the arch from 'form follows function' to 'form follows emotion' to 'form follows meaning' (design that resonates with people's value systems). Empathy, technology as "material to sketch with," people-centered user experiences, and social impact – these are, according to Sergio, the characteristics of "meaningful design."

Empathy, in particular, is not only the foundation for meaningful social innovation projects (pro-bono or for-profit), it is also the very prerequisite for every act of human cooperation. Sympathy creates compassion, empathy breeds solidarity. However, solidarity does not always mean consensus, as UCLA's Ramesh Srinivasan pointed out. He suggested the indigenous use of digital objects and called for systems that "celebrate difference" instead of eradicating it. 

CD Sleeve Design

Finally, Bill Thompson's vision of the future was optimistically fatalistic or pessimistically upbeat, depending on your point of view. He rocked the house with a provocative obituary. "Privacy is dead," he argued passionately, "get over it!" Instead of complaining about this, Thompson pledged we should embrace the new freedom that comes with radical transparency. The abstract of his talk is so succinct that I simply want to repost it here verbatim:

"The enlightenment idea of privacy is breaking apart under the strain of new technologies, social tools and the emergence of the database state. We cannot hold back the tide, but we can use it as an opportunity to rethink what we understand by 'personality', how we engage and interact with others and where the boundaries can be put between the public and private. Those of us who are ahead of the curve when it comes to the adoption and use of technologies that undermine the old model of privacy have much to teach those who will come after us, and can offer advice and support to those who might be unhappy to have their movements, eating habits, friendships and patterns of media consumption made available to all. But every Twitterer, Tumblr, Dopplr or Brightkite user at Lift is sharing more data with more people than even the FBI under Hoover or the Stasi at the height of its powers could have dreamed of. And we do so willingly, hoping to benefit in unquantifiable ways from this unwarranted--in all senses--disclosure. I'll argue that we are in the vanguard of creating not just new forms of social organization but new ways of being human."

This new post-privacy era is not without risks: Thompson conceded that "some will suffer, some will even suffer imprisonment." But that wouldn't release us, the digital avant-garde, from our responsibilities. His mandate for the creative tech community assembled at LIFT09 was in fact a moral obligation: "You need to act as mentors for everyone living their life in the open."

I have, I do, I will.