Envisioning Technology

| December 9, 2011

Michell Zappa has a professional appetite for visualizing the future of technology. This is good for the rest of us, really, because as the world is being overrun by application developments that I personally just can’t keep pace with, we’re all unavoidably affected by it. The internet, robotics, biotech, energy, space, artificial intelligence–the new technological ecosystem must be interconnected in the way every other system has been leading up to the mega-industries we’re buried under today. But I don’t quite understand cyber warfare except that it’s scary, and I don’t quite understand what the implications of additive manufacturing are other than that I probably consume such products more than I’d like to know. In short, I’ve got no chance at getting a grip on how to extract value from emerging technologies because they’re just everywhere. And the future? A terrifying abyss.

Enter Zappa. A London-based technologist and designer, he’s got a fix on all of the above, and more. Coming from a background in social communication and digital media futures, he’s apparently insatiably curious about this tech frontier conquest. He’s determined to make sense of rapidly emerging technologies so they can better inform to human-centered design and strategic development. A powerful designer, he’s started up a project (which will be an ongoing series) with a visualization called Envisioning Technology. It’s a tremendous infographic that’s based on a lot of research, and through it, Zappa attempts to help researchers see connections between “seemingly disparate” areas of research and inform human-centric design. “Envisioning these correlations,” he writes, “is key to predicting potential solutions and imagining where humanity is headed.” The world of technology can be understood? Human-centric? I’m feeling a tiny, hopeful breath of fresh air.

The Visualization

To start, Zappa thoroughly explored emerging trends and research in their larger contexts in order to make some predictions on how technologies are developing and which will become mainstream. Predictions are categorized into colored columns labeled “artificial intelligence,” “internet,” “sensors,” “robotics,” “materials,” and “energy,” to name a few, and upcoming technologies from 2012 to 2040 are plotted in each category. Different nodes identify the meaning of each: size indicates the predicted importance of a technology, outline indicates consumer impact, and jagged outline indicates a cluster of similar technologies grouped together. You can click on each node to read about the technology…like embodied avatars or space elevators. If that’s not fascinating enough, a timeline of quantitative forecasts follows on the right, so you can see what the world is looking like at that time. Check it out for a while, then come back here to read more.

The Vision

In essence, his vision is to “allow the people in charge of designing our future to make better decisions.” Who are these people? Zappa identifies them as entrepreneurs, who are encumbered with making a profit, politicians, who must solve national and international crises on a daily basis, and citizens, who must make a living and likely suffer the consequences of “future shock.” Research on trends and predictions on industry development could benefit all who are often too busy to seek out the resources to help them make informed creative decisions. He writes,

I believe humanity to be at a crucial transition period from a post-industrial society to a truly interconnected epoch. Without buying overly into the singularitarian angle, I believe our habits and expectations are on the brink of irreversible change because of rapid technological progress, and that we need to be careful in how we go about building our future.

Toward this end, Envisioning Technology will be a series that intuitively lays out research.

Be it through interdisciplinary visualizations, thematic essays, entrepreneurial consulting, explanatory videos or keynotes, the project intends on translating potential future scenarios to practical immediate decisions for entrepreneurs and politicians. It is not meant to be authoritative or definitive, but rather speculative and exploratory.

To Zappa’s list of people in charge of the future, I would add an emphasis on students and teachers, because his project could certainly produce a set of learning tools with great value for budding innovators and dynamic classrooms. I can imagine junior high or high school electives based entirely on the visualization, or seminars for older students. For example, history lessons on innovation within each category could be supplemented by the visualization (and more great upcoming content from Zappa) to explain the future trajectory for each industry in a compelling and creative way. It could also definitely guide student interest in web development and they could be encouraged to contribute to the project depending on their own area of interest. Or it could simply be a great career tool to help students understand–at an early age–what industries exist (and can exist) for them to contribute to. And of course, it could be used in a media literacy context for adult education, as the futurist angle on developing technologies is not always present in such courses.

Zappa also does custom visualizations. I’d love to see a project added on education, to track emerging technologies. Until then, thank you, Michell Zappa.