Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, Incomprehensible: How One Futurist Frames the Pandemic
Futurists—who sometimes prefer to be called scenario planners or foresight thinkers—specialize in helping the rest of us understand the big trends and forces that will shape the world of tomorrow. So here’s what I really wanted to ask one: Is a cataclysm like the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 the kind of event we should be able to see coming? If so, then why didn’t we do more to get ready? Why has the federal government’s response to the spread of covid-19 been so inept? And above all, what should we be doing now to get our political and economic institutions back in shape so that they can cope better with the next challenge?This April I had the opportunity to speak about all things coronavirus with my favorite futurist, Jamais Cascio. Jamais is widely known for his work with the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, and he has a bit of a reputation as the “dark futures” futurist—the one who isn’t afraid to dwell on how things could go wrong. It turned out he’d been thinking about many of the same questions, and that he’d been developing a new analytical framework for just such an occasion. It’s called BANI, and it offers new insights into our strange historical moment, when institutions left brittle by years of deliberate neglect now face shattering stresses. In this episode, Jamais and and I tour the BANI concept and discuss how we could come out of pandemic with some new tools for confronting catastrophe.Chapter Guide00:00 Hub & Spoke Sonic ID 00:08Soonish Theme00:22 Futurism in a Time of Pandemic02:03 Introducing Jamais Cascio04:12 Explaining VUCA08:32 Meet BANI10:43 How BANI Fits Our Moment. Part I: Brittleness in the Pandemic13:48 Part II: Anxiety14:17 Part III: Nonlinearity15:10 Part IV: Incomprehensibility16:01 Pandemics as Wild Cards18:48 Planning for Pandemics19:56 The War Against Expertise21:44 Responding to Brittleness and Anxiety23:50 Responding to Nonlinearity26:03 Responding to Incomprehensibility 27:46 Paths Forward: Thinking More Like Futurists30:30 Muddling Through32:36 End Credits, Acknowledgements, and Hub & Spoke Promos
12 May 2020
Fifty years after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins went to the moon, it’s hard to shake off the afterimage of the Saturn V rocket rising into the sky on a column of flame, and remember that the astronauts' bold adventure was also the product of decades of work by engineers, politicians, propagandists, and even science fiction writers. That’s the gap Lillian Cunningham of the Washington Post set out to fix in her podcast, Moonrise. And she’s here with us today to talk about how the show got made, what she thinks the Apollo story can teach us about the power of imagination, and how the stories we tell help us to write the future.Cunningham has been at The Washington Post for nine years, and in addition to creating Moonrise, she produced and hosted the limited-run podcasts Presidential and Constitutional. She spoke with Soonish from the Post's studios in Washington, D.C., on October 29, 2019, and in this episode we're sharing a version of the conversation that's been edited for length and clarity.See the episode page on the Soonish website for full show notes. And for an even deeper dive, including a chat about Lillian's writing process, the music for Moonrise, and the new Apple TV+ series "For All Mankind," check out this bonus segment at our website.Chapter Guide0:00 Hub & Spoke Sonic ID01:31 Soonish Theme01:45 The Golden Age of Limited-Run Podcasts02:48 A World-Changing Podcast about the Moon Race05:08 Welcoming Lillian Cunningham to Soonish05:45 Lillian’s Journey to Podcasting08:53 Why Make a Show about the Moon Race?12:21 Beginnings: Why Start the Moon Story in 1933?17:58 The Role of Science Fiction and Futurism in the Moon Program20:52 The Soviet Side of the Moon Story24:10 Midroll Message: Recommending Words To That Effect26:07 What Makes an Expert an Expert?31:14 The Story Never Stops35:19 Will We Ever Go Back to the Moon?39:14 End Credits and Patreon Thank-Yous41:38 Promoting Hub & Spoke Newest Show, SubtitleThe Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay.Additional music is from Titlecard Music and Sound.If you like the show, please rate and review Soonish on Apple Podcasts / iTunes! The more ratings we get, the more people will find the show.Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps this whole ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish.Give us a shout on Twitter and sign up for our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.Please check out Subtitle from Patric Cox and Kavita Pillay. It's the newest addition to the Hub & Spoke audio collective. The premiere episode Not So Anonymous is about the remarkable power of forensic linguistics software to unmask writers who'd probably rather stay unknown.
14 Nov 2019
The Future Is Clear
Episode 2.07: What's ubiquitous but invisible, versatile yet temperamental, goopy when it's hot yet brittle when it's cold, as old as civilization yet as new as the screen of your smartphone? The answer is glass. This week on Soonish, we ask what glass really is, where it comes from, who's using it in interesting ways today, and how it will fit into our world in the future. We visit the world capital of glass—Corning, New York, home to both Corning, Inc., and the remarkable Corning Museum of Glass—and we spend time with master glassblower Josh Simpson and the directors of the glass labs at MIT and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In their stories, glass emerges as an adaptable and promising material that still isn't fully understood, but continues to present artists and engineers with new surprises. The Soonish theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music in this episode by Titlecard Music of Boston. For more information see https://www.soonishpodcast.org/episodes/2018/2/17/205-the-future-is-clear
17 Feb 2018
Episode 1.08: Why do "productivity" tools like email, to-do lists, and calendars make so many of us feel miserable and overburdened? Why hasn't anyone come up with a better way for us to manage our diverse commitments and our chronic information overload? This episode of Soonish looks at our personal futures and the tools we use to manage them. We talk with folks who are pursuing new technologies for keeping our lives organized. We look at the kludge-y but often brilliant productivity solutions people have hacked together for themselves. And we ask whether, in some way, we’re all missing the real point. Maybe in the rush to be productive, we’ve forgotten how to prioritize the things that truly make us happy. Music in this episode is by Graham Gordon Ramsay and Lee Rosevere. For more information about all the people and ideas in this episode, go to https://www.soonishpodcast.org/episodes/2017/5/11/108-hacking-time To become a supporter of Soonish, please visit http://www.patreon.com/soonish
11 May 2017
Most Popular Podcasts
Future Factories, With Workers Built In
Episode 1.04: Six million manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the U.S. since 2000, and you've probably heard economists and politicians say "those jobs aren't coming back." But that view isn't quite right. It doesn’t account for a cultural and technological revolution sweeping the United States—one that promises to redefine manufacturing, make it drastically more accessible, and create a ladder to new kinds of jobs for unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled workers alike. In this episode of Soonish, we visit TechShop, a maker space where craftspeople are using high-tech tools to come up with new products. We talk with a business strategist at the Xerox-owned Palo Alto Research Center, where programmers are inventing design software that can help people get their ideas to market faster. We tour 99Degrees, a company in an old Massachusetts mill town where one entrepreneur is creating a path to skilled high-tech employment for manual garment workers. And we meet Bill Taylor, an 88-year-old mechanical genius in Belmont, MA, who has an elaborate workshop in his basement and decades of perspective on the changing manufacturing scene in the U.S. The Soonish theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Additional music by Lee Rosevere. For more background on this episode visit http://www.soonishpodcast.org/episodes/2017/2/22/104-future-factories-with-workers-built-in
22 Feb 2017
A Future Without Facebook
Every technology has its growing pains, but Facebook, at age 15, has matured into a never-ending disaster. Here at Soonish, I'm fed up, and I'm closing my accounts. In this episode, you’ll hear how I reached this point, and how other Facebook users are coming to grips with the chronic problems at the social network. You might just come away with some ideas about what to do to limit Facebook’s power over your own life! The first signs that something was seriously wrong at Facebook surfaced in—well, when? Was it 2014, when the company acknowledged it had experimented on users by altering the content of the news feed to see how it would affect their moods? Was it 2015, when misinformation about alleged Muslim attacks on Buddhists in Myanmar spread on Facebook, leading to anti-Muslim riots? Was it 2017, when evidence began to emerge that Russian hackers had influenced the US presidential election by promoting divisive content designed to mobilize Trump voters and demotivate Clinton voters in swing states? Was it 2018, when the world learned that Facebook had allowed the British political data firm Cambridge Analytica to acquire Facebook data on 87 million users in the U.S.? Was it last week, when a white-nationalist gunman in New Zealand live-streamed his terror attack on Facebook, and hundreds of thousands of copies of the video ricocheted around the network for hours? No matter when you start the clock, we’ve now had plenty of time to perceive Facebook’s failures in all their depth and breadth. And we’ve been able to pinpoint some of the root causes—including a fundamental disregard for user privacy and a fixation on a business model that surveils users and manipulates the content of the news feed to foment outrage and maximize opportunities for targeted advertising. Some Facebook users, like me, have decided that enough is enough. Many others are staying, but unhappily. Should you keep using Facebook, but more advisedly? Cut way back? Walk away? All of these are valid strategies that will send a message to Facebook and make your own life happier. Doing nothing probably won’t. This episode is designed to help listeners make a more conscious choice. Thanks to all of of this episode's featured guests: Tova Perlmutter, Rudi Seitz, Kip Clark, Tamar Avishai, Peter Fairley, Nick Andersen, Mark Hurst, Ashira Morris, Victor McElheny, and Deborah in Minneapolis. For more background and resources, including a full episode transcript, check out the episode page at the Soonish website. CHAPTER GUIDE 0:07 Cold open (audio montage) 1:27 Soonish theme and introduction 1:51 An unwise choice at Ford 4:06 The Ford Pinto of the Internet 7:53 Meet our special advisory panel 9:44 Facebook does have its uses 13:48 A community designed to encourage dependency 15:14 Constant surveillance 20:00 Waiting for more data 23:55 Leaving is painful 26:14 Ex-Facebookers who never looked back 29:53 Exit strategies 32:03 Conscious unfriending 33:52 The reducetarian approach 35:40 We don't have to wait for Facebook to fix itself 36:47 Sensing intrusion 39:35 The opposite of Facebook 40:12 End credits and announcements The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music is by Titlecard Music and Sound. Soonish is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a Boston-based collective of smart, idea-driven nonfiction podcasts. Learn more at hubspokeaudio.org. If you like the show, please rate and review Soonish on Apple Podcasts / iTunes! The more ratings we get, the more people will find the show. See https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/soonish/id1185234753?mt=2 You can also support the show with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Listener support makes all the difference! We need your ideas to make the show better! Please take a few minutes to fill out our listener survey at soonishpodcast.org/survey. Give us a shout on Twitter and sign up for our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish. Special thanks to Kip Clark, Joseph Fridman, and Mark Pelofsky for reviewing drafts of this episode.
22 Mar 2019
The Great Blue Hill Heist
In this short bonus episode, hear the bizarre story of a college student who scaled a New England weather tower on a dare, stole a curious scientific instrument as a trophy, and inadvertently disrupted a series of climate observations going back more than 130 years. I made this four-minute, non-narrated piece in 2018 as part of the 24-Hour Radio Race from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project. To view the show notes, a photo gallery, and a full transcript visit soonishpodcast.org/307-the-great-blue-hill-heist The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Additional music is from Titlecard Music and Sound. If you like the show, please rate and review Soonish on Apple Podcasts / iTunes! The more ratings we get, the more people will find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps this whole ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. We need your ideas to make the show better! Please take a few minutes to fill out our listener survey at soonishpodcast.org/survey. Give us a shout on Twitter and sign up for our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
19 Aug 2019
How to Fix Social Media
Earlier this year Soonish took on social media in an episode called A Future Without Facebook. In that show I explained my own decision to quit the troubled platform and talked with friends and colleagues about their own reasons for staying or going. But the story of how these platforms are confounding earlier hopes for social media—and are instead blowing up our democracies—was never just about Facebook. In today’s special follow-up episode, I speak with national security expert Juliette Kayyem and former Twitter engineer Raffi Krikorian about the challenges spanning all of our social media platforms—Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, and many others. Algorithms designed to serve personalized content and targeted ads, for instance, have ended up fueling political polarization, aggravating radical-fringe resentment, and accelerating the spread of misinformation and disinformation. “The aspect that's different now is…the extent to which the guy sitting alone, who has these horrible thoughts, is able to find a community or a network to radicalize him and give a sense of community for that anger,” Kayyem observes. YouTube’s autoplay feature, which can lead viewers down rabbit holes full of conspiracy-theory videos, “might be one of the most dangerous features on the planet,” Krikorian comments. How can we fix it? Both Krikorian and Kayyem say what’s needed is a combination of citizen pressure, technical and business-model changes, education for individuals (so they’ll know how to judge what they see on social platforms), and legislation to make information sources more transparent and hold platforms liable for the harassment they facilitate. My chat with Kayyem and Krikorian was recorded at Net@50, a celebration of the 50th birthday of the ARPANET (the precursor to today’s Internet) organized by the World Frontiers Forum and Xconomy. Thank you to both organizations for permission to share the session. For more background and resources, including a full episode transcript, check out the episode page at the Soonish website. Chapter Guide 0:00 Hub & Spoke Sonic ID 00:08 Special Announcement: The Constant Joins Hub & Spoke 01:59 Soonish Opening 02:15 Audio Montage: Social Media in the News 03:43 The Problem Is Bigger than Facebook 05:29 Meet Guests Juliette Kayyem and Raffi Krikorian 06:04 Question 1: How Did You Get Interested in the Problem of Social Media? 12:39 Question 2: Shouldn’t We Have Noticed This Earlier? 16:22 Question 3: Micro or Macro Solutions? 22:54 Question 4: Can Individuals Make a Difference? 24:42 Audience Question: What’s Really New Here? 27:59 Audience Question: Should We Eliminate Anonymity on the Internet? 29:17 Audience Question: Making Us Smarter 31:21 Final Credits 32:14 Check Out the “Plymouth Rock” Episode of Iconography 33:35 Thank You to Our Patreon Supporters The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music is by Titlecard Music and Sound. If you like the show, please rate and review Soonish on Apple Podcasts / iTunes! The more ratings we get, the more people will find the show. You can also support the show with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Listener contributions are the rocket fuel that keeps this whole ship going! We need your ideas to make the show better! Please take a few minutes to fill out our listener survey at soonishpodcast.org/survey. Give us a shout on Twitter and sign up for our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
24 Jul 2019
A Tale Of Two Bridges
Episode 1.09: When Boston’s elegant Longfellow Bridge opened in 1907, it was innovative example of classical European bridge architecture adapted for a busy American city. But over the next century, officials allowed the bridge to rust to the point of near-collapse. And recently, a futuristic new cable-stay bridge, the Zakim Bridge, was built across the Charles River just a mile downstream, displacing the Longfellow as an icon of the city and proving that Bostonians still have a taste for modernity. Now the Longfellow Bridge is being painstakingly restored and recreated, down to the last rivet. But for the price of fixing it, the state could have built at least two Zakim-scale bridges in its place. This week Soonish asks: Why go to all that trouble? When should we preserve the parts of our urban environments that connect us to the past? When should we boldly remodel our cities to support growth and innovation in the future? And how can we balance the two impulses? The Soonish theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Additional music by Tim Beek, timbeek.com. More information about this episode at www.soonishpodcast.org. To support Soonish, please go to patreon.com/soonish.
8 Jun 2017
Can Technology Save Museums?
Episode 1.03: Museum attendance declined steeply in the first decade of this century, according to a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA found that audiences were being siphoned away by the Internet, television, and other distractions. So, technology can be seen as a threat to museums—but maybe it's also a tool they can use to re-engage with the public. In this episode of Soonish, we visit museums in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston to see how some curators and educators are leaning on software, mobile devices, and digital media to get visitors excited about art. The Soonish theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Additional music by Philipp Weigl and Kai Engel.
8 Feb 2017
Episode 1.07: More than 500 people have flown in space since Yuri Gagarin’s historic ride in 1961—and virtually every one of them has been a military officer or government employee. But now that’s changing. Jeff Bezos’s rocket company Blue Origin aims to begin commercial passenger flights to space in 2018, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX has announced plans to send two private citizens around the moon, also in 2018. Meanwhile, here on Earth, there’s a boom in space-related innovation and investment, not just at big aerospace companies but at dozens of smaller startups. This week on Soonish, we look at the new era of space entrepreneurship (#newspace for short) and ask who’s founding space startups, what progress these companies are making in areas like microsatellites and propulsion, and how new technology is giving enthusiasts around the world more ways to get involved in space exploration. The Soonish theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Additional music this week by Podington Bear. For more information on this episode, visit https://www.soonishpodcast.org/episodes/2017/4/20/107-astropreneurs
20 Apr 2017
I Have Seen the Future of Displays
Apple used the opening keynote presentation at its annual World Wide Developers Conference in San Jose in June to roll out the usual array of software updates and new computer hardware. But tucked into middle of the keynote was one the event's most consequential and underappreciated pieces of news: For the first time in more than three years, Apple will offer its own LCD computer monitor, the Pro Display XDR. It's a serious piece of gear, with 20 million pixels and new techniques for handling light and heat that deliver extremes of brightness, contrast, and color. And it comes with a serious price tag: $4,999. But it delivers image quality on par with professional "reference monitors" that typically cost tens of thousands of dollars, meaning it could put ultra-high-quality imaging capabilities into the hands of many more film and TV producers, graphic designers, photographers, and other professionals. (And—eventually—consumers. "All of the things that are in the Apple Pro Display XDR that make it unique right now are going to eventually become standard features five to 10 years from now, in displays that are going to be at Best Buy," veteran video engineer Michael Isnardi told us.) Soonish was there to cover the conference. And today's episode argues that when the Pro Display XDR goes on sale this fall, it could be one of those moments—similar to the introduction of HDTV in the late 1990s or Retina screens in 2010—when innovations in image-reproduction technology converge to alter the way we see the world. For the complete show notes please visit https://www.soonishpodcast.org/306-i-have-seen-the-future-of-displays Chapter Guide 00:00 Hub & Spoke Sonic ID 00:08 Content Warning 00:24 Soonish Opening Theme 00:44 The Principle of Good Enough 01:46 The Ceiling and the Floor 02:22 A Very Deep Dive into Displays 02:59 WWDC 2019 04:02 Announcing the Pro Display XDR 05:51 Spoiled by the Garage Door Opener 07:13 Resets in Visual History 07:39 Color and Light and Pixels 10:51 The Future’s So Bright 14:11 Roy G. Biv 16:28 The Battle of Winterfell 19:32 Hollywood Is Leaving You Behind 21:23 Picture Optimization Mode 22:29 What Would Walter Benjamin Say? 24:38 A New Art Form 26:01 End Credits and Acknowledgements 26:44 Culture Hustlers 27:32 Thank You to Our Top Patreon Supporters The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music is by Titlecard Music and Sound. Listener contributions are the rocket fuel that keeps this whole ship going! You can support the show with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Give us a shout on Twitter and sign up for our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
7 Aug 2019
Election Dreams and Nightmares
The moment in the voting booth when you put your pen to your ballot (or put your finger to the electronic touchscreen, as the case may be) is democracy distilled. It’s the act that makes America a republic. But while the casting your vote is critical, it’s everything that happens before, during, and after that moment that makes up the larger election system. And these days there are whole armies of people working to influence and disrupt that system—and opposing armies working to protect it and make it safer and more accessible.In this special Halloween 2019 edition of Soonish, we look at the scary vulnerabilities in the U.S. election system that were exposed after the 2016 presidential election, and we meet a company working to make it possible for everyone to vote securely on their smartphones. We hear from a retired U.S. Air Force major general who’s deeply worried about the lack of good “cyber hygiene” within state election agencies, and national security experts who fear the 2020 presidential vote could once again be manipulated and distorted by social media misinformation and disinformation. And we meet a science fiction author who says democracy is always a work in progress, but argues there’s an urgent need now for better media literacy and clearer thinking about how to strengthen the key beliefs, norms, and institutions behind democracy.Check out the complete show notes, including a full episode transcript, at soonishpodcast.org. Chapter Guide00:00 Hub & Spoke Sonic ID00:13 Opening Theme00:22 A Scary Story from the Senate Russia Report02:49 E-Voting Machines Without Paper Trails03:38 The Nightmare Scenario04:28 Maj. Gen. Earl Matthews on Cyber Hygiene06:33 More Money for Election Security07:23 The Big Question: Can We Achieve Fair Elections?07:52 The Anti-Sikh Riots of 198409:47 Nimit Sawhney at SXSW10:58 The Founding of Voatz13:58 How to Vote on Voatz22:03 Baby Steps and Criticisms24:19 Meet Centenal Cycle Author Malka Older27:58 Elections as Systems, and the Dangers of Disinformation30:59 Adapting to New Communications Platforms32:32 The Fragility of Legitimacy33:45 End Credits, and a Shout-Out to Open SourceNotesThe Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay.Additional music is from Titlecard Music and Sound.Episode logo photograph by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.Sound effects / foley from Freesound.org.If you like the show, please rate and review Soonish on Apple Podcasts! The more ratings we get, the more people will find the show.Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps this whole ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish.Give us a shout on Twitter and sign up for our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.Please check out Open Source, one of the newest additions to the Hub & Spoke audio collective. Try the episode Do we want democracy or two-day shipping? with Matt Stoller from the Open Markets Institute.
31 Oct 2019
Looking Virtual Reality In The Eye
Episode 2.06: The immersive, 3D environments of virtual reality aren’t science fiction any more, and they aren’t just for video games. In this episode Wade visits “The Enemy,” a groundbreaking VR exhibit about the psychology of war. The creation of photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa, it introduces visitors to hyper-realistic avatars based on six real fighters from Israel, El Salvador, and the Congo. It offers a vivid reminder that all conflict is grounded, to some extent, in stereotypes and misperceptions. It also demonstrates that VR has arrived as a powerful new storytelling medium. But could that power be misused for mischief? Music in this episode is by Graham Gordon Ramsay, Titlecard Music, Javier Saurez, and Lee Rosevere. Logo photo by Karim Ben Khelifa. For more information visit http://www.soonishpodcast.org.
5 Jan 2018
A Space Shuttle Isn't Cool. You Know What's Cool? A Space Elevator (Soonish on Soonish)
Episode 2.05 of Soonish, the podcast, is all about Soonish, the book! Host Wade Roush interviews Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, the husband-and-wife team behind the new book Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything. Kelly Weinersmith is a parasitologist at Rice University and co-host of the podcast Science…Sort of, and Zach Weinersmith is the creator of the wildly popular Web comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Their book is a funny, fast-paced, loving-but-skeptical look at coming engineering advances that could transform domains like space travel, robotics, and medicine. The episode also features a story about Space Shuttle Atlantis, performed live by Wade at a December 9 storytelling showcase event in Boston. Music in this episode is by Graham Ramsay and Tim Beek. For more information visit http://www.soonishpodcast.org.
15 Dec 2017