Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘futurism’

04 MARCH, 2011

Worldchanging: An Updated Vision for a Better World

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Since 2003, Alex Steffen’s nonprofit online magazine Worldchanging has been a beacon of sustainability, social innovation and thought-leadership in bettering our planet’s future. In 2006, this essential toolkit for conscious modern living was packaged in Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century — a densely informative 600-page synthesis of the iconic site, dubbed The Whole Earth Catalog for the iPod generation. At the time, sustainability was just a budding meme, which over the past five years evolved into an essential part, and some would argue a bare minimum, for our cultural ethos. This week, Worldchanging is back with Worldchanging, Revised and Updated Edition: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century — a timely compendium of the smartest strategies and most exciting new tools for building a better future.

One of the book’s most valuable aspects for us, given our deep fascination with and passion for urbanism, is its insightful angle on cities as living organisms capable of catalyzing social change.

The first Worldchanging book looked at the most creative and high-impact solutions available for solving the planet’s most pressing problems. WC2.0 takes the same solutions approach, but raises the bar, asking how we can participate as individuals in creating systemic change.” ~ Alex Steffen

From food justice to carbon-neutral homes to alternative transportation, the Worldchanging, Revised and Updated features 160 noteworthy ideas and vital solutions that maybe, just maybe, offer real, tangible hope for a world we’ve cornered into near-hopeless vulnerability.

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24 FEBRUARY, 2011

5 Must-Read Books by TED 2011 Speakers

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What doodling has to do with the evolution of consciousness and the raw beauty of the Arctic.

Last year, our selection of 7 must-read books by TEDGlobal speakers was one our most popular articles of 2010. Today, as we prepare for next week’s big event, we’re back with 5 essential reads by TED 2011 speakers, once again litmus-tested for brilliance in the world’s most reliable quality-control lab: the TED stage.

SELF COMES TO MIND

You may recall iconic neuroscientist Antonio Damasio from his insights on what it means to be human. Published last fall, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain is his ambitious exploration of the underpinnings of the self. From distilling cognitive phenomena like creativity and memory to illuminating vital distinctions like brain vs. mind and self vs. consciousness, Damasio does for neuroscience what Malcolm Gladwell does for business, synthesizing complex notions and rigorous research into a digestible, absorbing narrative. The book is a surprisingly worthy follow-up to Damasio’s excellent, impossibly unmatchable 2005 Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.

AS THE FUTURE CATCHES YOU

Harvard Business School professor and futurist Juan Enriquez, whose Homo Evolutis was one of last month’s revolutionary first crop of TEDBooks, is a thoughtful observer of the profound cultural and biological changes that genomics and other life sciences are sweeping through society. In As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth, he takes a provocative look at the trajectory of technological progress, contextualizing scientific milestones in relative historical terms that help us grasp the true scale of innovation that surrounds us. (He argues, for instance, that February 2, 2001 — the date that anyone with Internet access could access the entire human genome — is equivalent in magnitude of importance to Columbus’s 1492 discovery of America.)

Sample Enriquez’s genius with his excellent 2009 TED talk on how the evolution of technology is impacting the financial crisis:

Besides the compelling thinking, the As the Future Catches You is a beautiful experience in and of itself, adorned with sophisticated typography and eye-popping graphics. Enriquez has purposely left blank pages for your notes in an effort to stress that the issue is an ongoing conversation with no conclusive answers, inviting you to partake in its intellectual exploration.

GAMESTORMING

We’re big proponents of the value of play in enhancing creativity, productivity and well-being. And while most people have an intuitive understanding of this correlation, it remains a taboo in the formal world of business. In Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, visual thinker and tinkerer Sunni Brown, along with co-authors Dave Gray and James Macanufo, makes a compelling case for the tangible, practical applications of play in business, applying game mechanics to revolutionize business models and work environments across a remarkably wide spectrum of industries.

The book features 83 actual, playable games designed specifically for honing the creative process, facilitating problem-solving, overcoming organizational tensions, and even making meetings shorter and more productive. Playful and pragmatic, the book is an absolute treat from cover to cover.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Bill Gates is no stranger to TED. But while the world may have had more than its fair share of Gates exposure in recent decades, it’s undeniable that the iconic geek is a bold visionary. To truly appreciate his keen grasp of the future, we need only look at the past: Published more than 15 years ago, The Road Ahead is a priceless compendium of insights from Gates, who predicts the development and application of present-day information technology with astounding accuracy and further projects its future in shaping our lives with the provocative vision of a true entrepreneur. From personal computing to business to education, the book is both a rare timecapsule of the dawn of ubiquitous computing and an extraordinary lens for what lies ahead.

Sample the book’s retrofuturistic genius with this teaser about Gates’ 1995 vision for the future of education:

POLAR OBSESSION

Naturalist and wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen grew up in one of the only non-Inuit families on Baffin Island, Nunavut, in a tiny native settlement in the sprawling ice fields of Northern Canada. In Polar Obsession, he reconnects with his roots in a striking and powetic visual ode to the Arctic at the intersection of art and science. At once a bittersweet portrait of climate change and a passionate call to action in honoring the incredible planet we inhabit, the book is a visceral and deeply alive reminder of just what’s at stake as we talk about a topic so chronically overpoliticized and sterilized of aliveness.

A kittiwake soars in front of a large iceberg. Svalbard, Norway

Looking towards an uncertain future, a huge male bear triggers a camera trap, taking his own picture. Leifdefjorden, Spitsbergen, Norway

A gentoo penguin chick peeks, checking for patrolling leopard seals before tempting fate. Port Lockroy, Antarctic Peninsula

Mother bear and two-year-old cub drift on glacier ice. Hudson Strait, Nunavut, Canada

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23 FEBRUARY, 2011

Visions of the Future: Isaac Asimov’s Unrealized Pilot

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What vintage computers have to do with unrealized TV series and the future of humanity.

We love iconic science fiction author and futurist Isaac Asimov, whose keen insights on creativity in education were a favorite last month. Two years before his death, Asimov recorded a pilot for a TV series synthesizing his visionary ideas about where humanity is going. When he passed away in 1992, the pilot for the series was adapted into a tribute documentary titled Visions of the Future, now available on YouTube in four parts, totaling 40 minutes of rare footage and biographical background on the great thinker.

The series was intended to cover new breakthroughs in science and technology, preparing people for the coming future — essentially, the antithesis to the Future Shock series narrated by Orson Welles.

Most fascinating of all are Asimov’s thoughts on computers, which may seem like common sense today but in fact presage the modern applications of computing, from mobile technology to consumer electronics to artificial intelligence, by two decades.

Perhaps the most revolutionary development of recent years has been that of the computer. Because for the first time we’ve discovered a machine that can substitute, at least in part, the human brain. Before that, it was just a matter of saving human muscles, of using machinery to spare what human muscles couldn’t do very well.” ~ Isaac Asimov

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21 FEBRUARY, 2011

7 Must-Read Books on the Future of Information and the Internet

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From retrofuturist media prophecies to the cognitive consequences of mobile-everything.

We’re deeply fascinated by the evolution of media and the sociocognitive adaptations that go along with it, but perhaps even more so by the intellectual debates surrounding this ever-swelling topic of increasing urgency and controversy. The past year has been particularly prolific in varied takes on our shared digital future, contextualizing our current concerns in fascinating media history and exploring the potential consequences of our modern media diets. Collected here are 7 of our favorite books investigating the subject from dramatically different yet equally important angles.

I LIVE IN THE FUTURE & HERE’S HOW IT WORKS

From our good friend and New York Times writer Nick Bilton comes I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted — a provocative look at how new media models are shaping the future of cross-platform storytelling. From the next chapter in journalism to the porn industry’s legacy of technological innovation to the sociocultural power of video games, Bilton examines the future from the lens of the past to deliver an intelligent, layered and — perhaps most importantly — optimistic blueprint for the where our digital universe is going.

THE SHALLOWS

Though we don’t agree with many of Nicholas Carr‘s arguments in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains — redundant and reductionist, his view is the contemporary equivalent of Futureshock, the techno-paranoid vintage series narrated by Orson Welles — we recognize the book as an important read, if only as a way to understand and contextualize these all-too-common fears that many seem to share with Carr.

My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or lengthy article… Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” ~ Nicholas Carr

HAMLET’S BLACKBERRY

Even if Carr is right and the Internet is taking a toll on our brains, it doesn’t have to. In Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers offers a toolkit of refreshing remedies for our chronically multitasking, digitally distracted selves, collected from historical figures that lived long before the digital age. From Thoreau’s “Internet Sabbaths” to productivity apps from Shakespeare, Powers blends the advantages of constant connectivity with the caution we need to exercise as we engage with the world in these new ways, extending an invitation to subvert our media routines in a way that prioritizes happiness over blind efficiency.

TOO MUCH TO KNOW

In Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, Harvard historian Ann Blair explores the history of contemporary media concerns like the impact of the internet on publishing, information overload and remix culture, tracing their roots to uncannily similar practices and concepts from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.

During the later Middle Ages a staggering growth in the production of manuscripts, facilitated by the use of paper, accompanied a great expansion of readers outside the monastic and scholastic contexts. ~ Ann Blair

YOU KNOW NOTHING OF MY WORK!

No biography of iconic media futurist Marshall McLuhan could possibly be about the future of the internet per se — he lived, after all, a good half-century before the web as we know it existed. But Douglas Coupland’s excellent new almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, which we reviewed last week, is full of insights on the evolution of media that presage many of our modern concerns. From information overload to the rise of what McLuhan calls “electronic inter-dependence,” the book offers a fascinating lens not only on the technological revolution of the past century, but also on the complex shifts in social cognition that it continues to beget.

One must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or I.B.M., but rather by studying arcane 16th-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.” ~ Douglas Coupland

IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK

Last month, we looked at the annual questions by iconic sci-tech futurism journal EDGE, which has been asking contemporary luminaries to answer one big question every year since 1998, then publishing the responses in a book the following year to serve up a fascinating and illuminating timecapsule of the intelligencia’s collective conscience. This year’s edition, Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future, offers a fantastic compendium of responses by iconic contemporary thinkers like Chris Anderson, Esther Dyson, Howard Gardner, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno and 167 more.

You can also read the answers online, but whatever your chosen medium, we highly recommend you take a look.

COGNITIVE SURPLUS

Clay Shirky may just be the Marshall McLuhan of our day, only with saner vocabulary and less of a penchant for LSD. (At least as far as we know.) His Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, one of our top books in business, life and mind for 2010, takes a fascinating look at how new media and technology are transforming us from consumers to collaborators, harnessing the vast amounts of free-floating human potential to build on humanity’s treasure trove of knowledge and bring about social change.

For a taste of this absolutely essential book, don’t miss Shirky’s excellent TED talk:

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