‘Urgent future issues’ and the practice of journalism

“The NET is a waste of time, and that’s exactly what’s right about it.” — William Gibson, who in 1981 coined the term “cyberspace” in a work of science fiction.

Gibson was one of the early admirers of the Internet. But he worried that with new technologies creeping into every aspect of life, “there is increasingly less excuse for slack.” He thrived on Web surfing, likening it to fishing – a day-dreamy, sometimes time-wasting pursuit that took you into other worlds and opened new ideas.

In that spirit, the Knight Fellows went fishing one afternoon at the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto non-profit research center specializing in long-term forecasting and quantitative futures research methods.

Following their well-tested processes, we covered the workroom walls with post-its on which we jotted down what we imagined would be “urgent future issues” – ones that might not be obvious now but will be significant in 5 to 10 years and that have a potential impact so large that ignoring them poses great risk to mankind. Here are some of the futures we foresaw:

  • Capitalism will be revolutionized by new, compelling ideas. A new business index for companies will evolve that measures profits, taxes paid, how workers and the environment are treated.
  • The media will challenge its own basic assumptions. A credibility system will be established in which a journalist’s work is vetted by other journalists. Reporters who check their facts and use scientifically based data will be given credit for their thoroughness. Those who use false or manipulated sources will be called out.
  • A databased map of the world will congregate all published stories by topic.
  • Food production and climate change will be of high interest. A climate change TV show will be created. Public art on skyscrapers will show our consumption of water and energy.
  • More communities will have access to mobile phones, allowing public information to be tracked, curated and delivered in a broader way.
  • Information will be available in public spaces. For example, mobile news trucks traveling throughout communities will provide hyper-local stories, redefining and re-enforcing the concept of citizen journalism.
  • Schools will emphasize the skills used in journalism. Fact gathering, fact checking and storytelling will be common lessons. A databased quantitative measuring scale will help educational policies evolve.
  • Data will be re-defined as with private or public, raising awareness of who owns what information, the value of data and the implications of Internet tracking of user habits. A global, interactive map will show norms for “privacy” in different regions and within different cultures. A Privacy Stock Exchange will rate the value of various kinds of information.

Our guides in this expedition into the future were IFTF Executive Director Marina Gorbis and David Pescovitz, co-founder of Boing Boing and a team of IFTF researchers. They led us through an exercise and discussion on how to think about and imagine the future. Concepts and questions flew as we considered:

  • How are we prepared for unexpected events?
  • Why is something impossible?
  • How can we shape a more desirable future?
  • Are we losing our attention span or are we developing new ways of absorbing information?

When acting to create the future we want to see, Pescovitz said, we need to take advantage of the fact that people are “wired” for stories. If something is interesting, people will pay attention.

But in a world where new information is constantly being introduced, he said, journalists need to “hack attention,” that is, work for it. And they need to get out in the world – and out of their chairs.