Innovation

9 tools to navigate an 'uncertain future,' from new book, Whiplash

MIT Media Lab's Joi Ito and Wired contributor Jeff Howe offer nine cognitive 'principles' to help us adapt to our fast-paced world.

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Image: Twitter, @whiplashfuture


"Humans are perpetually failing to grasp the significance of their own creations," write Joi Ito and Jeff Howe in Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future. In the new title, released today, Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, and Howe, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and Wired contributor, make the case that technology moves faster than our ability to understand it.

As technology quickly advances, it's important to separate inventions from use: Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, but it was Eldridge Reeves Johnson who brought it into homes and laid the groundwork for the modern recording industry. In the same way, we often don't know how modern technology—from the iPhone to the Oculus Rift—will truly be used after it is created. "What technology actually does, the real impact it will have on society, is often that which we least expect," write the authors.

Drawing from a series of case studies and research, the authors offer nine guidelines for living in our new, fast-paced world. The principles, writes Joi Ito, are often displayed on a screen at the MIT Media Lab's main meeting room.

1. Emergence over authority

According to the authors, the Internet is transforming our "basic attitude toward information," moving away from the opinions of the few and instead giving voice to the many. Emergence, they argue, is a principle that captures the power of a collective intelligence. Another piece here, the authors say, is reflected in the availability of free online education, with platforms such as edX, and communities like hackerspace that pave the way for skill-building and innovation.

2. Pull over push

Safecast, an open environmental data platform which emerged from Kickstarter funding, a strong network of donors, and citizen scientists, was an important public project that helped residents of Fukushima learn how radiation was spreading. The collaborative effort here, known as a "pull strategy," the authors argue, shows a new way of compiling resources for real-time events. "'Pull' draws resources from participants' networks as they need them, rather than stockpiling materials and information," write the authors. In terms of management, it can be a way to reduce spending and increase flexibility, they write. For the entrepreneur, it is "the difference between success and failure. As with emergence over authority, pull strategies exploit the reduced cost of innovation that new methods of communication, prototyping, fundraising and learning have made available."

3. Compasses over maps

This principle has "the greatest potential for misunderstanding," the authors write. But here's the idea: "A map implies detailed knowledge of the terrain, and the existence of an optimum route; the compass is a far more flexible tool and requires the user to employ creativity and autonomy in discovering his or her own path." This approach, the authors say, can offer a mental framework that allows for new discoveries. It's a bit like the "accidental invention" method Pagan Kennedy noticed when researching for her New York Times magazine column, "Who Made This?"

SEE: 6 ways the robot revolution will transform the future of work (TechRepublic)

4. Risk over safety

As traditional means of manufacturing and communicating have slowed due to tech like 3D printing and the internet, "enabling more people to take risks on creating new products and businesses, the center of innovation shifts to the edges," write the authors. They spent time trying to find the reasons for the success of the Chinese city Shenzhen, one of the world's major manufacturing hubs for electronics. Its power, they found, lies in its "ecosystem," the authors write, which includes "experimentation, and a willingness to fail and start again from scratch."

5. Disobedience over compliance

Disobedience is, in part, woven into the DNA of the MIT Media Lab. Great inventions, the authors write, don't often happen when people are following the rules. Instead of thinking about breaking laws, the authors challenge us to think about "whether we should question them." Last July, to put this principle to the test, the MIT Media Lab hosted a conference called "Forbidden Research," which explored everything from robot sex to genetically modified organisms. It was a chance to move past the "acceptable" parameters of academic dialogue and bring rigorous dialogue to issues that will surely have an impact on humanity.

SEE: 6 ways the robot revolution will transform the future of work (TechRepublic)

6. Practice over theory

"In a faster future, in which change has become a new constant, there is often a higher cost to waiting and planning than there is to doing and improvising," write the authors. We live in a world in which failure is an important, and sometimes essential, part of growth—but that can only happen when we get out there and start putting our ideas into action. The approach, the authors write, can apply to anything from software to manufacturing to synthetic biology.

7. Diversity over ability

Research shows that diverse groups, working together, are more successful than homogenous ones. And diversity has become a central piece in the philosophy of many schools, workplaces, and other institutions. "In an era in which your challenges are likely to feature maximum complexity...it's simply good management, which marks a striking departure from an age when diversity was presumed to come at the expense of ability," write the authors.

8. Resilience over strength

Large companies, the authors write, have, in the past, "hardened themselves against failure." But this approach is misguided. "Organizations resilient enough to successfully recover from failures also benefit from an immune-system effect," they write. The mistakes actually help systems build a way to prevent future damage. "There is no Fort Knox in a digital age," the authors write. "Everything that can be hacked will, at some point, be hacked."

9. Systems over objects

How can we build accurate weather forecasts in an age of climate change? Or trustworthy financial predictions amid political changes? These types of issues illustrate why it may be worth "reconstructing the sciences entirely," according to neuroscientist Ed Boyden, quoted in the book, who proposes we move from "interdisciplinary" to "omnidisciplinary" in solving complex problems. Boyden went on to win the Breakthrough Prize, awarded by Mark Zuckerberg and other tech giants, for his novel development of optogenetics, in which neurons can be controlled by shining a light.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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