Mapping the future

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Mapping the Future



Richard Hakluyt (HAK-loot) used to go down to the London docks and quiz sailors back from long voyages.

His mission: to discover everything anyone knew about the New World and how to get there.

Hakluyt’s mission mattered because Elizabethans could be spectacularly casual about their trips to the new world. That’s why so many of them never came home.

Hakluyt wanted to capture what the explorers knew. He wanted to get it on paper. In the place of guess work, he wanted system. In the place of stories, he wanted a body of knowledge, new expertise, discipline and accuracy.

Here’s a map of the world as Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) understood it.

There are big chunks missing here. Cartographers had a rough idea of South America. North America was mostly a mystery.

Our future looks a lot like this. There are big chunks missing. Lots of guess work. Lots of stories. Not much system. Not much discipline.

Our futurists are a lot like Elizabethan sailors. They just set off across the ocean. And sometimes, they come to rest in the “Indies.” For want of a community of Hakluyts mapping the world, they aren’t really sure where they are. They hope they’ve discovered a passage to India, a watery silk road, but of course they can be wrong by many thousands of miles.

Mapping-the-Future is undertaken in the spirit of Hakluyt. Can we gather our knowledge? Can we quiz the travelers? Can we build a system? Can we get serious about this adventure?

Once the future was charming, the subject of science fiction magazines and World Fairs. Then it became less benign, less promising but still beckoning. Alvin Toffler talked about future shock, but believed we could manage. Clayton Christensen talked about disruption but he too had a plan.

Now that we are well into the 21st century, the future looks faster, nearer, meaner. Those who dream of empire know they have to go there. It’s not optional. And those who wish to avoid “wild beasties” that disrupt and devour enterprises, they have to go there too. The future is both more dangerous and less optional.

And the rest of us? Now that the future so insistently invades the present, one paradigmatic thing is clear. We can’t “wait til we get there.” We have to start now. And that, I believe, means we have get a little less casual and a lot more like Hakluyt. We have to start mapping the future.


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  • The Griff

    This is my map of the future.

    I know it doesn’t look like a map of space, but then it’s a map of time.

    Each of these tiles represents something I think could transform us.

    How did I compile it? Over several years, I have kept a list of things that made me go “hmm.”

    There are around 250 tiles here. This is beginning to feel like a useful number. There is one futurist who tracks 200,000 trends. Too many, surely. Others prefer to trumpet just one thing (the next big thing, dammit!). Too few.

    The idea is to start small. With a thought, a glimmer, a thing that might be a thing. Or to use the language of engineering, “noise” that doesn’t really qualify as “signal.”

    That is the challenge here. We have to see things early, when they don’t really look like things at all. And then we have to be prepared to repudiate them in the event they were really just “noise” after all. Or to watch them transform themselves into something entirely unexpected.

    I have a bias when it comes to mapping the future. As an anthropologist, I’m interested especially in the social and the cultural things that will have shape our future, sometimes as causes, sometimes as effects.

  • 2 How the Griff works
    outtake from Griff, with red rectangle around the term Empathy

    Empathy may seem like a weird thing to spot and track. What can it possibly have to do with our future?

    Well, we all listened to the 2020 Democratic nomination of Joe Biden. The term “empathy” featured so prominently, it has been called the theme of the conference.

    “Asked and answered,” you might say. “The Dems were distinguishing themselves from Trump, a man widely seen not to care about the feelings of others.”

    Well, yes, and no. The point is that all presidents are now measured on their empathy. With Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Nixon no one cared.

    In fact, the Google Ngram (below) suggests that empathy didn’t use to matter at all. And then it began rising steadily.

    Google Ngram Viewer on “empathy”

    And this leaves us with a question: why the stratospheric rise? What is it about empathy that appeals to us so deeply? Why is this a feature of contemporary culture? Why does so much “heat” attend the term?

    So, yes, I am keeping a watch on empathy and the puzzle it represents.

    The software I’m using here is called TheBrain. It helps us visualize all the things we’re trying to track. And it allows us to attach research materials to any one of our tiles.

    If we click on the term “empathy” below…

    outtake from Griff, with red rectangle around the term Empathy

    …we can see what’s beneath the empathy tile.

    There are a variety of data points. Some are blog posts. One is the Wikipedia entry for empathy. The Ngram data is there. I had a conversation with Lenore Skenazy that touched on it. This is stored in Notion, and I have a pointer to it there. And you can see me asking myself “does empathy make a diffusion journey?” This is me wondering whether “empathy” began in some corner or class of our culture and spread.

    This subentry also captures a passage I have clipped from a good book by Susan Lanzoni on the topic. (See on the right-hand side of the image below.) I have a strong hunch that Lanzoni’s definition of empathy is NOT the one now circulating so widely. And that’s a “finding” all on its own.

    So the watch is on. I will continue to look for evidence that tells me what the empathy trend is, where it comes from, where it’s going, and what our interest in empathy tells us about the state of American culture.

    By itself, this tiny fragment of American culture is neither here nor there. It doesn’t really tell us very much. But added to lots of other fragments, it begins to give us a larger picture, something like a map. Especially when we wire this map up with ethnographic data (person to person, talking data), survey data, statistical data and someday, AI.

    As we approach the completion of this map, there will be strange and wonderful discoveries. Take, for instance, what happens when we ask Google Trends to break out empathy data by state. It turns out (below) that the part of the US where people are least interested in empathy is Washington, D.C. How very telling!

  • Case Study 1: Alcohol’s falling trend
    The Griff is following alcohol
    Data points collected for alcohol

    The Griff is tracking alcohol. Actually it’s following beer, aperitif, spirits, wine, and mixology because alcohol is a bundle of things.

    But if we take alcohol as a category, we see decline. In an interesting metric, Pinterest says that searches for “sober” are up 746%. The WSJ says that Americans drank less wine for the first time in 25 years. Young consumers are generally drinking less. There are a couple of counter trends. Aperitif, spirits and White Claw are rising, with the last assuming a cult status on Twitter and Instagram.

    America was once obsessed with drinking. Movies and musicals literally sang the praises of mixed drinks. Hollywood darlings “Nick and Nora” were endearing precisely because Nick was smashed most of the time. Being drunk or at least “tipsy” was thought to be attractive. That’s a culture that loves alcohol.

    This is interesting to track because it shows a big piece of our culture in play. And for futurists, this is important in and of itself. But it will show us the directionality of still larger changes plus the smaller ones that serve as cultural cause and effect.

    I won’t explore this change here. But let me just this. Some younger consumers are disinclined to drink because, as one of them told me, “I just can’t afford a photo that shows me drunk and drooling.” This is a cluster of trends at work, including the rise of Instagram, the rise of a “performance, aka celebrity” culture.

    A fine irony. In the 20th century, alcohol gave people permission to behave in unconstrained ways. What it did to and for our social performances was thought charming. Now, alcohol is a threat to the social performance and our public presentation of self.

    Alcohol is, to this extent, a window on how we think about ourselves, present ourselves, and construct ourselves for public purposes. What will mean for the way we interact privately and publicly?

    Many methodological challenges confront us here. What are the best metrics with which to spot and track this trend? Where can we get these numbers? How do we measure speed and deceleration? What are the competing intoxicants or states? What are the scenarios that suggest how this trend might reverse itself?

  • Storytime 1: fast culture and slow culture on Oprah
    One of our fundamental principles on M-T-F is that the future is not just for cool-hunters. It’s not just about the latest fads. That’s fine for the fashionable futurist. But real futurists are interested in the whole of the future. We’re interested in both fast and slow culture Here’s a little story from my ethnographer’s notebook. Years ago, I did an Oprah show. As it turned out, I was on Oprah to make the case for slow culture. A designer was there to make the case for fast culture. And we fought. Well, collided.

    Slow culture

    I was sitting at my desk, working away, minding my own business.  A junior academic living in obscurity.  An ink stained wretch hoping for tenure.  Think something out of Dickens…with a Canadian accent, eh.  My life was about to change.

    The phone rang.  It was Amy from Harpo Productions in Chicago.  Amy wanted to talk about my work on homeyness.  We chatted for awhile.  And that was that.

    A week or so later, Amy called again.  Would I like to come on the show and talk about my work?  I said, “Sure, I would.”

    Nothing happens in the academic world without the knowledge and approval of the department secretary.  I took my news to Barbara.

    “Oprah Winfrey?” she said with reverence.

    I nodded.

    “You?” she said dubiously.

    Barbara revered Oprah.  Me, not so much.

    Barbara made further inquiries.

    “On the Oprah Winfrey show?”

    “In Chicago?”

    “On television?”

    I nodded.  Barbara’s eyes narrowed.  Something was wrong with the universe.

    I arrived at O’Hare Airport on the appointed day.  I’d been told where to look for the Harpo limo, and sure enough, there it was, purring curbside.  I stepped inside expecting to have the car to myself, and I was surprised to find someone in place: a woman dressed all in blue.  She was wearing a blue Chanel suit with blue matching stockings.  The suit had those little black bands over the pockets.  Her hair was pulled back in the socialite manner, held by a little black band in the back.

    A look of instantaneous dislike passed between us.  Conversation inched forward.  It turned out that the woman in blue was the other expert to appear on the show.  She was a New York designer and the author of a recent book on design in the home.

    “My publisher has printed an extra 50,000 copies,” she said, “What about you?”

    I had no book and no publisher.  I had a photocopy of my original, academic paper.

    “Oh, you know, we’re talking about it,” I lied.

    We made our way to a Chicago suburb and stopped in front of an attractive middle class home.  Taping commenced.

    The first shot took place on the outside, to show the “experts” entering the home.  We were supposed to climb the stairs, hit the doorway, look to the camera and say,

    “Hi, Oprah.  We’re here at the home of the Sullivans, and we’re going inside to take a look around!”

    The blue-suited woman dispatched the task effortlessly.  She hit her mark, dispatched her line, and the producer said, “Perfect. You’re a doll.”

    My turn came.  Repeatedly.

    “Grant, let’s do it once more.  But this time maybe a little more oomph.”

    I tried a couple more times, but it was clear I was hopeless.  I could see the producer thinking to herself, “Where did they find this guy?”

    “Can you be a little more…vivid?” she asked me.

    “Um,” I said finally, “you do realize I’m Canadian.”

    No one thought this was the least bit funny.

    The next shot was to capture our reaction to the Sullivan’s home.  The designer strode down the hallway into the kitchen.  She said something like, “Well, it’s obvious this is a family with no sense of design.  None!  Look, at these curtains.  Wrong shape.  Wrong size.  Wrong color!”

    I cast a glance at the poor Mrs. Sullivan who was cowering against a kitchen wall.  She was beginning to have doubts of her own.  I couldn’t watch.  Nursing the terrible knowledge that I was bad television, I slunk into the living room.

    And there were Dan, the father, and Danielle, the daughter, doing what they called the “Pocahontas dance.”  A couple of days before, they had been to see the Disney movie.  Danielle, blond, sunny, and about 6, had “memorized” her own scrambled version of the theme song, and father and daughter, oblivious to the commotion in the kitchen, were now performing it.  Dan picked Danielle up, threading her across his shoulders and sliding her back down to the carpet.  Danielle sang throughout these exertions, and as she dropped to the carpet, she finished with a joyful flourish.

    The designer had swept out of the kitchen and was now, it seemed to me, laying waste to the living room.

    She said something like, “Oh, look at this furniture.  I mean, really.  Everything is pushed to the wall.  No sense of proportion.  No sense of placement.”

    I took this as my cue.  I signaled for the camera, and as it swung towards me, I said,

    “Well, actually, there’s a reason the furniture is pushed to the wall.  It’s to make room for the Pocahontas dance.  Would you like to see the Pocahontas dance, Oprah?”

    The producer looked around in panic.  She spotted Dan and Danielle and cued the camera man with a desperate, pointing gesture.

    Just in time.  Dan and Danielle were already exuberantly lifting and singing.  It was perfect.  Had Dan and Danielle known they were going to be performing for national television, the performance might have been anxious or labored.  As it was, they were merely sharing a private joy.  It was about the sweetest thing you ever saw.

    The producer gave me a look of new regard.  I might not be good television but I could see what was.  The designer, on the other hand, was staring daggers.

    We went to a couple of homes.  The designer was predictable.  No one in suburban Chicago seemed capable of grasping the simplest precepts laid down by the New York design community.  Her job was apparently to mock and diminish.  My response was predictable too.  I kept suggesting the Sullivan home represented something remarkable, that this family had turned 2000 square feet of concrete and drywall into something happy, homey, and theirs.

    The contrast could not have been more clear.  For the designer, these homes were a scandalous descent from the Platonic perfections of New York design.  For me, they were an ascent from a very different alternative: a cruelly anomic room at a Motel 6.  Designer and anthropologist were utterly different students of what was happening in the Sullivans’ home.  The Oprah producers had chosen us well.  Out of this tension came a show.

    We were talking about two kinds of culture.  The designer was talking about fast culture.  I was talking about slow culture.

    [an excerpt from McCracken, Grant. Chief Culture Officer. New York: Basic Books.] 

  • Case Study 2: Steampunk is flat

    The contents of Steampunk tile tell a story. The first tile introduces the term. And then through the next six tiles, we show IBM’s noble effort to study Steampunk and then declare it the big trend for 2013.

    As it turned out, IBM was wrong. The trend had in fact peaked. And that’s what makes Steampunk such a precious case study for futurists. It shows us a trend that appears to scale up beautifully. Here surely is a trend that’s taking the world by storm. And there are futurists who talk as if every “next big thing” must be triumphant. They make no allowance for trends that look for destined for greatness only to flatten out.

    Here is the trend beginning it’s decline around 2013, a year before the IBM declaration.

    And the peaks? The peaks come every October. Guess why? You got it in one. Halloween. Steampunk went from being a trend that looked like it would dominate the center of our culture only to be reduced finally to fancy dress, to a costume.

    I know I sound like a know-it-all. Don’t forgive me. I’m being an idiot. Trevor Davis, the man in charge at IBM, was wrong and this makes him a hero. Because almost no one in the futurist community actually makes a public declaration and lives with it. Most everyone walks away from their errors…silently.

    And this means we don’t learn from our errors.

    I sometimes wonder whether this problem, not exposing our bets to contradiction and ourselves to ridicule, happens because cool hunting is infected by the same rules as cool. To made an error when it comes to fashion is to risk ridicule. But we cannot let that rule apply here…and we’re idiots if we let it.

  • Case Study 3: GHE20G0TH1K is going nowhere fast

    GHE20G0TH1K is a tiny trend.

    It’s not the future. It’s not even a future. It is a community of enthusiasm that started small and will stay small.

    I came across it by accident. What, I wondered, is this? How did someone make “ghetto” and “gothic” go together.

    It was one of the favorite conceits of the Complex Systems crowd that in a world of true dynamism a butterfly can flap its wings in the Philippines and eventually there’s a hurricane in Hawaii.

    GHE20G0TH1K is not a butterfly. Like millions of trends, it will “eddie” out. Think of the ripples (aka eddies) we create when we throw a rock in a pool. For a very brief moment, order emerges. A wave runs outwards in all directions from the point of impact.

    But almost immediately the eddie is extinguished. There wasn’t enough oomph there to help it get to Tsunami status. (Tsunami status is every eddie’s dream.) And there are other activities taking place on the surface of the pool. These “push back” and, hankies out, our eddie dies.

    Most things eddie out. Almost everything eddie’s out. Unlike trend-watching in the 1950s when there were relatively few contenders for the “next new thing,” today there are many thousands.

    This means three things:

    1. We have to cast the net wide. There are lots and lots of trend candidates out there.

    2. We need great pattern recognition skills that allow us to separate noise from signal.

    3. Perhaps most important, we need metrics that help us perform steps 1 and 2, to survey and sort.

    I scratched my head for a way to spot and measure GHE20G0TH1K.

    Spotify had helped me see GHE20G0TH1K in the first place. And I was thrilled to see that it also supplies a metric.

    These data are positively talkative data. They tell us GHE20G0TH1K is almost completely stationary.

    -March 26, 2018: there were 51 followers.
    -October 20, 2019: this number soars to 52 followers.
    -August 22, 2020: 91 followers.
    -August 24, 2020: 93 followers.

    And, yes, sure, there must be other, better measures. But in these early days of M-T-F, we are data opportunists (aka data scavengers), using whatever we can find.

    Still, and my unforgivably sneering tone aside, we want to audition lots of candidates because in the early days most things will look like GHE20G0TH1K.

  • Case Study 4: Celebrity fatigue

    Until quite recently we were unapologetically in love with our celebrities. They were the last elite standing.

    Experts, academics, social elites, politicians, civil servants, artists, authors, intellectuals, all of these had fallen.

    Celebrities seemed to rise inexorably, taking over TV journalism, magazines like Vanity Fair, the best seller list, marketing and even innovation.

    And then trouble came even for them.

    Madonna proved to be the poster-girl.

    Asked to give a tribute to Aretha Franklin, she managed to talk almost exclusively about herself. This seems to capture celebrity as a self-absorbed, narcissistic mess, a creature of clueless privilege. The world was outraged.

    Suddenly it was open season on the material girl. Matthew Dessem wrote a piece in Slate entitled “Madonna’s Eurovision Performance Somehow Fails to Solve Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Perfect.

    Poor Gal Gadot is the new target of the anti-celebrity movement. She dared comfort the COVID world from the splendor of a well stocked home.

    Clearly, Gadot walked right into it. “What,” she must have thought to herself, “could be wrong about joining together to sing a song with my friends?”

    Well, nothing except that it made her look like a creature of clueless privilege.

    This much is clear. Mapping the future is not just for politicians and the C-suite. Now now also a good idea for celebrities.

    Here’s the long term “mapping” question?” Who will replace celebrities as our creatures of influence. And why are they losing altitude in the first place?

    And here is the most recent piece on celebrity fatigue, appearing in BBC.com on July 24:

    Sigee, Rachael. 2020. “Is the Age of the Celebrity Over?” BBC.com.

    Acknowledgements: I have chatted several times with Mauricio Mota about celebrity fatigue.

  • Richard Hakluyt, master mapper

    Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616)
    Hakluyt (pronounced “hak-loot” and “hak-light”) was an Elizabethan chaplain, private secretary, and deeply curious man who applied himself to a particular task: knowing everything one could know about the new world and how to get there. By our standards, Elizabethan explorers could be spectacularly casual about what they felt they needed to know to pilot a wooden ship across a forbidding sea in pursuit of landfall, contact, riches and glory. While his contemporaries were risking everything on scant knowledge, Hakluyt was gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. In the place of scant knowledge, rough ideas and blind reaction, Hakluyt was building a system of knowledge.

Mapping the future is going to take teamwork

About Grant McCracken

Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently Culturematic, Flock and Flow, and Dark Value. His new book A New Honor Code will be published by Simon and Schuster in January 2021. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. Grant has taught at Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He is a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project. He is the inventor of The Griff, an early warning system for social and cultural change. He consults widely, including Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Sony, Coca Cola, Sam Adams, Boston Book Festival, Oprah, PBS, State Farm, NBC, Diageo, IBM, Nike, and the White House. He is the winner of the Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America for his work with Netflix. He is credited with spotting the rise of Donald Trump, the fall of Second Life, and the disruption of CPG by Alice Waters and the artisanal movement. His performance piece the Automated Anthropologist was covered by The New Yorker. With Mitch Hurwitz and Wired magazine, Grant helped create what AdAge calls the “Snow Fall” of native advertising for Netflix. Malcolm Gladwell has called his work “brilliant.”