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The future is now

The things—systems, technology, and ideas—that will impact us most in the future aren’t some unimaginable, as-yet dreamed up, Jetsons-style notions. No, in fact, what will impact our futures the most are systems and technologies that already exist, but to which we haven’t yet caught up. In a sense, then, the future is already here.

That’s according to Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, and Jeff Howe, founding director of Northeastern’s Media Innovation Program, who co-authored the book, Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future.

The pair joined President Joseph E. Aoun for a discussion titled, “The Future of the Future” Tuesday in the event space on the 17th floor of East Village. This most recent installment of Northeastern’s presidential speaker series explored the emerging trends already shaping our future and the ways we might best adapt to what’s ahead.

Jeff Howe, left, assistant professor and director of Media Innovation at Northeastern, and Joi Ito, center, director of the MIT Media Lab, join President Joseph E. Aoun for a conversation titled, “The Future of the Future” on Tuesday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“We see everyday stuff that’s going on in science but hasn’t been translated out—whether that’s ways of thinking or actual science,” Ito said. “Only now are we really seeing the impact that computation is having on manufacturing, and the main wave of change is still yet to come. Most of the stuff that’s going to affect us right away is sitting right in front of us.”

In fact, when a participant following the conversation online asked Ito and Howe what tool they think might next revolutionize our lives, Howe answered, “It’s not a new tool that’s going to change everything.”

“We have to catch up to our tools,” he said. “We’re not at a place where we can even understand the implications of our tools very well. We need to collectively take a technology Sabbath and figure out what this all means for us.”

Ito and Howe present a set of principles in Whiplash that have emerged from their study of broad waves of change—principles that they posit will engender the kind of innovative thinking that will be necessary to succeed in this era of massive change.

“What we’re looking at is a new operating system for the future,” Howe said, “and these are the emerging best practices.”

Practice over theory

One of those principles, practice over theory, recognizes that today’s society is advancing faster than ever before. Waiting to start until one has the perfect plan can be gravely detrimental.

“We have to catch up to our tools. We’re not at a place where we can even understand the implications of our tools very well. We need to collectively take a technology Sabbath and figure out what this all means for us.”

Jeff Howe founding director of Northeastern’s Media Innovation Program

Aoun, himself a graduate of MIT, questioned the value of asserting a hierarchy between the two.

“I was raised in an environment where theory was so much superior to practice that you looked down on practice,” he said. “Here, you’re reversing that and creating another hierarchy. At Northeastern, we recognize that you need to integrate both in order to innovate and be successful.”

Ito supported the importance of maintaining a balance between theory and practice, acknowledging that part of the goal of establishing such stark principles is to “provoke conversation.”

He illustrated the principle with an example drawn from Reid Hoffman, a friend and founder of LinkedIn. “For startups, it shouldn’t be ‘ready, aim, fire;’ it should be ‘fire, aim, fire, aim, fire, aim,’” he said.

Emergence over authority

Another of Ito and Howe’s principles emphasize collective knowledge and ability over rote deference to authority.

Howe compared it to an ant colony.

“An ant colony knows to keep its trash furthest from the queen and its food closest,” he said. “That’s not because the queen is really, really smart; she’s just as stupid as the rest of the drone ants. That’s because the colony as a whole is really smart.”

Similarly, he said, no single person—no single company—could have created Wikipedia. Collectively, however, people have created one of the largest repositories of knowledge ever known to man.

“What we’re looking at is a new operating system for the future, and these are the emerging best practices,” said Jeff Howe Tuesday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Compasses over maps

The fourth principle emphasizes the benefit of being malleable enough to seek alternate routes to one’s ultimate goal.

“As the terrain gets more and more complicated,” Ito said, “the cost of building a useful map starts to exceed just going out and trying.”

He offered an anecdote about the founders of YouTube as an example, noting that their ultimate goal—their compass—was to become the biggest video site in the world. They tried a lot of different approaches to reach that point until one stuck, and though their path might have been different from what they expected, they never lost their bearings.

Diversity over ability 

Ito and Howe champion the nurturing of a cognitive diversity as a means to expedite that journey.

“Questioning authority and thinking for yourself is a cornerstone of progress.”

Joi Ito director of the MIT Media Lab

Howe borrowed an example from complex systems researcher Scott Page, explaining that if a company simply hires “the five smartest people” in a certain field to solve a problem, then those people hire the best people they know, “you have 10 people who are all going to go to the same mountain on a map to try to solve the problem because they all have the same background.”

Thus, more than just a moral good, fostering diversity just makes mathematical sense—people with outside perspectives are more likely to make unique contributions toward solving a problem.

Disobedience over compliance

“Questioning authority and thinking for yourself is a cornerstone of progress,” Ito said.

It also leads to stronger systems overall. Comparing it to an immune system that gets stronger the more it’s attacked, he said, “The goal is to create systems that get stronger, systems that will be more resilient.”

Howe offered another example from his background as a journalist.

“I tell my students who want to cover the Red Sox, ‘Algorithms are going to write better sports stories than you. Those are just the facts.’ What you have to figure out is what you bring to the table that computers aren’t good at. A computer is not going to be able to write a funny, quirky story about a high school basketball player. That’s disobedient thinking.”

Resilience over strength

This, Aoun noted, is a principle for which Northeastern—with its emphasis on resilience research—is uniquely suited to lead.

The newly-established Global Resilience Institute is focused on improving the resilience of systems around the world.

“We’re going to face manmade and natural disasters,” Aoun explained. “The whole idea is, ‘How can you be more agile in recovering?’”

The idea that systems and networks will fail—and therefore should be designed to fail gracefully and recover nimbly—brought to the fore a discussion on the cultural differences in considering resilience.

Systems over objects

The final principle, systems over objects, was more or less the duo’s mission statement, Howe said.

“It’s a plea for anti-disciplinarian thinking, for holistic thinking,” he said. “All intellectual pursuit needs to be oriented around the fact that things are connected in a way that extends beyond disciplinary boundaries.”

All of these principles, Ito and Howe said, should be put into practice as soon as possible, by as many people as possible.

In fact, when an 11-year-old in the audience asked what he and his friends can do to help, Ito answered, “We need as many people as we can working on these problems.”

“Everybody needs to be involved in thinking about solutions,” he said. “You shouldn’t wait until you’ve finished college to start saving the world; you should start right away.”