Retrospect | Prospect

December 31, 2009

retrospectprospect

Here we are, at an end and a beginning — as much a time of retrospection as of prospection and prediction. It is also a time to stop and take a look at the present.

I know it’s quite customary at this time of year to do recaps, years in review, forecasts, predictions, etc. Rather than list all the top news headlines of the past decade or make speculations into an uncertain future, I would like to offer some personal observations. It may be rambling and choppy, but I wanted to get these thoughts out in time for New Years.

What has happened in the past 10 years?

The opening chapter of the 21st century has been eventful to say the least: terrorism, global conflict, natural disasters, economic decline, health epidemics, and environmental degradation numbered among our biggest (ongoing) challenges. Among all the bad news items since 2000, there were the inevitable (hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis), the despicable (political and financial scandals galore), the reprehensible (terror attacks, shootings, murders), the lamentable (accidents, deaths of notable figures in history), and the seemingly insurmountable (poverty, inequity, global development issues). Of course, at the individual level there was much to struggle with, from unemployment to the high cost of living to poor quality health care. Thinking back on all of this, I’d say that this was the decade that many people didn’t just see or hear about passively, their lives largely unaffected. This was the decade and specifically the year people actually felt.

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. Science and technology blossomed: our view of the universe and the natural world expanded (Mars exploration, Large Hadron Collider), our knowledge of ourselves and our origins deepened (Human Genome Project, Ardipithecus discovery) and our capabilities to communicate stretched further (broadband, mobile computing). We grew more comfortable with the quickening pace of innovation around the internet, and in turn have allowed it to shape our lives.

What is the world we live in now?

One approach to understanding the present is to use the same “good/bad” construct, as with the past. Much of what we saw continues to this day. However, we have landed in a unique place as a result of the complexities we’re facing, and our present response as a society is a reflection of our place in history:

Social consciousness, which was largely absent or hidden from sight in the decades preceding, is emerging as a defining characteristic of the times. We are focusing more attention on solving human challenges today, locally and globally. Volunteerism and not-for-profit work are now more appealing than traditional corporate jobs, and traditional corporations are catching up to this phenomenon through corporate citizenship initiatives.

Environmental awareness has remarkably become a mainstream phenomenon, no longer the province of “60’s throwbacks.” Nations are now convening to address climate change issues, major corporations are championing green initiatives, and nearly every consumer product and manufacturing process is scrutinized through the lens of sustainability. Collectively, there is a determination to undo the mistakes of the past and instill environmentally sound practices in all areas of society.

Pro-active government is taking bold steps to work for the people, not against them. The Obama administration, in its first year, is showing tremendous resolve in tackling one of our biggest domestic challenges: health care reform. Transparency in government through open data access is another significant shift.

The personal data and smart device explosion is ever-present. Our lives are migrating to digital platforms, where more of our interactions are taking place. The lives of distant others are becoming more detailed and more colorful, as is our own, by news and social networks. Thanks to the multitude of smart gadgets at our disposal, we are always connected, always walking the fine line between our virtual and real lives (sometimes while driving!).

What visions exist for the years ahead?

In the near term, there is a strong sense of guarded optimism about what 2010 holds, particularly with regard to the economy and government. There is little to indicate when or how economic stability will be restored, as there are multiple variables at play. Obama and his administration still have much work to do; unfortunately, immediate results are difficult to realize with monumental foreign and domestic priorities on the agenda competing for attention. Hopefully the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will end soon, terrorists will be defeated, and America’s image will be restored in the eyes of a global community, but again, a clear and direct roadmap remains elusive. A “wait and see” approach seems to be the best we can afford as the year unfolds and the fog of uncertainty slowly dissolves away.

Looking long term, we are still at the start of a millennium, only 1% of the way through. There is great interest these days in the future, perhaps more noticeably this year than in the past 10 years. I wonder if this is due to a longing for a more exciting life enriched by fantastic technologies and scientific breakthroughs, aligned with the science fiction fantasies so vividly rendered in movies and television. Perhaps this is how the future is created — by envisioning potential realities just on the horizon and charting a slow, steady course in their direction. To that end, several communities, groups and organizations such as The Institute for the Future (IFTF), SpaceCollective, and Humanity+ are stirring imaginations and debate about where we may be headed.

As days blur into months and years to come, I hope that progress will continue towards solving our toughest problems, and that we all keep searching for new opportunities to advance our world and ourselves.

Happy New Year!

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BONUS: My website: one year later

It has also been a year since I launched this incarnation of my personal website, and it’s been quite a learning experience in itself:

I found myself writing only a fraction as much as I thought I would. While I lean toward creating long-form original content versus repackaging or republishing existing short-form content with commentary, I think there’s room for a mixture of both, if only for the sake of variety and personal interest.

I spent more time crafting and revising my posts than I expected. Cranking out mini journal-type entries online seemed a simple concept at first, but really putting thought and effort into developing posts proved to be an exercise. Then again, I tend to be a bit fussy with language, so perhaps a punchier journalistic style would suit this medium better.

I finally “got” Twitter. It took a long time for me to even consider getting a Twitter account, and almost as long to start tweeting. Much like this site, I saw it as another experiment in online communication, but with more of a novelty appeal. I didn’t realize it’s potential until I saw it in action: it allows ideas to be spread lightning fast and to be buoyed up and amplified by a multitude of networks.

My intent with this site has always been to share a bit about myself personally and professionally, and to write about what I find interesting, peculiar, or relevant to others. I haven’t gotten much input or feedback on this site this year, and I’m sure there are many people out there like myself who don’t see the need to comment on everything they like or dislike online. Nevertheless, I would like to provide more opportunities for conversation, especially when a healthy debate or discussion might be in order.


1 Comment »

  1. Michael,

    I appreciate your point of view on things–you’re very thoughtful and seem to take your time thinking through what you want to ‘go on the record’ as having said. That may make for less frequent posting, but one of the already emerging trends of 2010 seems to be scaling back on the information we take in and put out.

    As for environmental awareness, I agree that this is a major development. Though I do wonder if we’ve too closely associated adverse environmental factors with particular images/symbols. For example, paper is an environmental ‘culprit’ because it requires cutting down trees and then is thrown away. But the potential of a tight recycling system for paper is significant. Meanwhile, we’ve exchanged much of our paper for information displayed on screens. In general, this was probably the right move, but we’re also pretty device happy these days, which means that countless pda’s, phones, etc. will be manufactured and discarded when the latest one hits the market. It seems to me that our consumption habits haven’t really changed–we’ve just exchanged paper for screens. I wrote a few blog posts about an idea I had for a ‘digital conservation movement’ last summer, when I was thinking about what conservation would look like now that we’re “off paper.” Here’s the link to the original post: http://www.newfangled.com/its_time_to_start_a_digital_conservation_movement.

    Chris

    Comment by Chris Butler — January 6, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

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