How to live in the future – now – with Amber Case

Amber Case, cyborg anthropologist who works at software company Esri, isn’t waiting for the future – she’s living in it.

She is surrounded by electronic devices, but those devices don’t control her: They step out of the way and let Case be a better human.

Amber Case

Amber Case | Creative Commons via Flickr

In Case’s world is the world of the invisible button, a world where she walks around and things just happen. Her phone — which is just one of a slew of devices that is constantly receiving information about Case and her environment, processing it, and returning useful nuggets of insight — tells her whether she’ll need to bring an umbrella for the walk to the meeting she’s heading to later, and reminds her that she should eat chicken and greens for lunch and skip the chips.

She is surrounded by electronic devices, but those devices don’t control her: They step out of the way and let Case be a better human.

Case didn’t wind up in this world by accident. She thinks about technology — where it is now, where it’s going, where it should go, and how that will change how we interact with it and with each other — constantly. Here are a few of the things she looks for when she’s dreaming of the future:

1. Imagine what would happen if the stuff you have and love went away forever.

If there’s anything we know about technology in the twenty-first century, it’s that it changes fast. Huge players disappear and leave holes behind — holes that someone else will fill in a new ways. One trend Case thinks is imminent is personal ownership of our own data via home servers. How will this catch on? If people realize that an abrupt exit by Google or Facebook means their documents/photos/memories/life’s ephemera will be effectively erased, they’ll scramble for a way to log their own data before sending it to the data giants.

2. Look to the past.

“If the future is unevenly distributed,” said Case, “then there are little pockets where people are seeing the future early on.” Case looks for those pockets in the present and the near past. For example, her current obsession is the evolution of the user interface from solid (machines that had to be reconfigured) to liquid (software that can be rewritten to redefine the meaning of a button) to air (no button or physical at all – just you interacting with information and the environment). To vaporize the user interface, Case looked at the work of Steve Mann, who build wearable heads-up displays thirty years ago. Sure, Mann’s inventions weighed as much as a Golden Retriever, but they essentially predicted Google Glass.

3. Hang out with weirdos.

Weirdo is just another word for visionary, according to Case. Activities happening on the fringes right now could one day fall into the center. What’s regarded as bizarre will someday be mainstream. If you want to beat it there, head for the passionate group of people in the corner, wearing forty pounds of sensors and hacked electronics and drinking home-distilled spirits.

4. If you don’t see the future you want, don’t wait for it: Make it.

Unlike some futurists, Case doesn’t just speculate about the next big trend – she creates it so she can start to play with it and understand its dynamics. “If I don’t see somebody making something, I build it,” said Case, “because I can’t wait around for five years.”

“To predict what will happen in the next period of time is impossible, but If certain things haven’t been made, then I will have to make them,” said Case.

And there’s no reason why you can’t, too.

Podcast music credit: “See You Later” by Pitx via Creative Commons.

[spoiler title="Podcast transcript:" open="0" style="1"]

Jordan Wirfs-Brock: At the Defrag 2013 conference in Broomfield, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist who works on location-based technology for software company Esri.

The purpose of technology, says Case, is to make us better humans and to accentuate our humanness. But what does that really mean, and how that process happen?

Case sees our current relationship with technology as one that is in constant flux, and is pushing us all in the direction of enhanced nerdiness.

Amber Case: Well things get really big and then they fragment, and they get really big and then they fragment. They go through these waves. And that’s always going to be the case. If it gets too closed down, then it splinters, and then it opens back up, and then it splinters. In each generation people get nerdier, and then they get non-nerdy, and then they get nerdy.

So that’s just how it goes.

Populations get nerdier over time. They don’t stay the same way or shape. We’re all on Star Trek communicators at this point. Even the coolest kids who don’t like Star Trek are using the equivalent of a Star Trek communicator. And they’re tapping on it and poking on it and installing apps, and they’re nerds. We are all massive nerds at this point.

JWB: One of the nerdier trends that is becoming mainstream is called “quantified self.” It’s where people use digital scales, pedometers, and motion sensors to track their every move and understand more about their lives through a feed of personal data.

Paradoxically, Case sees this proliferation of sensors and ubiquitous data making our lives simpler. How? By turning data into simple insights.

AC: Number one is making the invisible visible. If you can make the invisible visible, good things happen, because then you can act on it. It’s not that I want to think more or think less. I want to make less decisions in my life and have somebody giving me fewer choices, that are good choices. I think every day you have to make a ton of choices, and the more choices you make, the less amount of choices you have left to make during the day. And so if there’s a system that’s helping you be a smarter person, great. Honestly, I just want the simple insights.

JWB: But, like any good futurist, Case recognizes some of the pitfalls of our emerging, quantified selves and our evolving relationship with technology.

Those pitfalls aren’t inherent in technology — they are inherent in humanity.

AC: Technology itself is neutral until acted upon by a human. You can use the internet to save the world, or you can use it to destroy it. But it’s really what you do with it. So I think people need to be trained to understand it better.

JWB: And what about technology’s magnetic, inescapable pull?

AC: Media, not technology, is addictive. Media is specifically addictive, and there’s a difference between technology and media. Technology can be used as a tool.

JWB: Are there any upcoming trends or future technology that you find scary?

AC: Yeah.

JWB: What would those be? I mean, obviously, before you said technology is neutral until someone does something with it. But is there anything that makes you nervous, or that you see as a potentially scary piece of technology?

AC: Yeah, but I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too scary.

The scariest technology to me is when somebody makes an assumption that the computer should act like a human. When a computer acts like a human, and makes decisions for the human, you can have big errors. You can have big mistakes. You can have somebody entered into a medical system and get the wrong surgery. You can get the wrong amount of insulin pumped into somebody’s body. You can have a computer error killing somebody.

You always have to have a human in the loop, and you need to use technology to amplify humanness and use technology to do what is tedious and what humans aren’t good at, which is getting through a lot of rows of data and information and then having the last mile be done by the human in terms of the correlation or the decision.

JWB: Technology doesn’t need to blindly drive us. We can drive it. And that’s exactly what Case attempts to do.

AC: If I don’t see somebody making something I build it, because I can’t wait around for five years, and I’m not going to. Five years is too long. To predict what will happen in the next period of time is impossible, but If certain things haven’t been made, then I will have to make them. I’ll work with people to make them.

JWB: Where can you look if you, like Amber Case, want to find the future, now?

AC: We’ll see people uncreatively thinking about stuff, and then we’ll see people creatively thinking about stuff and making the next new things. And that creative material, some of which will come out of universities, some of which will come out of, probably 13-year-olds, it’s all the stuff on the edges right now. Think about all the things on the edges that everybody thinks is weird, and everybody doesn’t like, or people are scared of, that’s going to all come to the center. And then there’s going to be a bunch of stuff that’s on the sides and edges again.

Everything that you think is weird right now. You go and find all these little emerging groups, maybe they don’t dress well, maybe they don’t look nice, maybe they talk weird, those are gonna be the things that run the future. It’s always going to be the same. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, looking and smelling weird and making personal computers in their garage, the homebrew computer club. You just go and find the passionate people, and that will be the core.

JWB: For The Upstart, I’m Jordan Wirfs-Brock reporting from Defrag 2013.