Q&A: Paul Saffo on the Future of Media and a New Era of Environmentalism

Welcome to Circle of Blue Radio’s Series 5 in 15, where we’re asking global thought leaders 5 questions in 15 minutes, more or less. These are experts working in journalism, science, communication design, and water. I’m J. Carl Ganter. Today’s program is underwritten by Traverse Internet Law, tech savvy lawyers, representing internet and technology companies.

Today we’re talking with Paul Saffo. He’s a man who lives in the future, and he maps and predicts society’s biggest transformations. Paul is a futurist who teaches at Stanford University, and for the past 20 years has explored the dynamics of large-scale, long-term change. Paul, let’s talk first about the transforming media, how everyone get’s their news and participates in their community. What’s your media forecast?
Paul Saffo: Well, you know, whenever we have a media shift like this, and you can go back 400 years to movable type: a period from 1450 to movable type’s invention by Herr Gensfleisch Gutenberg, to all this in 1501 for his modern book. We always have this drop in quality and hand ringing over what can we trust, and we forget 100 years ago newspapers were enormously unreliable, so we’re doing that now. We’re getting a mix of new voices, and we’re going to quickly discovery which ones are reliable and, more importantly, create the social indicators of which places you can trust. I’m an optimist about media. I think we’re going to come through this with more voices, more choices, and more reliability. You may not be able to trust specific outlets the way you once did, but it won’t matter because there will be a button where you can chase down authenticity.

I’m an optimist about media. I think we’re going to come through this with more voices, more choices, and more reliability. You may not be able to trust specific outlets the way you once did, but it won’t matter because there will be a button where you can chase down authenticity.

You talk a lot about censors, not censorship, but remote sensing capabilities, and we have major global challenges right now, and in a way we’ve lacked those censors. How will censors change our view of responding to these global challenges in both the mechanical sense and in our own personal sense?
Paul Saffo: Well, this is a world where, at the data level–just a simple data collection–we’re moving from discreet episodic collection. So imagine we’re sampling water, and you check it once a week with an instrument–we’re shifting from discreet episodic measurement to continuous measurement: a continuous data feed on the status of things. Just in health alone, imagine if you’ve got a patient and you send him home, and you can do 7/24 monitoring of bodily vital functions–[it] completely changes how you can do medicine. The same is true for the environment. If we can monitor things 7/24 at fine levels of granularity, it’s going to change the way we think about environmental remediation, about purity water supplies, and the like. The fact is that the Internet, you know, is going to be an Internet of things, just as today once upon a time with the phone system [when] almost all of traffic on a phone system was voice conversations. Even before we went to the internet, voice conversation became less than half a percent of total volume. Today the web, the most visible part is people looking up information, people interacting with information. Hidden behind that are machines using the web. So the web is going to become an environment where maybe a fraction of one percent of the traffic is people interacting with things, and hidden behind that will be machines talking to other machines, sharing data coming off of vast sensor networks, and then occasionally telling us what’s going on.
Well short term versus long term. We’ve been driven by a lot of short term returns. Now if we can monitor real time and even start to project what some of the long term implications will be of our decisions, that would seem to be a game changer for a lot of industries.
Paul Saffo: We’re always victims of our own measurements. Part of the reason we got into the environmental crisis that we’ve gotten into is, as Paul Hawken has pointed out, we weren’t measuring the right things. Put it more simply, the problem is that the environment didn’t have its own accountants. Corporations had accountants, and individuals had accountants, but a river didn’t have an accountant. Now we’re talking, maybe a river needs an accountant so we can get that stuff on the balance sheet. All of this vast flood of information coming off of sensors is hopefully a good thing, but it’s not automatically a good thing. It’s going to depend on the sense making tools we build and are we using that data to look at the right measures. I do not doubt the human capability of taking all this wonderful new knowledge and putting it to some stupid disastrous civilization destroying purpose. I don’t think it will happen. I hope it won’t happen, but never underestimate the perversity of human nature to turn the long term into short term advantage.
We talk a lot about the virtual world, the censors, the data, the measurements of trends and whatnot, but it seems that we get more and more distracted or just stuck behind our computers rather than rolling up our sleeves or our pant legs and wading into the mud to actually find out what’s going on out there. How do we maintain that connection, that human element?
Paul Saffo: Sure, the question is does the web make us bystanders or engaged activists? Does it make us lean back or lean forward, or more importantly, get out of the chair and into the world? I would say on balance, it’s doing the latter. Conversations with people at a distance, if they go on long enough, lead to a trip to meet face to face. When you see a crisis up close and personally remotely, you want to do something to act on it. In that sense, the plan is becoming a much smaller space that people now really are concerned about things happening half way around because they can see it for themselves. It’s also becoming a much bigger, more rich place because we know all the details that we never imagined in the past. The technology is good, but above all, I would say the most important thing we need is really uncomfortable chairs so that people are not tempted to sit in their chair at a computer and look and watch and comment instead of getting out and acting and doing.
Looking forward, what trends do you see in either environmental reporting or response in the next five years or so? I mean, we’re at a truly highly agitated point in history.
Paul Saffo: One issue above all others matters in the environmental space. There’s a debate that’s just beginning around global climate change. We’ve already resolved, global climate change is happening. No question. Global climate change is anthropogenically caused, human-caused. No question except for a couple of flatterers who still don’t believe it. Now the debate is what is our approach to solving it, and that’s going to be the single most contentious debate we have, and I see that as a debate between two camps, call one camp the druids, the other camp the engineers. I’m sympathetic to both. I’m a lifetime member of the Sierra Club, third generation. My grandmother knew John Muir, so I’m in favor in the environmental view. Also I teach at an engineering school at Stanford. The difference between the two is that the druid position is we need to slow down, we need to lighten our touch on the planet, we need to go back to an earlier time when there was less damage being done to the environment. The engineers are saying no, no, we need to go faster into the future. We need to use this technology to solve the problems we’ve created. I’m kind of skeptical about both camps. We have UN reports that make it clear that’s really hard to be druid these days because we’ve got too many people. We need something like four or six Earths to support the human population on this planet today at its current level of affluence. The engineers, I’m glad they want to solve the problem, but I say, gee, it’s your inventions over the last 150 years that created the problem to begin with. That tension between the people saying go back, go back, and simplify, lighten our touch on the land, and the others saying go forward, go forward, and let’s intervene and let’s build, that’s an argument that makes me very nervous because I don’t think either side has the answer. The right answer is some fusion of the two. We have to go forward, but in my opinion we have to go forward really using deep principles of biomimetics and lessons from nature. The closest analogy I can think of that’s been said by some folks is the metaphor is gardening. It’s the respectful, diffident gardener who’s not creating some stupid exotic wild garden but a sensible, sustainable garden. We’ve screwed this planet up enough that we’re going to have to intervene, and we’re going to have to keep intervening. If we stop intervening, we’ll die, but let’s not create a planet that’s so dependent on our intervening that we have to spend the whole time keeping balls in the air.
There’s always talk about silver bullets. As humans, we’re looking for that perfect answer, that drug, that cure-all. What’s your take?
Paul Saffo: Silver bullets. The only term I hate more than silver bullets is the newest one, silver buckshot. This is a long term problem. We are facing deep, long term problems which have been decades in the making. It is moronic to then say, let’s look for the quick fix for something that took a couple of decades. That is just a way to get into deeper trouble. It is my hope that we would remove silver bullet and silver buckshot and all these other stupid short term terms from our vocabulary. What we have to think about is it took a long time to get into this. It’s going to take a long time to get out. It’s a sustained effort. There is no deus ex machina that’s going to drop down from the top of the stage that’s going to save us. This is going to take sustained careful work over many years. It’s a conversation with generations unborn. It’s not a quick fix.
Thank you, Paul. We’ve been speaking with Paul Saffo, futurist at Stanford University. To learn more about Paul’s work and other projects, be sure to tune in to Circle of Blue online at CircleofBlue.org.

Our them is composed by Nadav Kahn, and Circle of Blue Radio is underwritten by Traverse Legal, PLC, internet attorneys specializing in trademark infringement litigation, copyright infringement litigation, patent litigation and patent prosecution. Join us gain for Circle of Blue Radio’s 5 in 15. I’m J. Carl Ganter.

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