Has anything come up during your discussions on the road that changed your way of thinking about what scares people?
There was one guy about six months ago, he's actually one of the reasons we started this research. It was at an event in San Francisco. We had been talking about futurism and this guy stood up and started talking about fear. He had two daughters and he felt that mobile phones and the Internet were stealing his daughters away from him. His daughters were 13, 14--right at the cusp; texting all the time. "The technology is destroying my daughters' ability to talk to humans," he said. And he started to get really upset. So upset that security was starting to move in. So I started thinking and the first thing I said was, "Stop. You are worried about your daughters because you love them. That fear, that worry, where it's coming from--good, do that. If more people did that we'd be a better society. I'm not discounting your fear, man. That means you're a good dad." So he took a breath, and everyone relaxed.
Smart phones have only been around for a few years, so we're still trying to find out what's socially and culturally acceptable. I asked him, "Are you a family that watches TV while you eat dinner or never watches TV during dinner?" He said that they never watched TV during dinner. So I said, "That's a decision that you make as a family about technology. As technology progresses, you have to remember that you are in control. You want to make sure that your daughters are safe and healthy and smart and ready for the world. That is where it's coming from, and let's also talk about how we can design technology to improve that." Because the fear was so real and visceral, it just hit me. This guy was scared and that just stopped me in my tracks.
How does a future futurist spend his time as a kid?
Growing up, my dad was a radar-tracking engineer and my mom was an [information technology] specialist. My pop used to come home with electrical schematics of the radar and tell me the story of how it worked. A few weeks later he would come home with an actual piece of the radar and say, "Take it apart." And then he would actually show me how to take it apart. I think about when this happened and I realize that it was around the time I was learning to read. I was learning to read schematics the same time I was learning to read, so I grew up immersed in technology.
How does one become a futurist? Can you go to school and get a degree in futurism?
No, but you can go to the college where they first taught futurism, which Alvin Toffler does at the New School [for Social Research] here in New York City.
The New School is known for social research. What does a future futurist study there?
That's the lovely thing about the New School when I went, which was the late '80s, early '90s. You could take whatever you wanted. I studied a lot of computer science, but when I went to the New School it was this great mix where I could study sociology, I could study economics, I could study film and I could go down to [New York University] and take classes. As a futurist I need the technical chops to understand what we're talking about. But I also need the research chops to be able to go out and pull this all together and then have the ability to express it. It's not enough to have a vision of the future, you also have to be able to express it. That's one of the things I took away from the New School.
How did you become Intel's futurist?
I had been using future casting--a combination of computer science and social science and spotting trends--as part of my work on Intel projects looking five or 10 years out, such as the design for system-on-a-chip (SoC) processors, the new type of chip we're putting together that consolidates more processes in less space. Future casting helped us ask ourselves hard questions about the future of technology and figure out what to build. So [Intel chief technology officer] Justin Rattner said to me, "We think you should be Intel's futurist." And I said, "No way." That's a huge responsibility, especially for a place like Intel.
At the time Justin wanted me to get out there and start talking to people about the future. We had such discussions internally, but we hadn't been talking about it with others outside the company. The next week [June 30, 2010,] we released the book Screen Future, which was this work about technology in 2015. I sat down and talked to the press. Almost everyone said, "So you're Intel's futurist." At that point I realized that I already had the job.
What is the greatest misconception that people have about the future?
So many people think the future is something that is set. They say, "You're a futurist, make a prediction." The future is much more complicated than that. The future is completely in motion, it isn't this fixed point out there that we're all sort of running for and can't do anything about. The fact of the matter is, the future is made everyday by the actions of people. Because of that, people need to be active participants in that future. Literally, the future is in our hands. The biggest way you can affect the future is to talk about it with your family, your friends, your government.