Futurologist Mark Stevenson talks with students following his presentation at the Global Studies Institute.
November 22, 2013

Imagine a Christmas when children will be downloading specifications for their favorite toys from Internet sites and printing them on the family’s personal 3-D printer with micro-wind and solar cells supplying the energy to run the entire household.

That day isn’t too far in the future, according to futurologist Mark Stevenson. Stevenson spoke to members of the Culver Academies Global Studies Institute and Technology Committee on Nov. 21 as part of his two-day visit with students in the entrepreneurial and chemistry classes, instructors, and members of the GSI.

The author of The Optimist Tour of the Future and co-founder and director of Flow Associates, a cultural engineering business, Stevenson stopped in Culver on his way from his home base of London to the 2013 Cyber Summit in Banff, Alberta – appropriately named The Optimist’s Guide to IT.

Citing author Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Stevenson said technology can be understood in three phases. The first is the technology prior to a person being born, which is taken for granted. The second is the technology developed from birth to age 35, which is readily accepted and adapted by that person. And the third is the technology developed after a person is 35 and older, which is often seen as useless and an annoyance. Twitter is a good example of that kind of technology, he said.

There is a certain “institutional bewilderment” with the adoption of new technology because older people are in charge of the institutions, such as government, education, and business. Yet the people pushing for adoption of the new technology are the younger group. “We have to arrange ourselves completely differently,” he said. Quoting author William Gibson (Neuromancer), Stevenson said, “The future is here and all around us. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Part of that technology is 3-D printers, which have come down in price to $2000 to $3000. That is similar to the cost of the Apple MacIntosh II computers when they first came out in the 1980s. Another technology that is seeing a dramatic drop in price is gene sequencing. It originally cost $100 million to map the human genome, Stevenson said, but today anyone can have gene sequencing done for $1,000 to $3,000.

The information learned from gene sequencing can serve as a preventive health guide. After Stevenson got his results, he found his potential risk of developing prostate cancer is double that of other European white men his age. But it is in line with the risk for black men his age. Along with the preventive health issues gene sequencing provides, it may completely change how we think about race, he added.

There is technology already developed that would allow individuals to use their cell phones to take a blood sample, measure it against their health data – including gene sequencing – and develop the right prescription for them. And it could be used while being attached to a portable solar battery charger and the pill could be made by a 3-D printer. Doctors are already growing bladders using a person’s own stem cells. They are now working on kidneys, heart valves, and other organs, he added.

“We are not that far away from people being given their birth certificates and gene sequence when they leave the hospital,” he said.

All the technological leaps are simply humans doing what they do best – evolving. First, we evolved biologically. Now we are evolving culturally. And technology is part of cultural evolution. However, the question is how the developing technology will be used. Using the latest technology to clean carbon dioxide from the air is part of the Virgin Earth Challenge, which is offering a $25 million prize to the winning design. Mobile solar power and micro-wind technology could put an end to the electric grid as we know it within the students’ generation. And there is already an open source catalog called the Global Village Construction Set that can be downloaded. It contains essential machines that can be cheaply built for use in remote locations.

Everything will be changing as the technology changes how we work and live, he said. That is the reality, and whether a person believes it or not won’t make it go away. How we consider wealth and influence will be reformulated. Everything about the economy will change. Stevenson said the future can described as “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”

The Bad is that existing organzations aren’t ready for the coming changes. The Good is we already have the tools to remake our world. The Ugly is “it’s going to get messy.”

He said there is a Chinese saying tha people will either build walls or windmills when the winds of change begin to blow. “Your job is to build windmills,” he said.

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