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Amy Webb - A futurist's notebook

Every week I open my research notebook and share artifacts from the adjacent future.

Recommended Reading + Watching for Spring 2017

Amy Webb

To map the future, you have to start by looking for the present-day fringe. It’s in the fringe where creative thinkers develop innovative ideas that aren't shackled by research grants or other constraints which would cause them to edit themselves. Much of the fringe is about being in a space where few operate, in order to experiment and allow the mind to wander productively. Finding the fringe is the first step in futures forecasting.

For those of you hoping to understand the future, it can be helpful to read science and speculative fiction. Author George Saunders recently offered wise advice in The Atlantic: "Fiction can allow us a really brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we really don’t know what the hell to think. We can’t stay there very long. It’s not in our nature. You can be truly confused by something and then ten minutes later you're grasping for your opinions like somebody going for a life jacket. But that brief exposure to the land of ambiguity is really, really good for us. To be genuinely confused about something for even a few seconds is good because it opens us up to the idea that that which we know right now is not complete. Just to know that for ten minutes a day is unbelievable."

Getting comfortable with ambiguity is part of becoming a skilled futurist, and a good way to do that is to read and watch stories that don't represent your view of the world. Throughout the year, my colleagues and I at the Future Today Institute curate list of what to read and watch based on current events and emerging trends. Below is our Spring 2017 list of recommended reading and watching. You’ll find familiar titles as well as new works, and I hope you'll dive in...


The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (book)

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (book)

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (book)

The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley (book)

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (book)

Female Man by Joanna Russ (book)

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang (novella)

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (graphic novel)

The Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai (book)

1984 by George Orwell (book)

Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias (book)

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman (book)

Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys (book)



Black Mirror (Netflix)

The Twilight Zone (Netflix)

Legion (FX) 

Real Fake History (Nerdist)

Colony (Netflix)

Arrival (movie)

Taboo (FX)

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

American Gods (Starz)

Bill Nye Saves the World (Netflix)

Dark (Netflix)

*Rewatching the “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” episode of
The X-Files (Netflix)

The Future Of...Virtual Reality

Amy Webb

Happy Oculus Rift Pre-Order Day! Virtual reality's event horizon is officially upon us.

Apple, Google, Microsoft, HTC, Samsung, Sony––the world's largest tech companies are racing ahead in a land grab to dominate VR with their own headsets. Some will require a mobile phone. Some won't. Batteries will power some, others will require tethering to a switch. They'll all do the same basic thing, but each headset will require different a different operating system, with competing virtual storefronts to download or stream content. Soon, we'll add our own photos and videos to our chosen VR repositories. We'll create memories in VR. We'll make new friends and new enemies in VR near-futuristic worlds.

As with all Wild West tropes, this one will have winners, losers, big ugly hats, saloon brawls and a sheriff who tries to create order out of chicanery. It's a story we're all too familiar with. Remember Betamax vs VHS, and then later VHS vs VHS-C? How about Minidisc vs CD-RW , and then Zune vs iPod? Ask your friends who were on the losing sides of those battles what it was like to be a digital refugee, forced to leave much of their digital lives behind.

VR is full of promise. Some day, students will meet each other in VR classrooms for the most sophisticated, cross-cultural lessons ever taught. Our elderly grandparents will be able to travel to the Parthenon, to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and to the far reaches of China's Great Wall. Athletes will train on simulated plays in a room the size of your kitchen. We will crawl inside the news, poke around and experience society's narrative as it unfolds in real-time.

But we're not quite there yet. Welcome to f*cking Deadwood.

We have an opportunity right now to build a better reality for our future virtual worlds, and it starts with agreeing on a set of standards for a unified VR operating system.


Variegated Realities

  • Vintage Reality - Sega VR headset, introduced by MTV-VJ Alan Hunter the summer of 1993. It was never released, but the video promo was, and its ah-mahzing. When you watch it, remember that the video is now 22.5 years old! (video)
  • Vague Reality - Here's the first prototype for the RealitySuspender, a new harness system that simulates walking and running within your VR environment. (RealityRig on YouTube)
  • Vogue Reality - A timeline of fashion's early experiments with VR (Racked)
  • Vouille Reality - This True American Hero built a VR version of Duck Hunt. (Gizmodo)
  • Vexing Reality - Even virtual assistants are getting sexually harassed. (CNN Money)
  • Vast Reality - Millions of lines of code, illustrated. (informationisbeautiful.net)
  • Vainglorious Reality - “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” (Marc Andreessen on Twitter)
  • Veritable Reality - 'Suspended Animation,' now open at the Hirshhorn, is a trippy exhibit from the future. (Hirshhorn Museum)
  • Vapid Reality - Watch Bette Midler sing Kim Kardashian's most vapid tweets. (Kimmel Live)
  • Verbatim Reality - Live Oculus Connect 2 coding session with John Carmack. (Oculus on YouTube)
  • Vestiges of Reality - New ultrasound technology lets you touch and feel things virtual objects, just like you used to in the real world. Remember when I talked about this at ONA '15? (Bloomberg)
  • Vertebrae Reality - Stories of broken bones and other VR injuries (Gizmodo)
  • Vincent van Gogh Reality - The Night Cafe is an immersive VR environment that allows you to explore the world of Vincent van Gogh first hand. (at Devpost)
  • Visceral Reality - This is the world's first full body smart textile tactile feedback suit that lets you feel the virtual reality you see. (TeslaSuit.com)
  • Vitriolic Reality - How to robocall the robocallers. Transfer all your telemarketer calls to this glorious bot. (Jolly Roger Telephone Company)
  • Victorious Reality - Notes from Einstein's Zurich lecture on Relativity. His prediction of gravitational waves was proven last week. (Einstein Archives)


Vocal Reality
Futures made of virtual insanity now. Always seem to, be governed by this love we have for useless, twisting, our new technology. Oh, now there is no sound for we all live underground. –– Virtual Insanity by Jamiroquai.


Vessel Reality
Drinking a mug of virtual reality beer makes you feel fatter in real life. According to science:

Scientists had subjects wear a VR helmet and gave them the body of a very heavy man. “They saw from a first person perspective a virtual body substituting their own that had an inflated belly. For four minutes they repeatedly prodded their real belly with a rod that had a virtual counterpart that they saw in the VR.” After, subjects were asked to estimate their own stomach size. "The results show that first person perspective of a virtual body that substitutes for the own body in virtual reality, together with synchronous multisensory stimulation can temporarily produce changes in body representation towards the larger belly size."

Reality Reality
We've officially launched the Future History Festival! If you've ever wanted to attend a Spark Camp event, this is your chance. We just announced programming, which includes a DIY sensor lab, a chance to build a popup gallery with Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector, a live recording of the Slate Money podcast and much more. The FHF is about challenging the way you see the world around you. That means that you won't see any of the usual suspects at whatever industry event you usually attend. It's a chance to gain new perspective from smart people outside your circles. Registration is here, and I have a discount code for you: SparkGuest. That will get you in at our alumni discount rate.

Check out my annual tech trends report if you haven't already. There's a bunch of great information on what to watch out for in the VR space this year (especially on pages 22 and 51-56.) If you'd like for me to come and talk trends in your office, have a look at my 2016 Foresight Program.

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Webbmedia Group // What's A Futurist? // Spark Camp // Twitter // Books

The Future of...Ambient Proximity

Amy Webb



If you traveled through an airport during the holidays, you were probably being tracked at some point by a beacon––a tiny device that can be programmed to push information to (or receive information from) your mobile phone. You might remember seeing a monitor showing security wait times: TSA Pre was only 8 minutes, vs the regular line, which was already up to 31. If your phone's bluetooth was activated, it was being used in the background to predict how quickly the line would move. In fact, you were the sensor. When you passed by a beacon––which may not have been obvious or even visible––the system recorded, encrypted and timestamped your device’s MAC address. The time that elapsed between beacon pings helped the airport to estimate the wait time in lines and to redirect passengers like you to less congested areas. Maybe you took that airplane to Orlando, to visit Disney World with your family. You might have opted in to Disney's MagicBand, which not only served as your room key and wallet, but also fed data back to park managers in real-time. Your ambient proximity to various points informed a complex system of how, where and at what speed people were walking, standing and waiting throughout the Magic Kingdom. As you triaged family complaints (210 minutes isn't THAT long for Space Mountain!) data analysts were already sending Mickey and Minnie to adjacent locations and opening up nearby attractions in an effort to distract you. These two scenarios may not seem all that shocking to you. But what if I told you that soon, beacons will be obviated by the Internet of Things over WiFi? Beacons won't be necessary once our mobile phones have the ability to interact with any connected device, whether that's a classroom blackboard or your car's rear tires. Data from everyday items will enable entrepreneurs, HR managers, travel agents, security agencies and more to make smarter real-time decisions. Here's an example from the near-future: Let's say you're in a store looking for running shoes. You're willing to buy either Under Armour or Nike. You stop at an in-store display, picking up a few shoes before deciding on two to try on. You eventually decide that you prefer the way Nike fits, so you make a purchase. That entire time, data is being collected on your physical movements and gestures––which shoes you considered, which you put back down, how much time you spent with them, and what you ultimately tried on. That information will be sent, lightening-fast, back to Under Armour and Nike. Your data will be compared against others who shop in the store as well as with customer data in other regions. And then you'll receive a notification on your mobile device––it's from an algorithmic Under Armour sales associate. She will ask you what you didn't like the UA shoe you had considered, and she'll suggest a different model to try on before you complete your purchase. If the store is out of stock, she'll direct you to purchase a pair online. In the farther-future, ambient proximity will catalyze deep personalization. Everything will be on-demand, and digital agents will vie for your immediate attention. Analysts (human and robotic) will track your location data to understand what makes you happy. A few companies are already experimenting with ambient proximity to predict the likelihood of an employee leaving for a competitor. It turns out that there’s a strong correlation between job satisfaction and the frequency an employee stops by a colleague’s desk or eats alone in the breakroom. In the coming year, I expect to see a new ambient proximity ecosystem bloom, providing value to both the consumer and the organization tracking data. But as with many emerging technologies, there is little discussion about privacy implications for the average consumer. Trade-offs, trade-offs.

Close To You


Get A Little Closer Now

#Longreads that are worth your time.

  • Preternatural Machines: To a medieval world, they were indistinguishable from magic by E.R. Truitt in Aeon. Read here.
  • The Post-Binge-Watching Blues: A Malady of Our Times by Matthew Schneier in the New York Times. Read here.
  • The True Story of Roland The Farter, And How The Internet Killed Professional Flatulence by Linda Rodriguez in Atlas Obscura. Read here.
  • The Shape of Things To Come by Ian Parker in the New Yorker. Read here.


Ever sensed the presence of a ghost? An apparition within your ambient proximity? It turns out that ghostly presences––feeling as though someone is near you when no one is actually there -- is just your brain trying to untangle conflicting information. According to science:

Here, we performed lesion analysis in neurological "feeling of presence" (FoP) patients, supported by an analysis of associated neurological deficits. Our data show that the FoP is an illusory own-body perception with well-defined characteristics that is associated with sensorimotor loss and caused by lesions in three distinct brain regions: temporoparietal, insular, and especially frontoparietal cortex. Based on these data and recent experimental advances of multisensory own-body illusions, we designed a master-slave robotic system that generated specific sensorimotor conflicts and enabled us to induce the FoP and related illusory own-body perceptions experimentally in normal participants. These data show that the illusion of feeling another person nearby is caused by misperceiving the source and identity of sensorimotor (tactile, proprioceptive, and motor) signals of one’s own body. Our findings reveal the neural mechanisms of the FoP, highlight the subtle balance of brain mechanisms that generate the experience of ‘‘self’’ and ‘‘other,’’ and advance the understanding of the brain mechanisms responsible for hallucinations in schizophrenia.

Download the full PDF. It's interesting!


Lots of things to share! Our annual tech trends report is now live, and it's been viewed 110k times in just the past two weeks. I wrote about tech trends for business leaders in the Harvard Business Review and talked trends with Alex over at the Huffington Post (read), on the Kojo Nnamdi show (listen) and also on the VOA (listen). We launched our 2016 Foresight Program––if you want me in your office once a quarter talking trends, take a look. I'm at American University on January 19th giving a public lecture about the future of journalism and technology, and I'll be at Harvard on the 20th talking about the future of technology, media and society (that one is a closed session).


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Webbmedia Group // What's A Futurist? // Spark Camp // Twitter // Books



The Future of...The Internet of X

Amy Webb

With so many objects, networks and people coming online, you're going to start to hear companies calling themselves the “Internet of X.” For most of the Internet's history, we've only been able to search for text-based files. Only very recently have we been able to drop photos into a search engine to hunt for similar images...

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The Future of...Glitches

Amy Webb

What gives? "Glitch" has become an accepted shorthand for problems that don't have immediate, obvious causes. In many cases, glitches have to do with degraded network connectivity or a miscalculation of the bandwidth needed. Or an upgrade that didn't go as planned. Or a crappy codebase that's finally started to unravel. But a lot of times, glitches have to do with newer technologies, which we are learning break in unexpected and weird ways.

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The Future of...-ables

Amy Webb

In the present day and well into the future, hybrid devices––computers designed with dual purposes––will be part of our daily lives. They are meant to be worn, of course. But also to be ingested, injected, implanted and imprinted.

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The Future of...Brain to Brain Interfaces

Amy Webb

This week, we'll venture out into the far-future, to the year 2065. By then, we will have long abandoned our conversations about second (third! fourth!) screens in favor of conversations about no screens at all. Historically, information has been taken in by our five known senses, and our information output has been restricted to language and gesture. We don't recognize it as such, but in 2015 we are actually living in an age of digital telepathy.....

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