HER: A Futurist’s Review of the Spike Jonze Film

Spike Jonze hides his anxiety about the present in the premise of his near-future story, Her. While Her explores a range of emerging social issues through a love story between a human and his sexy operating system (OS), Jonze’s genius is characterized by what he leaves out. The film tempts viewers to intellectually explore the future through ample blank space.

I saw Her with my closest friends on a trip back to NYC. None of them are futurists. They’re even better– intelli-chicks, always down to feed my obsession with the future. Our discussion after Her was more valuable than the film itself. And that’s exactly the point. On NPR Jonze commented, “I think the other thing that’s been really exciting about [Her] is that as I’ve talked to people, the variety of reactions for what the movie’s about is wide. You know, like some people find it incredibly romantic, some people find it incredibly sad or melancholy, or some people find it creepy, some people find it hopeful. That makes me really happy to hear, you know, because to me it’s everything. It’s all these different things I’m thinking about, and a lot of them are contradictory. And I like hearing what it is to you.”

Interestingly, depictions (literary, film, otherwise) about the future tend to focus on shiny objects. They wow the viewer with so much “stuff” that the futures they describe seem either unbelievable or intimidating. That’s why Her is different. In a film about technology, the technology almost fades into the background. Jonze is remarkably restrained. The viewer is almost left wondering why technology isn’t more obvious. It’s not until after the film that you get it. Her facilitates conversations that go beyond the “oh-so-cool zone”. The audience is compelled to focus on what’s happening today and how we might be changing (or not changing) fundamentally as humans.

While it’s tempting to pick apart the way Jonze addresses issues like climate change, smart city design and wellness, the film is brilliant because they’re not emphasized. The cinematography and script make it easy to fall into the rhythm of Jonze’s story and dismiss futures incongruencies. Her is better because you don’t think about human climate impacts or gamified environments. And, if you aren’t intentionally looking for what’s missing, it’s not apparent. In fact, anymore “stuff” would have left viewers distracted.

If you want proof, look at the fashion within the film. Like the blogosphere, my friends obsessed on the film’s high waisted pant and near-future fashion choices. And how could you not? The clothing stands out. Before seeing Her, I thought it was clever that Jonze had Opening Ceremony create a line specific to the future. But, this small story point has the ability to hijack later conversations into a space that misses the point of the film.

I have two other critiques. The first is Her’s portrayal of a sex surrogate (spoiler ahead). Jonze intended to use the worker to show that even with the most humanlike interfaces an OS lacks the ability to connect viscerally with a human. This point needed to be made, but the scene itself felt archaic and misinformed. The sex worker is portrayed as a feeble girl who’s incompetent at her job. And, let’s be real, current technology can stimulate a more vivid sexual encounter than what’s depicted on screen. My second critique is the cleanliness of Jonze’s near future world. While Theo and Samantha (his OS) are meant to jump to the foreground, Jonze removed too much of everyday life messiness. At one point during the film, I overly noticed a torn sign on the subway just because it had a distressed appearance. The sign had nothing to do this the overall story.

Her isn’t a perfect film, but at its best, viewers leave having the ability to participate in an existing conversation. Remarkably, Jonze’s Her creates a conduit for the audience to explore their intelligence rather than prove his own. Viewers can’t help but leave excited about the discussions to follow.

Call for Speakers: Millennials by Millennials (#MbyM)

There’s a showdown happening on the World Wide Web—this time between Millennials and older demographics. If you trust Google autofill, Millennials are lazy, stupid, doomed, entitled, and “the worst”.   For the most varied demographic in the world,  this cohort is defined by a singular experience, without a real understanding of the diversity embedded within the average Millennial life.

On Wednesday November 20th, the Association of Professional Futurists (APF) will host a digital campfire on Millennials by Millennials. The APF will livestream ten minute experience jolts from across the globe. All are welcome to tune in. We’re creating a space to listen, learn and laugh together.

If you’re a Millennial interested in sharing a perspective, please feel free to submit a speaking proposal. We’re curating sessions that promise to be:

  • Curious. How are you or your friends interfacing with the world? Share a personal experience. Make a crazy connection. We invite you to go beyond the blogosphere and add another dimension to the typical Milleni-speak.
  • Insight-driven. What might your personal observation or experience mean for the long-term future? We’re not looking for “right”. We want to put interesting perspectives into the universe for dialogue.
  • Brief. Each session will focus on an insight that’s shareable in ten minutes- think coffee house chatter, not a PhD dissertation.
  • Fresh. Generic PowerPoint templates are forbidden. Boring won’t fly. This isn’t corporate America and we’re craving uncommon delivery methods. Freak what you feel.

Email your proposal (session name + description + personal bio) to emily.empel@gmail.com by October 21st. Follow #MbyM for more information.

November 2012 #futrchat: The Future of Conferences

Exciting news! This month I’m co-hosting #futrchat  on the future of conferences. Below is information about the event, crossposted from The Association of Professional Futurists blog. Hope to meet you in the Twitterverse!

The University of Hawaii – Manoa is hosting an Emerging Futures Symposium on Friday, November 30th. The Association of Professional Futurists (APF) is livestreaming the event. Futures students from around the world will share twenty minute deep dives focused on topics ranging from “When China Accepts Alternative Futures” to “The Futures of Profanity”. Hawaii’s efforts to develop an innovative conference inspired the APF to host this month’s #futrchat on the future of conferences.

The future of conferences and continued learning

The APF’s ListServ regularly focuses on the future of education for primary to college students. But what about learning for the rest of your life? For those opting to learn outside of academia, conferences offer participants access to content experts and peer-to-peer networking. A transformed conference industry is emerging. For instance, the Pecha Kucha presentation methodology facilitates fast-paced events integrating a multitude of speakers and ideas. In addition, TED has built a business around free, accessible content from engaging thought leaders. A piece in December 2012 issue of Wired magazine notes that TED has shifted from a pure conference company into a media movement.

The future is beginning to infuse the conference industry, but for the majority of participants, conferences do not meet expectations. In 7 Ways Web Conferences Suck and How to Fix Them Robert Hoekman Jr hones in on traditional conference areas that need improvement such as a lack of speaker incentives. More recently, Eric Garland (@ericgarland) posted The Posh, Predictable World of Business Conferences and commented as follows:

“Nothing dramatic goes down at a conference, for the most part. There are no major polemics on stage. No shocking news is unveiled. The keynote does not provoke a response positive or negative in the attendees. The event coordinators hold their breath and hope nothing unplanned happens, and usually, it doesn’t.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, or wherever, people are free to unveil outrageous proposals, fight it out on comment streams, make common cause through private messages, learn, absorb, disagree, and generally participate in a vigorous intellectual process. It’s not that online communities are always this way, nor that live conferences are always stultifying — but million-dollar conferences are usually thought of as too precious to involve risk and adventure. They are like Hollywood — big budget and totally predictable”.

In another piece on the future of conferences, George Siemens notes,

I guess probably the best way of saying what will conferences look like in the future, it will be much more you and I creating them ourselves as participants, rather than someone creating them for us and telling us what to do. I think we will be the ones to create that for ourselves.”

Now for the logistical “stuff”…

It’s time to hear from you- futurists and conference goers – how will conferences in the future vary from what’s available in 2012?

Here is how #futrchat works. At the designated time (Thursday 29 November NYC EST 4-5pm, London GMT 9-10pm and Sydney, AEDT Friday 8-9am), login to Twitter and follow the #futrchat hashtag Watch for questions from me @localrat. Those questions should start near the top of the hour and will be labeled as Q1, Q2, and so on. Expect around 5-6 questions. Add your answer as A1, A2, A3, etc.

Please use #futrchat in your all your tweets. Follow Emily Empel @locatrat for questions. Cindy Frewen @urbanverse and Jennifer Jarratt @jenjarratt will keep the conversation moving along.

Feel free to pose questions, add links (if they pertain and no promotional ads), and teach, inform, persuade, enlighten, or provoke with your comments. And always reply or ask specific questions to other people. What did they mean, can they expand, how about such and such? That’s what keeps the conversation moving!

Here are some useful tools for connecting:

•Twitter Search on twitter.com
•Tweetdeck (multiple search columns; set up required)
•Tweetchat (links directly to #futrchat, adds hashtag to your tweets)
•Twubs (links directly to #futrchat, adds hashtag for you)
•Tweetgrid (up to 9 search columns/boxes, easy set up)

First register at twitter. If you use these sites, you register/sign in again usually through your twitter account; if asked, allow them to access your twitter account which allows you to tweet using the tool.

Futrchatters, let’s get weird. Perhaps, we’ll co-opt your ideas into the APF’s next conference on Gaming and Simulation being held in Orlando Florida May 2-4, 2013.

The Future is Ours

Jay Oglivy shared the final takeaway during the Professional Members Forum at the 2012 World Future Society Conference. Rather than focus on dystopian forecasts of the future, Oglivy offered hopeful visions of what’s ahead.  His final thought: “We are the people we are waiting for”.

Futurists scan the world for data points, emerging issues, and forecasts. Because of the information available, it’s no wonder the scanning process skews towards negative future outlooks. Oftentimes positive scenarios seem outright Pollyanna, crossing into the realm of implausibility. The futures community is jaded. We analyze transformational forecasts like the Singularity and are quick to point out flaws. Moving forward, how can we explore and leverage these futures to build a better world?

I just finished reading James Lee’s new(ish) book, “Resilience”. James, a futurist and friend, begins his work by addressing the current doom and gloom (those are literally the titles to his introductory chapters). He critically identifies the perilous global outlook we face driven, in part, by collapsing economic systems and extreme weather patterns. Yet, unlike many other forecasts, James actively creates viable futures alternatives by showing how emerging issues such as co-sharing and time banking can impact society. “Resilience” leaves reader’s feeling positive but also realistic about our future.

Similarly, Michael Marantz created a jazzy video titled, “The Future is Ours” (below). Marantz invites viewers to imagine tomorrow as being better than today.

While I don’t believe futurists should provide clients with intrinsically positive or negative scenarios about the future, I love the idea of inspirational futures work. When futurists complete an engagement, their clients should feel empowered to create the future.  A futurist’s job is to inspire as much as it is to inform. As Marantz’s video challenges: futurists, let your [clients] be overwhelmed.

WFS 2012: An Unlikely Cocktail

My co-conspirator (@heathervescent) and I are participating in two sessions at The World Future Society Conference. Last year, we presented on the “Best of Houston Futures” panel and renamed it “The Future of Money, Sex and Politics”.  Look out Toronto we’re back!

At first glance, our topic areas are seemingly disparate. But think of them as your favorite cocktail combo- an unlikely mixture with intoxicating results. We’re futures mixologists and promise to inform, intrigue, and inspire. Here’s a sneak peak of what’s ahead:

It’s the first time we’re piloting this type of session! Heather and I have conducted independent research on the future of transactions and retailing. We’ve decided to merge our interest areas into a scenario based futures immersion. During this session, you will have the chance to create and experience a future retail environment complete with alternative currencies, rotique vendors, and virtual incentives.

Heather and I were awarded third place by the Association of Professional Futurists for our systems model of the The Demographic Transition. This is our first public showcasing of the model! If that doesn’t get you in the door, this should- two amazing futurists, Josh Lindenger and Jason Swanson, will also be presenting on the future of locomotive media and learning management systems. Best of Houston is a session for futurists who want to leave WFS tantalized by a wide breadth of topic areas they haven’t considered.

I’m now off to grab a real cocktail in the hybrid space. Tweet me (@localrat)!

Getting nostalgic about the future

“I wish my sister took the time to send me a text message for my birthday or at least post on my Facebook wall!” –December 2, 2050



Over the past few months, a variety of data has surfaced regarding a particular trend reversal. Companies are offering traditional communication like “snail mail” as a service. Last summer, Snail My Email introduced a global art project. 10,457 handwritten letters were penned by 234 volunteers from email submissions around the world. Another organization, Paperfinger, provides calligraphy services to enhance traditional love notes. Quarterly Co. sends participants physical objects along with letters from key tastemakers as a monthly “show and tell”.

Futurists would be remiss to discount nostalgia in alternative scenario generation. Yet, as far as I know, future studies does not have a formal method to forecast future areas of nostalgia.

The power of the “snail mail” countertrend isn’t in the data points. Instead, the idea of a resurgence in past conceptions can be used as an extended metaphor for enhancing future scenario sets. Electronic communication can quite possibly replace other methods of future communications. But what is the post-digital age? Why would some groups want to go back to a landscape dominated by “digital” media?

Using current countertrends to construct future ones could be a powerful tool to generate a remarkable scenario set. There are values and traditions future societies will yearn for from the past.

What role should nostalgia play in scenario development? How can futurists systematically generate a scenario set where feelings of nostalgia resonate with a particular audience? Is there an approach where participants could be excited by the future while longing for a past that does not yet exist?

Jim Dator writes about the idea of “aiglatson” or nostalgia spelled backwards. Dator believes it is critical for futurists to revere the future; without being disrespectful to the past. Futures provides society with narratives that bring them into new future worlds. Part of these worlds should include remembering a past that has yet to be created.

Future of the Commercial Sex Industry Published

“Daniel Spellman wants a quick pick-me-up during his lunch break. Spellman, a Viacom employee, waits in a long line on 45th and Park Avenue for what first seems to resemble a food truck. But, people passing by do a double take as porn stars Bridget Bunsen and Candy Colfax pose with customers wearing nothing more than G-strings. “Go ahead, grab this”, Colfax purrs to a man as she hands him… a Budweiser?

Yes, this “run-of the mill” commercial sex event is sponsored by Anheuser-Busch. Bunsen and Colfax tower in heels that resemble Budweiser cans and the truck sells sex toys branded with the red and white Budweiser logo. the snacks and beverages served are more X-rated than G-rated. Last quarter, Budweiser, in conjunction with 21Sextury Films, discreetly created their own pornography flick. The hour-long segment depicted spontaneous ways that beverages could be incorporated into bedroom play. Anheuser-Busch has managed to get where their competitors aren’t- in their customers sex lives*” (Empel, Emily. “(XXX)potential Impact: The Future of the Commercial Sex Industry in 2030.”The Monoa Journal of Fried and Half-fried Ideas (about the Future) 13 (2011)). 


I’m excited to have my forecast on the future of the commercial sex industry published in the newly relaunched “Monoa Journal of Fried and Half-Fried Ideas (about the future)”. This futures based journal out of the University of Hawaii is a student-run, peer-reviewed journal that began in the 90′s. After a brief hiatus, Fried is back and featuring a delectable menu full of quirky futures work.

Check out my article via Fried Journal (Entree XXX on 5 web pages) or download the full .pdf version (XXX)potential Impact: The Future of the Commercial Sex Industry 2030. The next submissions date is February 1st!

*Note: scenario described is a fictional forecast set in the year 2030. These events have not yet occurred.

GBN: The Cartier of Futures

I would rather buy a diamond from Cartier than JCPenny’s. Am I ridiculous? Duh. Is there a difference in quality? Probably not much. Do other brands offer diamonds that look just as regal and luxurious? Definitely! I’ve seen them highlighted in Vogue. But, I still want Cartier. And face it, Global Business Network (GBN), is the Cartier of futures work. The 2×2 matrix their diamond ring.  GBN gets a bad rap in the futures community. We say it’s impossible to fit future outlooks into four separate square boxes. Yet, GBN excels where we don’t- at packaging foresight.

This week, I attended a Methods Seminar taught by Dr. Wendy Schultz. Though I’ve taken courses on futures methodologies, Wendy’s presentation was awesome in terms of evaluating methods across the board. The seminar exposed students to five schools of futures thought including morphological analysis, archetype narration and causal layered analysis.

Afterwards, I was left with the thought: how can we present the “anti” 2×2 models in a compelling way to organizations? I’ve yet to hear of most clients begging for causal layered analysis. When compared to the 2×2 matrix, futurists agree that other methods offer a more comprehensive narrative of the alternative futures landscape. But we forget our language. We are a cult where the code words are scenario, uncertainty and emerging issues. Our clients speak revenue, profit and predictability. Business and futures need to develop a common language in which advanced foresight becomes an integral and actionable piece of the strategy puzzle.

Of course, I’m sure a good many futurists are secretly packaging their products. My plea: publish a book Peter Schwartz-style and help a futurist out! Steve Jobs proved it’s not about just your offerings but more how you package them. We are currently the boutique diamond designers. We must start being brands. We need to be iconic.

Your longest relationship

How Kinky is America According to Online Dating Profiles?


In 2009, 40 million Americans, or 40% of US singles, participated in online dating. That same year the industry totaled $1.049 billion, with even larger revenue than the more established pornography sector. Growth is expected to continue at around 10% annually.

Dating sites provide value by hooking users up with their ideal match. Success is measured in “relationships” or how many users leave with “a ring on it”. But can the online and mobile dating sectors continue to profit after users find love?

New relationship management start-ups promise to do just that. Trendcentral recently highlighted three sites that support couples as they build intimacy within their relationships. Kahnoodle designed a dashboard to track improvement areas for couples. TheIceBreak.com suggests questions to promote more meaningful and profound communication between partners. And Tokii, “the first relationship management platform”, uses gaming technologies to help enhance romance.

Sites like OkCupid or Match.com have yet to integrate relationship management within their value proposition. It is very possible that these sites will utilize AI capabilities to build comprehensive long-term relationship programs. Loyal users would be connected to a particular dating site longer than their most serious relationship! As sites begin to shift towards continuous relationship improvement, will our romantic relationships become richer as a result?


Image via Fast Co. Design.

Collective Mentorship: Sourcing Wisdom through Networks

Current articles about mentorship oftentimes fail to discuss what I call “collective mentorship”. In the digital age, wisdom and support stem from a wide breadth of sources that, when combined, create a comprehensive mentorship program. Instead of tapping one great mind, you can have endless amounts of contacts and as an added benefit, you end up building yourself into that same network.

While writing her PhD, one of my colleagues posed key questions via Twitter. By building a network of mentor-like individuals, she got answers instantly and across subject matter experts.  Even superstars like marketing guru Seth Godin are forgoing traditional personalized coaching as a revenue stream. Godin hosted a one-day workshop in his home designed to offer value through shared experience. The world is more complex than ever and it is helpful to build interdisciplinary skills and networks.

Creating a collective mentorship network is, in many ways, more difficult than finding one traditional mentor. It requires not only making an effort to reach out to a variety of people, but it is also only successful if your own identity (web and otherwise) is fluid across many channels. Maybe your potential mentor is prolific on Twitter  and LinkedIn. Perhaps, Facebook or Google+ are more their style. And, maybe they haven’t even gone digital and are active in trade associations, traditional conferences and networking events. The more of these places you are, the more your network has the potential to expand. In a world of decreased individualism and increased collectivism, the outliers get in. Start a discussion. Be the person to bring up the question that 95% of “followers” never thought to ask.


Image via Media Psychology Review.