Sunday, April 06, 2008

The future according to Microsoft

Institute for the Future's Vivian Distler says:
At last month's Mix08 conference, Microsoft played a video created by its Office Labs to share their vision of the future of personal health management It features ubiquitous integrated displays, instant sharing of information, projecting displays, and other advances in natural interface interactions.

A little digging turned up some background on the video, by Dr Bill Crounse, Microsoft’s Worldwide Health Senior Director:

This is the third [Health Future Vision] video we have produced here at Microsoft. It has been my pleasure to work closely with Ian Sands and his Industry Innovations Group (IIG) to bring these videos to life. What's particularly interesting is how accurate the videos have been in predicting future industry trends and how technology will influence the way we work. Perhaps that's because IIG does so much internal and external research before producing one of these videos. We also base them on technology that is either currently available but not widely implemented, or on technology that is being actively pursued in the labs at Microsoft Research. In any event, everything you see in the video is based on technology that is available now, or is very likely to be available within a 7 to 12 year time frame.

Our newest Future Vision Video also captures the essence of healthcare industry trends that I've been following and writing about for the last few years. This includes the rising tide of consumerism in healthcare, the retail movement, commoditization of services, information everywhere, and globalization.
I think the video accurately reflects the kind of consumer-directed, quality and price transparent, knowledge-driven healthcare delivery system we'd all like to see. And while this is just a video, it certainly captures the essence for how information technology will help transform medical practice to better connect people and data, facilitate improved collaboration, and better inform everyone involved.

~Bill Crounse, "Future Vision: Microsoft knowledge driven health", HealthBlog, 2 August 02007

So, a few points of interest about this clip.

First, the release: this was not officially distributed by the company for public consumption (as Crounse notes); instead it was ripped from the Mix08 conference webcast and posted to YouTube by a user. Not quite sure what to make of that fact, but it piques my curiosity about the company's strategy for these sorts of futures visualisations. Also, I don't know where -- or whether -- the previous two videos can be found, but if they are already (or later become) available, I'd like to hear from anyone who can point me to them.

Second, the genre: I don't recall noticing the phrase "concept video" before today (that's how this piece is described by Long Zheng at his tech blog I Started Something, one of the top sources of hits to the YouTube clip) but that term also describes several other odds and ends recently dredged up here at the sceptical futuryst (the Morph, the Charmr), so we now have another way to scan for futures videos of this type.

And last, but by no means least, the content: I can't comment on this in too much detail right now, but to my mind, the scenario this video portrays is profoundly soporific. Everything is as spotless and anodyne as in Huxley's Brave New World (or for that matter, Kubrick's 2001 -- the grim joke there being that the computer HAL proved the most recognisably human character in the film.) Sure, those blobjects look cool, the user interfaces are fluid and pretty, the houses are tidy... but the experience it all evokes is (to me; feel free to disagree) D-U-L-L.

Dr Crounse: "I think the video accurately reflects the kind of consumer-directed, quality and price transparent, knowledge-driven healthcare delivery system we'd all like to see."

Tonto to the Lone Ranger: "Who's 'we', paleface?"

Several years ago, working for the United Kingdom's National Health Service coordinating a symposium on the futures of healthy communities, was really the first occasion I'd had to think about the underlying values and practices of Western medicine. My academic background had been in the history and philosophy of science, and in law, rather than in medicine or healthcare. During that project, I found that the organising concept of "healthy communities" (which had been attached to it before I came aboard) lent itself very well to engaging the idea of health as an emergent property of a community ecology, rather than as a product of merely instrumental bodily interventions. I came to suspect that our chronic medical ills, and probably our social ones also, relate to a simplistic, mechanistic worldview. When bodies and institutions are designed and maintained principally by engineers and scientists, the world looks very different from how it can where other views hold sway.

So, back to the video: certainly, I think we should concede that, if the clip's evocation of healthcare were to be broadly realised, it would represent a great improvement over many people's current experience of hospitals. But that may say more about the troubled state of the Western medical paradigm than it does about the shiny, but essentially shallow, vision proposed by Microsoft.

Now, I found while reading up on the health video that Microsoft's Industry Innovations Group has also tried its hand at imagining the future of banks, with the following result:

(Found via Microsoft and the Future blog.)

Same vibe. These videos show us doing the same things more efficiently, not doing different things. The near future is much like today, if you live in an advertisement: everything is clean, there are no crowds or other inconveniences, and -- hey presto! -- you have more, and cooler, gadgets (-- again with the gadgets!) These clips are unobjectionable and, arguably, boring -- by design. They aim to reassure (with our help, your life in the future will be simpler, smoother, more elegant) in exactly the way we should expect from a massive enterprise with most to gain from maintaining a steady course. Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not Microsoft-bashing -- after all, it is a technology company, whose function is not to tell us what the future should be, but to find ways to realise visions and priorities that we describe for ourselves.

Which is why we really need to figure out for ourselves what those visions and priorities ought to be. Pointing out some of the limitations and inbuilt blindspots of the continued-growth visions proposed by some of the entities responsible for shaping the conditions of possibility for our lives is just one way to begin a conversation which aspires to go much, much further.

It comes down to inventing and pursuing the future according to you.

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