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Futures Studies 101: How to Read the Newspaper

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
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I joke that the biggest change in my life since becoming director of CFM is that now I read the financial section of the New York Times.
Except it isn’t a joke.
Once future studies gave me a framework for my reading, I started reading more broadly and strategically. It has improved my education in many areas in which I was woefully ignorant (economics, global politics. Pop culture). It uncovers news items we share via Dispatches from the Future of Museums and inspires posts on this blog.
So, silly as it may sound, I will devote this post to describing how I, as a futurist, now read the newspaper, based on yesterday’s edition of the NYT (Oct. 5, 2011). I encourage you to add your savvy tips on reading in the comment section at the end of the post.
First. I skim headlines, mentally dropping stories into the general STEEP categories of futurism (Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political). This helps keep my scan wide, and ensures I don’t just fixate on bright shiny objects. (Ooo look! Apple released the iPhone 4S. No transformative changes.)
I also look for stories relating to trends in areas we follow regularly at CFM: anything related to museums, of course, but also ethics, education, energy, transportation, green design, accessibility, mobile tech, gaming, demographic change, philanthropy, food and crowdsourcing. Also (of course) 3D printing and yarnbombing.
Some stories seem directly applicable to the museum field: the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Take a Stand project is an effort to train the next generation of teachers who will “bring classical music to populations that normally wouldn’t have it.” How can museums contribute to training the next generation to appreciate and use our resources?
But many important stories have indirect, but profound, implications for society and our field. I watch the unfolding news about the presidential campaign with acute awareness that a Republican victory in 2012 would be a disruptive event creating a very different political future for museums. Funding for NEA, NEH, NSF and IMLS might be drastically cut. Tax-exempt status might be under greater threaten from political leadership that seeks a balanced national (or state) budget without tax increases on businesses or “ordinary” Americans.
I think about the future implications of any given story—a Japanese reactor shut down yesterday, dealing another blow to public confidence in nuclear power not only locally but, potentially, internationally. Japan’s power strategy was based on nuclear; in the aftermath of damage from the earthquake and tsunami in March, it will almost certainly rethink this strategy. If Japan turns its attention and money to alternate energy research, could this kickstart progress globally?
The most interesting story about the iPhone actually wasn’t about the phone per se, it was about the effect it might have on products and services it may drive closer to the brink of obsolescence. The writer points out that its improved features pose (further) threats to makers of video cameras, telephone providers and makers of digital greeting cards. How will the ever increasing sophistication of smart handheld devices like the iPhone effect the American economy overall? How will it shape how visitors consume and share museum content? (This was before the announcement of Steve Jobs’s death, which may change everything!)
Beyond the serious stuff, I look for stories that provide color and detail for potential scenarios of the future, like this story on squatters in Britain who simply take over vacant properties (and are apparently, under current law, very difficult to evict). In a contracting city like Detroit, where conventional museums are closing, what would happen if people occupied vacant buildings and opened “squatter museums,” to protest the decaying urban infrastructure, and tell their own stories?
Finally, I try to talk about one or two interesting articles with someone else, to test my understanding of the content and to get their take on it. And I listen to what they found interesting—often a different reader will focus on things I completely missed.
Overall, reading with a futurist focus has expanded the range of things I know at least a little about. (Even if I still don’t really understand derivatives.) It helps me think about museums, and the world in which we operate, in a richer context. And it expands my mental rolodex of interesting people in all sectors that AAM might want to involve in future projects.
Now excuse me while I go buy the ingredients for Pork Katsu. The recipe looks delicious. 

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  1. In trying to engage in the futures space I too have found myself trying to expand my own worldview by challenging myself with media that I previously disregarded as ‘not me’. One activity involves buying a new magazine/newspaper each fortnight.

    Initially drawn to the science section of my local newsagent and picking up copies of what have now becomes regular reading ('New Scientist’ and ‘Cosmos’) I’ve moved through a number of business publications, gaming and technology as well as a few international titles. The latter has included a few newspapers in languages other than English – mainly to look at the pictures and get a feel for emerging issues that multicultural, if not mainstream Australia see as important.

    A foresight lecturer of mine does something similar with radio stations, switching across to a new station every day on his drive in to work – but the added beauty of the magazines is the rich images that many contain can later be used for creating images of the future.

  2. I love that suggestion, MaryJo! I make a habit of trying a new magazine title when I fly, though given the limited selection in most US airports, that has most expanded my exposure to pop culture. My first exposure to Oprah, for example…

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