Anti-Buzz: You’ve Been to the Future Before

by Andrew Emmott on February 1, 2014

in Anti-Buzz,Future Tech

newface-620x461If you want to predict the future, don’t look at the technology, look at the people. Both the would-be tech predictors and the would-be innovators want to know how to put lightning in a bottle, how to guess correctly at the future of technology. The typical line is to assess current technologies, (“Mobile is big right now! 3D printing is big right now! Clouds are big right now!”), and extrapolate from them. But the technologies themselves aren’t the gatekeepers of progress, people are. It is a rare person who prognosticates well, but if asked how they do it, they might tell you this: they’ve been to the future before.

And so have you.

You’ve been to the future before, and by this I mean you’ve seen progress before. You’ve seen film before rampant CGI, cars before Japanese competition, a music industry before the Internet, video stores before online streaming, business before paperless record-keeping. You’ve seen the world one way, and then you’ve moved on to its future. You’ve seen it happen, again and again.

One might think we’d be better at predicting the future given that we’re always traveling toward it, (Although, to be fair to ourselves, we probably are better at it than we would have been 100 years ago).

The idea that we’ve seen change before is what drives the hobby of future prediction. The typical mistake, however, is to imagine a future where everything in the present is simply drawn on a straight trajectory from now. Most recently we made this mistake with the PC, thinking that they were simply going to get faster and better, faster and better, forever.

You’ve been to the future before, and on the way there you watched people drag their heels. You’ve watched people refuse to see change coming. But you’ve also watched people collaborate spontaneously, be it on Wikipedia or on Yelp or even on Yahoo Answers. Future predictions based in optimism about technology can be misplaced. Such optimism would have you predict that we’d be living in space by 2001, and driving flying cars by 2015, and using desktop PCs forever. Optimism about people, however, is usually not. People drive change, and they are usually more willing to adopt something new than entrenched companies want to believe. Faith in current technologies and cynicism about the public are a quick path to disruption.

This does little to clarify how to guess at “what’s next?” Do you invest in anything the public expresses the least bit of excitement in? Do you always vote against corporate cynics? You could do worse than this strategy, but that won’t always hit the mark.

The public was notably interested in 3D film, but didn’t adopt it at home. The cynics sided against the Internet before the original dot com bubble, and they were right. And for every hip new service that captures the public’s attention, there are start ups and Kickstarter projects quietly failing. Barring a large scale failure, we tend to only see tech successes, giving us a false impression of tech wizards gleefully reinventing our future.

Indeed, guessing what’s /next/ is very hard. Remember the video phone. The video phone of the early 1990s tapped into a public sci-fi dream, but it was also painfully obvious that it was going to fail. You may have been wise in the moment to suggest that the video phone wasn’t going to catch on, but you would have been a fool to suggest videotelephony would never catch on. In the 1990s the video phone wasn’t next, but it was definitely on the horizon. Tech prediction gets so much easier with the tag of “eventually”. We will eventually live in space and have robot maids and cure cancer. When? I don’t know.

However, you’ve been to the future before, and you know how people behave. In business, don’t anticipate new technology, anticipate what your customers will want, or what your employees will want or, easiest of all, what you will want. Trying to guess at technology for technology’s sake is to take the attitude that you are deciding what your customers should want, and that brand of cynicism will always prove wrong.

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