Why is it that science fiction such as Star Trek or Minority Report are cited as credible predictions of the future, whereas in contrast we are charmed by the laughable grasp of the future demonstrated by past generations? We have all read quotations such as these:
The time will come when people will travel by steam engines from one city to another, almost as fast as birds can fly, 15 or 20 miles an hour. Oliver Evans, US inventor, 1800
This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. Western Union telegraph company memo, 1877
The automobile has practically reached the limit of its development. Scientific American, 1909
Referring to the concept of what became home automation: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Ken Olsen, 1977
I have the great fortune to work in the brand consultancy business often simultaneously working across categories and across countries, and that gives me access to a broader range than most of inputs and answers to the question ‘What keeps you up at night?’
As a result I have written a lot about how drivers and trends in one category can be applied to another to great effect and what this might mean for the future. So before exploring some prognostications in future articles I wanted to get my excuses in first and discuss how making meaningful predictions is both incredibly difficult – as attested by the quotations above – and wonderfully freeing if seen through the appropriate lens.
Can we ever know what the future will look like? Let’s go back in time and look at some technologies that changed the world and see if we can identity a couple of ‘rules of thumb’ that might be useful, starting with the railways.
In the industrial revolution the purpose of the railway was to transport people and goods from point A to point B quickly and efficiently. The consequences of this growth were relatively straightforward, but few people understood that it would be a change of kind rather than degree.
The railway eroded price differentials between cities, put the ‘mass’ in mass market, and drove an economic boom – a relatively straightforward change. But the railway also led to the harmonisation of time: rather than it being local and based on the sun, it enabled the concept of holidays as workers could travel en mass to seaside towns in reasonable time – and these towns were in turn transformed. Without trains the concept of mass-commuting would not be possible, nor the existence and structure of modern cities and suburbs, which in turn gave rise to urban planning, Green Belts and much more.
The British could not have administered India, and Russia in turn, the Soviet Union, the USA might not be a single nation – New York being 2,800 miles from Los Angeles. The First World War would have been logistically impossible – 12,000 tons of shells were fired on the first day of the Battle of the Somme by the British alone, and these were not transported across France by horse and cart.
Railways made everyone more mobile: old pockets of localised human DNA become dispersed and intermingled – the day when the inhabitants of a valley in England’s Lake District were more genetically similar to medieval Scandinavian invaders than they were to the people in the next valley, started to disappear. Taken to its logical conclusion, the destruction by mobility of ‘genetic islands’ has the potential to halt human evolution.
Perhaps the first ‘rule’ we might derive from this is that it is not the immediate change that is interesting, but rather the chain of changes. For every technological change we have to ask, ‘so what?’ and extrapolate further, then we must ask, ‘so what?’ again, and again. We have to probe every arena of human, societal and environmental life.
Do you remember when we first heard the term ‘mobile convergence’, ie, our mobile phone would do everything and we would not need radios or cameras or music-players or credit cards? But that was a technologist speaking. There are at least two other macro factors at work: electronic devices are getting ever cheaper so we don’t necessarily care if we have an inefficiently large number; and people aren’t terribly logical. I remember visiting my grandmother and sitting listening to her radiogram (an earlier form of convergence); apart from the TV it was the only electronic device in her house. Two decades later I audited my own household and found 34 devices capable of playing music.
Over recent years, and in very broad terms, sales of smart phones and tablets are up, point and shoot cameras are down, sales of high-end cameras are up, MP3s are down, portable radio players are up, PCs are flat, HD screens are up. It was always too simplistic to speak of convergence around a device, what we see is the human factor, or Star Trek at work. Data is now soup, devices are just different sized spoons, capable of dipping in and pulling out whatever is required, the determining factor is what people want and find easy.
If it suits us we walk round wearing the technology, if we need specialism we carry a specialist product, if there are a lot of interface challenges we sit and use a screen. Sound familiar? The writers of Star Trek didn’t extrapolate from the technology, they imagined backwards from the human condition, and thereby lay the seeds of their success. So, in short my rules of thumb are:
Rule 1: Don’t start predicting the future of technology by looking at the technology
Rule 2: Create a chain of change by endlessly asking ‘so what?’
Rule 3: Play out the answers in multiple fields: social, family, business, political, environment and so on
Rule 4: Remember that the more advanced a technology is, the more it looks like magic at the service of the ultimate arbiter, human beings.