Change Agent - Issue 50

Sadly, the future ain't what it used to be. We've gotten used to smaller dreams and closer reality. Here's to unreachable goals!

Remember rocket cars? When I was growing up, the best way to evoke the future was to depict one or two people (no families, no station wagons!) flying about in a bubble-topped rocket car. It was straight out of Tomorrowland, and it was apparently the consensus of all future makers that this was to be our future. But now, sadly, rocket cars are gone -- along with commuter flights to the moon, robot servants, automatic food-making machines (programmed to create any dish that you could imagine) , and invaders from Mars.

The future, apparently, isn't what it used to be. For a long time, our future was described by science-fiction authors. Arthur C. Clarke invented the communications satellite. Isaac Asimov developed the robot. Robert Heinlein was responsible for "waldoes," those automated gloves that scientists use to manipulate dangerous items by remote control. These objects all became real (at some level) during the lifetimes of the people who created them as pure fantasy. Ironically, one of the reasons it was so easy to invent the future then was that it felt so unlikely. You didn't have to worry about the implementation details required for a space station because, of course, no one was actually going to build one. For half a century, our vision of the future was driven by magazine covers, novels, movies, and television.

Somewhere along the way, the future changed. Reality caught up with us, and we discovered that there weren't really men on the moon, that robots wouldn't really take over the earth, and that making a computer talk was a little different than making it think.

At the same time that our bubbles burst, we discovered that some areas were growing far faster than we ever expected. Technology was on a tear, and it took all of our energy to keep up with it. We stopped talking and thinking about the distant future and started talking about tomorrow. And because tomorrow was just around the corner, a lot of the poetry and guts went out of our vision. After all, anything you imagined might actually happen.

The future became boring and predictable. The computer-chip revolution (doubling the power of a computer every 18 months) meant that there was always another tech miracle nearing fruition. Don't like this handheld organizer? Well, in just a few months, there will be a thinner-lighter-more powerful-cheaper version. Now, instead of talking about the big conceptual breakthroughs that could lead to levitation or particle transmission or ray guns, we worry about when Escient will finally upgrade its operating system. (It's been more than a year!)

Our dreams, alas, have been handed over to the MBAs. And frankly, the MBAs are pretty bad at dreaming. During the Internet boom, newly minted MBAs from the top schools lined up to take jobs at the latest dotcoms. With their very limited 36-month ability to look ahead, the MBAs were sure that this idea was the next big thing and were eager to give it a try.

The MBAs made the Internet trivial. They dreamed small dreams -- and most of those weren't realized. It's sad to think that hotornot.com is one of the biggest ideas to see the light of day recently. When IPOs were hot, the time horizon was short; now IPOs are not, and the time horizon is shorter. Last April, when the NASDAQ went south, the new MBAs went with it. A January 2001 New York Times article talked about how unstylish dotcoms have become with top MBAs. No surprise there! After all, the chances of cashing out anytime soon have dramatically decreased.

If you are an investor, now is the time to discover where those MBAs are going -- and then short the stocks in that industry. The increasingly limited horizon that businesspeople are using is going to cause us all trouble soon.

Without a big, hairy, audacious goal, it's too easy to be distracted by momentary setbacks. If your goal was to go public by the year 2000, you've already failed. However, if your goal is to connect every person on the planet with instant digital communication (a plan worthy of some of my favorite science-fiction authors) , then you're well on your way -- IPO or not.

Harry Harrison is a big thinker. He is the guy who wrote the book that became the movie Soylent Green. In the film, Charlton Heston lives in the distant future and discovers that the leaders of Earth have been dealing with overpopulation in a not-so-palatable way: They turn dead folks into a tofulike substance called soylent green and feed it to people. Hey, it didn't taste good, but it worked!

I'm hopeful that no one is working on that project, but here are some big, hairy, audacious goals that we ought to use to restore our common view of the future:

1. A device that converts changes in the ambient temperature into electricity

2. The ability to transport matter through teleportation

3. A cell-phone chip implanted in the ear so that you can talk to anyone without making a sound -- by subvocalizing

4. Farming in the ocean

5. Efficient solar cells that generate "free" electricity

6. A solution to global warming

7. Antigravity devices

8. Vaccines and cures for all chronic degenerative diseases

9. Permanent contact lenses with variable telephoto lenses

10. Effortless, effective birth control

11. Food that eliminates the need for livestock

12. Behavior modification for criminals that would eliminate the need for jails

13. Faster-than-light travel beyond the solar system

14. Time travel (forward and backward) or, at the very least, nonfiction "movies" made by time-traveling cameras

15. Personal submarines and vacation homes located at the bottom of the sea

16. Processes that reverse decades of pollution at EPA Superfund sites

17. A worldwide force field that disables handguns and nuclear weapons

18. Computers that really and truly think

Some of these ideas are nonsense, clearly impossible, and not worth working on. But so were ICQ chat, travel to the moon, and the fax machine.

What is the point of these visions? I've intentionally tried to paint some unreachable goals, just as Isaac Asimov did with his vision of smart, kind, and useful robots. Technological change is accelerating, and frankly, our daydreams just aren't keeping up with it. Do we really need to double the speed of a computer just so we can play Donkey Kong faster?

When a computer is fast enough, why won't it be conscious? Or couldn't a fast-enough computer scan my brain and know what I know and act how I do? And if it could, why couldn't I just send that data structure to a meeting in Hong Kong or to another planet?

The Jetsons was fun to watch, largely because we knew that such a future was far away, imaginatively fanciful, and likely impossible. Yet, as I write this, Dennis Tito has just returned from a week in space -- our first space tourist. And he did it less than 40 years after Hanna and Barbera invented Elroy, Judy, George, and Jane, his wife. So, what are you working on?

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is the author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Unleashing the Ideavirus (Do You Zoom Inc., 2000) . Get his latest book for free on the Web (www.ideavirus.com) .

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