Why the Future Keeps Catching Us Out

Why is it that some innovations score a home run, whereas others leave the field almost as soon as they walk on? Two culprits are timing and the irrational behavior of human beings.

The future is not what it used to be. In the 1950s, as Daniel H. Horne has pointed out, there were flying cars, x-ray specs and personal jetpacks. In the 1960s we had personal teleportation devices, moon bases, Smell-O-Vision television and warp-drive. At least we had all these things in our imagination. So why have none of these things happened yet in reality? Where did the expected future go?

Our futuristic frustration has been building up for many years. First there was the millennium. Despite all the Y2K hype, nothing really seemed very different on 1 January 2000 did it? The year 2001 was also expected to be a futuristic time, but all we got was a bunch of lunatics with old-fashioned box-cutters taking over some airplanes (not to be underestimated for its impact, but not quite the life-changing event that many people were hoping for.)

Indeed, it almost feels as though 'progress' has slowed down or been put on hold recently. Look, for instance, at the boom in retro video games, 'vintage' sneakers, retro car design or remakes of movies from the 1970s. I haven’t made my mind up about why this is the case, but it could be the thought that we are living in anxious and uncertain times, so we escape into eras that we perceive (often incorrectly) as simpler, safer and more certain.

Here's the thing: when we think of the future we usually think of it in terms of space travel or time machines, but what has arrived is no less fantastic. Innovations from the last thirty years or so include: the Internet, iPods, mobile phones, industrial robots, microwave ovens, smoke detectors, GPS, Wikipedia, Second Life, and DNA fingerprinting. These innovations, and others, are just as futuristic as silver space suits and ray guns. Moreover, many of the things that were predicted back in the '50s and '60s have made a brief appearance, but then vanished again before you could say Segway or Newton.

So what is the takeaway here? First, many futuristic ideas haven’t shown up, but given enough time they will. Remember space tourism? Or how about meat grown in a laboratory or domestic robots? Well the US Federal Aviation Authority has already published a set of proposed regulations for space tourism operators, cultured meat is around the corner and it is predicted that there will be 6.1 million robots in domestic service worldwide by the end of 2007. In other words, future predictions can come true if only you give them enough time to happen.

Timing is everything and from a purely commercial standpoint, being too early can be just as disastrous as being too late. However, as the inventor Ray Kurzweil points out, "an invention has to make sense in the world which it is finished, not the world in which it started." So unless you have very deep pockets think very carefully about long-term trends and the world in which your innovation will live. This isn't easy, but it is essential. For example, there is an argument that the more life speeds up and becomes virtual the more that some people will want to slow it down and take their lives offline. So products that make our lives quicker will work for a while, but ultimately I’d expect there to be a significant demand for products and services that do the opposite. For example, MetroNaps is, to my mind at least, an early example of this.

The second key takeaway is perhaps the point that the future usually arrives subtly and unannounced. We are all somehow waiting for aliens, hover-boards, time travel, robocops, dinner-in-a-pill and eternal youth, whereas what actually shows up is computer speech recognition, data mining, artificial ears, Astroturf, carbon dating, IVF, digital photography, pocket calculators, disposable contact lenses and Viagra.

But we shouldn’t get too hung up on technology. The reason that many of our scientific fantasies haven’t made it into reality is that many innovators and futurists sometimes make the mistake of forgetting about human history and psychology. Technology tends to change fast and exponentially, while people tend to change slowly and incrementally. So whilst reading e-books on cell phones might look good on paper (and is a big hit in Japan already), it may take more than a generation for such an idea to significantly displace traditional reading habits in countries like the United States.

In other words, one reason why the future is never quite as we expect is because innovations that are logical and technically feasible, collide with people, who are irrational and emotional. And that’s one thing that I predict won’t change in the future.

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