Stephen Baker

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Shuttered vision: Predicting our future

January 4, 2013General

If you look at your life as an education, have you graduated? According to new research, many of us believe that while we've changed through the years, perhaps changing our beliefs and priorities along the way, we finally have it all figured out. John Tierney in the Times discusses this research

It turns out that we're just not that good at anticipating change. I find this when I talk to people about the future of technology. Often what I get is simply a continuation of what we have now. Computers will be smaller, cheaper and more powerful, cars will be more fuel-efficient, etc. Lots of things will be more of what they are now. What's missing from this vision are the disruptive technologies that lead us into new directions. Most of us aren't Jules Verne or Vannevar Bush

I just called up an episode of the Jetsons, to see how cartoonists in the '60s fared. I was startled to see George Jetson suffering with application that behaved much like Apple's Siri. He wanted information about a small animal that his son, Elroy, had brought back from an asteroid. He started to ask the virtual encyclopedia, and the machine kept giving him wrong answers. When George complained, the machine accused him of mumbling. Then it gave him a bunch of facts about the animal that George already knew. Felt very familiar.

Perhaps the most startling novelty in The Jetsons is the dog as an upright biped

David Pogue has a column about predicting the future. The worst thing you can do, he writes, is to predict that something will never happen. When it does, you look like a dunce. If, on the other hand, you predict that something will happen, and it doesn't, you can always argue that eventually it will.

This happened to me. In the late '90s, I wrote admittedly hype-nourished visions for BusinessWeek about the impact of mobile technologies. Here was one from 1999:

A 15-year-old girl strolls through London's Berkeley Square. Suddenly she hears a beep from her cell phone and looks at the screen. A message sponsored by Starbucks informs her that two friends from her "buddy list" are walking nearby. Would she like to send them an instant message to meet for coffee at the nearest Starbucks around the corner? She merely has to click "yes" on her smart phone to send the message. And she gets an electronic coupon worth $1 off a Frappuccino.

Following the Dotcom crash, I took a lot of grief from that one. I deserved some of it, because I predicted that this technology was just around the corner, instead of a decade away. Even so, it didn't take a fortune-teller to come up with that scenario. The mobile industry in Europe was busy putting the foundation technologies in place and anticipating a wave of innovative apps.

The real trick, as Tierney writes, is to envision a future that doesn't follow a clear line from now.

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