|THE FUTURE IS
NOT WHAT IT USED
“The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”
-- Paul Valery (French Poet, Essayist and Critic, 1871-1945)
adapted from a speech first delivered by Paul Niquette
to the Intercollegiate Honors Convention
Las Vegas, Nevada, October 1988
and Gentlemen -- and Telephone Operators. Excuse me: How
many here are
indeed ladies? Thank you, just as I thought. You may put
your hands down.
And gentlemen? Good. Now, may I see the hands of the
About this time last century, someone predicted that, based on the trends of that time, by now all women would be needed to serve as telephone operators. That didn't happen, as we just confirmed -- thanks to a certain undertaker named Almon Brown Strowger (born September 5 1829, died March 14 1908). He became disgruntled with the phone system, for he was losing business calls. In 1906 he invented this [unveil Strowger Switch and demonstrate], a vital electro-mechanical contraption which counted what came to be called 'dial pulses' and made connections -- automation in the earliest central offices. Better devices have come along since (cross-bar switches, computerized electronic switches, push-button 'dialing'), but Ladies and, for that matter, Gentlemen, here is the invention which gave the lie to a prediction. Inventions do that.
Strowger Switch exhibit donated to theHow many here are interested in the future? Good, so am I. People care about the future -- that's one of the safest things you can say. Probably unique to the species, too. All our lives will be lived in the future. We want to know what lies ahead. Yet what does it mean to 'know' anything about the future? Is that even possible?
Computer History Museum 2008
Whether you're buying a stock or a lottery ticket, choosing a career or lane on the expressway, deciding on a place to live or to work; whether you're planning a factory or a sales campaign; selecting a product or a technology, setting a price or a quota; whether you are young or old, man or woman, father or mother -- there can be no doubt of one thing: Knowing something about the future is a whole lot better than not knowing anything about the future. In varying degrees, then, we are all 'futurists.'
Problem is, there are no 'facts' about the future. You're a futurist, how do you deal with that? Whether you realize it or not, you are constantly making 'predictions.' Short term more than long term, but predictions just the same. How do you do it?
We have already talked about one of the most common tools of the futurist: trends. 'Extrapolation,' let's call it. 'Surprise-Free Projection' is another term. As we saw with the telephone operators, it doesn't always work. Or it works for awhile, then it doesn't anymore. You need to think about: When will a trend stop being a trend? Well, if that's what you're thinking about, you're not really extrapolating at all, are you. You're looking for a surprise. Or a 'cycle.'
Economists speak with regularity about 'the business cycle.' Advice-givers in the investment game speak of cycles, too -- irregular ones, though. Such and such will go up before it goes down, they tell us. Or down before up. Like the baseball pundit who said: "Good pitching will always beat good hitting...and vice versa." The question is: when will the trend weaken -- hey, or get stronger. Suffice it to say, success in the predicting field has an ironic aspect: At any given moment, a good predictor is one whose prediction came true. Last time.
Then there are the 'polls' -- Yankelovich, Roper, Gallup. Supposedly, they give scientific assessments of widely held opinions. Increasingly, though, polls have become a way of influencing opinions as much as reflecting them. Nevertheless, for some subjects they offer predictive value. Not all, however. What can Roper tell you about the ozone layer? -- that only a small minority is worried about it? Or Gallup, the trajectory of a comet? -- that a majority would oppose its striking the earth? Did Yankelovich provide information useful in predicting Glasnost? By the way, is the majority always right?
For the sake of this session, let's not consider paranormal alternatives. Let's leave aside clairvoyants with their precognition and psychics with their auras. We will rely on neither crystal ball nor palmistry. We can leave our deck of tarot cards home along with our ouija board. Likewise, the serious futurist does not seek guidance from astrologers and soothsayers, phrenologists and graphologists. What works as well as all of them is a procedure called 'guessing.'
Actually, I'll take an 'educated guess' instead of 'mindless extrapolation' anytime. For I repeat: there are no 'facts' about the future. Only 'opinions.'
Predicting is hard, thankless. But somebody has to do it. Consider what happened to me: For 20 years -- throughout the 50s and 60s -- I posed as an amateur futurist. My only qualification was that I was an inventor. Bespectacled and benign, introverted and intellectual, therefore earnest and unreliable. My credibility was put deeper in doubt the day I made my most outrageous predictions for the technology in my own field:
Most significantly, I became captivated by trash -- by smoke from backyard incinerators, by tar on the beach, by sewage (decades before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring brought environment into people's minds and the word 'ecology' into currency). While still an unfledged amateur, in 1960, I discovered a secret! A sure thing! An utterly reliable predictor! I discovered the One-Way Change:
For the ensuing five years, '71 to '76, the 'Kitchen Cabinet' formulated and oversaw strategic programs collectively code-named 'Architecture of Information.' We conjured up 'The Office of the Future,' characterized by familiar things (familiar now, not then): 'Word Processing' on something now called the 'Personal Computer,' interconnected by a 'Local Area Network' (specifically 'Ethernet') and 'Laser Printing' with 'Computer Graphics' -- hey, the mouse -- accompanied by displacement of the typewriter, decline of dictation equipment, demise of microfilm -- all the while building on an ever advancing base of copiers, duplicators, and facsimile equipment.
In the corporate world, an 'in-house' futurist must be judged on two retrospective questions.
[For a landmark review see Fumbling the Future by Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander, iUniverse.com, Inc. 1999]Care to hear the inside story? In briefest summary: We set about to...
That the effort was judged to be crucial may be seen by how Xerox management deliberately 'took our excuses away.' Thus, the Kitchen Cabinet received expert staff support, access to all the databases of the world, the best consultants we could find, unlimited expense accounts, and full use of the corporate jet fleet. It was...a different kind of job.
Probably the hardest part of being a futurist -- especially when you're playing in the high-stakes game of corporate long-range planning -- is acquiring a sense of the Common Experience. Objectivism vs Solipsism: put out of your mind your own tastes and preferences. You may have to do what I did: spend a full day watching Daytime Television (Marshall McLuhan had it right: "The medium is the message"). I made a study of...'junk mail' (Do you yourself get the stuff? like it? buy things? Of course not, but plenty of people do and do and do: Third Class Mail represents a $55 Billion channel of commerce!).
Here's a real challenge: try discussing a given subject for, say, 30 minutes without using the first person singular (strenuous as it may be, no person has ever suffered permanent injury from this exercise).
If that's not the hardest, try separating prediction from advocation. Hah! That's tough, isn't it. Predicting...
Earlier I mentioned a 'sure thing,' the non-replenishable natural resource (NRNR). Since my earliest exploration of the subject in the fifties, NRNR has held me in its grip. I am fascinated by three NRNRs:
'Post-Petroleum Age' -- that's an idea to be denied or rejected, feared or despised. And why? Back when this telephone switch was still a flicker in the imagination of Undertaker Strowger, a different kind of century was going on. Petroleum was only just discovered, not exploited. Mankind's problems were often assumed to be unsolvable. Technological advances were infrequent and surprising -- not expected.
'Change' was changing. Today, it still is. Except that we have become inured to change itself -- we expect it, take it for granted -- never doubting it. Each problem, we assume, has a solution following it around like a dog on the end of a leash. But that too can change -- and will. Another sure thing. Get ready for a shock: Some things will not change. To prepare for that future, we must become even more objective in our thinking.
Mindless extrapolation from the past just won't do. The future, people, is not what it used to be.