Do you fear the future?
Gurus blind us
Prediction, foresight, future-proofing. These are not new phenomena. We can, after all, only go forward, never back. Now, though, something has changed. The future appears to be super-charged, held to ransom, remade as an industry and harnessed by individuals – technocrats of the unforeseen – planting doubt and anxiety in their wake.
They call themselves futurologists, but have little interest in contributing to progress. Instead their commodity is breathless anticipation and the exploitation of ignorance about the decades ahead.
Their mantra is: “There’s something coming that you don’t know about that could hurt you. You need to listen to my speech/hire me/buy my book.” They trade on the fear of missing out on the future and it’s highly lucrative.
Futurology and religion
It would not be unreasonable to compare futurology’s emotional outpourings to those long associated with religion – after all, what really separates the trend predictor or innovations executive from the prophet of old?
Is reminding one’s audience of great adapt-or-die case studies – Kodak’s bankruptcy in 2012, for instance – so very different from warning us all to mend our sinful ways lest we be condemned to hellfire?
Drama is the key to both professions. For the prophet of religion, it is a question of solitude, fire and suffering; for the futurologist, mass unemployment, corporate failure and the imminent obsolescence of humans.
But while the mode of delivery may overlap that of the preacher, the content couldn’t be more different. Religion involves following simple, unchanging steps while futurology functions on the eternally ungraspable and out of reach. There isn’t a shred of fixity to be found within it. It’s enough to make even the greatest industrial strategist’s head spin.
How can business cope with the future?
Instead of presenting blockchain, Cloud computing and other innovations as sources of help, flexibility and security, such technologies are introduced in a manner more likely to produce headaches and anxiety – as a threat.
Businesses considering such options will do so inspired by fear of falling behind their competitors or being out of touch with modern thinking. Constructive outcomes are cast aside to focus only on what is lacking.
What confuses most is the totality of the visions put forth by futurologists, which seem to encompass out of reach, often purely conceptual aspects of technology and organisation.
Recently an account of driverless cars functioning as taxis for a smart city envisaged them processing fare transactions through blockchain, capable of repairing themselves and distributing energy to the community via rechargeable engines – producing universal basic income for all.
This is not a tech enthusiast’s Christmas wish-list but an idea put forth by a senior figure in an energy company, tossing every headline-grabbing tech fad at a single distant horizon. It’s enough to make you buy a horse.
Disruption, a word that seems inescapable wherever one looks, is not taken as an opportunity to enhance existing practices or to better oneself, but as a source of confusion – a constant weight bearing down on the shoulders of entrepreneurs and those in charge of allocating funds to projects.
This terminology, reminiscent almost of Deleuze and Guattari’s explorations of material and conceptual planes of existence, carries the same sense of vagueness. Words such as flows, disjunctions, disruptions and singularity provide little constructive help aside from being nice ways to visualise the transfer and exchange of data.
Such terms are undoubtedly appropriate to the current knowledge infrastructure, but fall prey to the wishy-washiness of potentialities – the separation of the real and actual and many other characteristics of a system that eschews the physical and practical world.
Too much, too soon
Over the years we have seen many companies bow to these pressures and wipe out their market share. In the 1980s, computer manufacturer Commodore alienated its customers by choosing to make a new product incompatible with the ubiquitous Commodore 64, imagining the industry would follow. It did not.
In a similar vein, Nintento’s infamous Virtual Boy showed that it is possible to innovate and adopt new technologies too quickly. This 1995, monochrome augmented-reality headset failed to make a fraction of the sales enjoyed by the Game Boy or N64. Despite being years ahead of the industry, the hardware was too new and met with health concerns on top of critical and commercial failure.
Oh, and there’s Kodak. It designed a digital camera in 1975 and an image-sharing site in 2001. Neither flew, although the revived firm now has a cryptocurrency offering.
So what should you do? Be wary of putting an imagined future before the present. Focus on matters at hand before preparing your practices for an uncertain paradigm.
It could be that fear of missing out on the distant, imagined and ever shape-shifting future could leave us vulnerable to real things likely to happen tomorrow – or at least in the next few years.
By fretting about the shadowy demons of some tech-crazy dystopia just out of reach, we are neglecting solid, practical problems that we could realistically tackle.
The far future is not ours to see, but the near future… well, at least we can have a good guess at that.