The Future of the Future by Richard Seymour
I was in London yesterday and whilst there I had the pleasure of meeting up with Tim and Hettie of Seymourpowell. Tim gave me this little book which features a collection of thoughts by Richard Seymour. The book is entitled ‘The future of the future‘ and I was reading it last night just before I went to bed.
I thought I would post up some of the inspirational and thought-provoking things that Mr Seymour said so that you can all share his insights into the future and the role that technology will play.
The book started like this…
A couple of years ago, a primary school teacher in the Midlands took a typewriter into class. He let the 7-year olds look at it, play with it and generally kick it around. At the end of the day, he asked them what they thought of it. The answer was startling. ‘Cool…a laptop that prints as you write and you don’t have to plug it in’, was the general consensus.
Amusing as this story is, it actually illustrates beautifully how the future works. As the Talmud (and a host of others) have observed, we have a habit of making sense of the world through our own experiences. In fact it’s very difficult not to. If your only experience of a portable writing device is a laptop, then a typewriter is a mechanical version of that. If virtually everything you use or play with is powered by batteries, then a ‘self-powered’ device is fascinating…possibly even futuristic.
Later on in the book, Seymour goes on to talk about emergent behaviour. This is what he says…
Basically, the future is being formed by a number of broad-bandwidth thinkers, who are lassoing the present from their vantage point in the future and dragging us towards them. The future is ‘pull’ not ‘push’. Put simply, the future is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy, being fought here and now, by people who have started earlier than their competitors. It isn’t created by extrapolating trends or asking consumers.
As Hobbs would no doubt point out, all the future needs to work is your obedience in accepting it. But the other engine that works in tandem with these polymaths is emergent behaviour. That’s us basically. We tend to react to the new by finding ways to work with or against it. Restrict people’s movements and ease of use with a new application, such as text messaging 15 years ago, and what appears? A new, foreshortened syntax and vocabulary to cope with it. Provide a product with a keyboard that makes text easier and what happens? The syntax modifies again, elongating itself back to something more approaching good grammar, but some of the more novel components remain: LOL, WTF! etc.
Who invents this stuff? We do. The eternal sea of interaction. What works and amuses us stays around, what doesn’t evaporates. So creating the future is a nerve wracking process. People can’t tell you what they’re going to want, really. Because they usually don’t know. So we have to get stuff out there and wait to see what the world makes of it. No wonder many businesses look desperately for ‘metrics’ that can raise their hit rate. But as the world wags on and the communication revolution continues unabated, the role of emergent behaviour is going to become even more important. And predicting how we will react will get harder and harder.
Action, as Newton observed, is met by equal and opposite reaction.
Seymour then cites his favourite example of emergent behaviour…
One of my favourite examples of this is the Mosquito, a device created to annoy and disperse undesirable teenagers from lurking around public spaces. It’s basically a public address system that generates a tone too high to be heard by most adults, but within the frequency range of the younger ear, about 22,000 hertz.
Brilliant. So what’s the reaction?
Some smartarse records this ultrasonic tone onto their mobile phone and uses it as a ringtone that can be heard only by young people. In the classroom, the teacher is oblivious of the sound.
Interesting stuff huh? Are there any examples of emergent behaviour that you can think of? They don’t have to be related to technology either.