David Weinberger
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The future is a gimmick

01 January 2010

As William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed.” Or, put more snarkily, the future is already here—it just got distributed to the wealthy first. Either way, when the future arrives, it often looks like a gimmick.

The famous example is Fulton’s Folly. Robert Fulton was born in Pennsylvania in 1765 and migrated to Europe as a young man to seek fame and fortune. He had some success as a portrait painter, including painting Benjamin Franklin, and even had two works accepted by the Royal Academy. But he had a restless intellect. In 1804, “he tested the first successful submarine,” according to the PBS site Who Made America? (pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/fulton_hi.html).

He was not the first to think of using steam to power a ship, but he did secure an exclusive for using steam ships on the Hudson River. (This came through his partner, Robert Livingstone, who had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase). In 1807, he launched the ship Clermont that steamed from New York to Albany, beginning regular service and defying the taunts of “Fulton’s Folly.”

Those who had lined the banks to mock and jeer were not totally beyond the pale of rationality. There are good reasons why the future often looks like folly.

First of all, most of the time, it is. Before the Wright Brothers, it would have been correct to say, “Crazy, wing-flapping flying machines are already here—they’re just unevenly distributed.” The only people who had those contraptions were the inventors, and most inventions fail.

Second, even the inventions that work often work really badly at first. If you had been at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903, and had seen with your own eyes the Wright brothers each taking turns flying an engine-powered, heavier-than-air vehicle, would you have been willing to invest your kids’ college savings in the vision of airborne postal deliveries, cross-Atlantic flights and huge fleets of passenger planes? Too bad, because you should have. But, the fact that two bike shop owners could flick a plane into the air for a couple of minutes at a time by no means guaranteed that their gimmicky invention would spawn an industry. (Except in the case of Flubber: If you come across someone who’s created anti-gravity goo, absolutely invest your life savings in it immediately.) In many instances, the systems required to turn an invention into a future that we actually live in are so complex and implausible that the invention almost inevitably looks like a one-off stunt.

Third, it can be hard to predict what an invention will become. The Hula-Hoop remained just a Hula-Hoop, but Velcro became the very basis of civilized society. And, who could have predicted that bubble wrap would have intense therapeutic value when popped? The future of any particular invention is as uncertain as the future itself is.

All these tendencies for the future to arrive as a gimmick are accelerated and enabled by the Internet.

First, it’s so much easier to invent something, especially if it’s digital. If you have an idea, you can code it, put it up on the Web, and announce it through social media. If you don’t know how to code, you can go to one of the online work markets and find someone who does. The percentage of follies must be much higher than it ever was. And, of course, the more follies, the more successes, although the slope of the line measuring successes is probably quite a bit lower than before the Net.

Furthermore, because the Net is such a public space, more people know about the invention, and know about it earlier. Thus, there are more people to misunderstand it and mock it. And, sometimes, envy it.

More important, there are so many cultures and subcultures exposed to one another now, it’s easy to dismiss something important as something trivial. For example, instant messaging looked like just a way those gosh darn kids waste yet more of their time. It took a few years for businesses to realize that it was actually a great way to enable communications that were more convenient than walking down to someone’s office and less interruptive than telephoning. The same has been true for most of the important inventions on the Web. Blogs looked like diaries to those who weren’t reading them. Twitter looked like reports on breakfast (which, of course, it sometimes is). E-mail looked like a cheapening of the almighty memo.

But why do we react that way? Perhaps it is our species’ essential conservativism. Not only do we do things the way we do them (which is one of those self-evident truths), but we do
them that way because we think that’s the right way to do them. Otherwise, we’d do ’em differently! Along comes a new way of doing things. Usually, the new way is a worse way, simply because we have more bad ideas than good ones. Besides, these newfangled inventions are often picked up first by some other demographic or social group, and we can’t see past its usage of them. And once we see that the early adopters might be onto something, our defense mechanisms kick in: Sure it works for that group, but that group is far less important (or serious or adult or realistic or manly) than we are. They’re just IM’ing about gossip, SMS’ing jokes or tweeting about what they had for breakfast, and they’re probably doing it in LOLcats language.

Then, a couple of years later, we realize that what looked like a gimmick was in fact the future we didn’t know we wanted. And we regret the time we wasted on the wrong side of the future’s distribution.