This is the second of a multi-part series of posts to introduce you to our soon-to-be-released platform PitchTop.com. Here, we discuss the roots of our human tendencies towards imagining the future, and why it’s becoming increasingly relevant.
I’m sitting in a Peet’s coffee, situated with my back to the wall, watching a man across the cafe with his iPad propped up in front of him hosting a video conference with a woman in God-knows-where. There are five of us with our heads plugged in via little white chords to aluminum laptops, which are then plugged into wall outlets by slightly thicker white chords. I imagine if I had THC in my bloodstream right now, I’d be mulling something along the lines of humans plugged into walls staring at screens on internal loop. And if I weren’t writing a piece about futurology, I would easily take this all for granted—that two or so decades ago, the man in the corner would be leaning on a public payphone punching in a memorized number in hopes of catching his colleague or wife or whomever at the very moment that she’s near a landline, or that if I wanted to get any work done sans ink and paper, that I’d be relegated to a lonely room in my apartment.
It’s getting exceedingly difficult to take for granted the new technological realities of our daily lives—they just keep coming on so rapidly. It used to be that only old fogies couldn’t “keep up” or “stay ahead of the curve”—but today, it seems like a full time job in and of itself to even be aware of all the recent gadgets that are as good as magic on first impression. The intervals at which we seem to be entering new chapters of Science-FictionLand have whittled down from centuries to decades to years to, lately, months. When my parents talk about being awe-struck by technology in their youth, they talk about the introduction of color television. The first black and white television successfully powered up in my current city of San Francisco in the year 1927. It wasn’t until the 1960’s when color television reached the first living rooms. Now compare that to the fact that I had a black-and-white flip phone in 2007—a Motorola RAZR, remarkable for its thinness at the time—and that today, in 2016, we are on the 7th edition of the iPhone, a gadget that is easier to describe what it doesn’t do than what it does.
But does all this technology really affect our lives in a meaningful way? We can look at Emma Moreno, the world’s oldest living woman at 116 years old and now the last known person to have seen the inside of three different centuries. Of course, she was only 1 years old when the (mechanical) clock struck the 20th century, but it’s fascinating to think about the changes she’s witnessed—from World Wars and vaccines to telephones and space exploration to driverless cars and wifi cafes. That she so mellowly sits at home between visits from her niece waxing nostalgic over mementos in her house, sticking to her century old routine of eating three raw eggs and a shot of Brandy for breakfast—not driven completely crazy by the hyper-proliferation of consumer technology—may be a testament to the fact that these so-called disruptions are simply ornamental to the human experience or, essentially, a meaningless sideshow. If that’s the case, then why are we so damn fascinated by the future? And why does our fascination with the future obsess over technology and its social impacts?
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to dub this an obsession, given the sheer dominance of future-focused sci-fi on popular culture—from 2001:Space Odyssey to Star Wars to the Matrix to Avatar to the Hunger Games.. It seems that you can’t have a blockbuster franchise (without comic book characters) unless you’re dealing with the future and technology in some way. Science fiction itself is considered the literature of ideas, which are the offspring of the imagination. Indeed, the feeling I had when I walked out of the theater after a screening of Ex Machina is somewhere in the vicinity of the feelings I get after walking out of the giant golf ball at the Epcot Center or after staring up at a clear, starry night trading metaphysical explanations about the existence of the universe with a friend. It’s the same feeling that evokes that breathy “Wooooowwww” in descending unison from a group of kids on a field trip to the planetarium. The future is a vast, blank canvas upon which our imaginations have room to spread like an X-wing fighter and soar.
But we don’t just want to imagine nifty alternate realities about the future—we obsess over predicting the future with accuracy. We are excruciatingly bad at this—as evidenced by the mountains of cash flowing into industries that profit from predictions about the future in merely the next moment: the stock market, sports betting, the entire insurance industry. This certainly does not deter us from trying. You’d have to go back pretty far to find a point in time when people weren’t trying to predict the future. The most salient examples include the book of Revelations in the Bible and Nostradamus in the 16th Century. Leonardo da Vinci had a pretty decent sketch of a helicopter concept in 1493, four hundred years before the first helicopter took flight.
We don’t have to go back any farther than Ms. Moreno’s birthday to find some very entertaining images of the future from the past. George Orwell’s 1984, completed in 1949, painted a dystopian future of synthetic drug use and widespread surveillance through telescreens, among other predictions that are looking startlingly accurate despite the 40 year lag. Back to the Future II depicted the year 2015 with hoverboards (close), flying cars (wrong), shoes that tie themselves (close enough), and sleek Pepsi bottles (true, but self-fulfilling). In 1967, Deere & Company predicted the future of agriculture with a vision of square tomatoes, for their more efficient packing ability and better fit for sandwiches (I’m kind of wondering why that hasn’t happened yet). And of course, the 60’s cartoon the Jetson’s had us all living in sky houses with flying cars and automatic everything.
There is a vast array of futuristic predictions throughout the last half century that have been laughably inaccurate due to linear or goofy thinking:
￼A machine that prints the morning newspaper directly off of your home radio. This didn’t account for the leap frogging of mobile devices over the convenience issues with the home printer.
The kitchen of the future, as presented by Walter Cronkite. Watch the video to see concepts of meals automatically made according to punch cards or dinnerware 3D printed and later recycled to avoid the need to wash.
￼￼Intelligence pills and networked neocortexes in 2016? This is laughably inaccurate today (unless you count Adderall), but Kurzweil has made a similar prediction for 2045.
If you want to find someone who is very rarely wrong, you need to look at Ray Kurzweil, boasting an 86% accuracy rate across 147 predictions since the 90’s. 115 of his predictions have been deemed full-on correct, with an additional 12 being correct within a year or two. In 1990, he predicted that a computer would defeat a world chess champion by 1998. IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov in 1997. He also predicted that PCs would be capable of answering human questions by accessing information via the internet by 2010, and that exoskeletal limbs would enable the disabled to walk by the early 2000’s (we will be looking very closely at the this one in an oncoming post). These are some of the many good and difficult predictions that Kurzweil has made. What’s his secret? He credits his near clairvoyance with an analysis that accounts for the exponential behavior of human technology. Think Moore’s Law: that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles approximately every 18 months. The impact of this phenomenon explains why we had big boxy televisions crowding our living rooms to watch E.T. on VHS in the late 80’s and why I’m able to watch an episode of Stranger Things in my palm while waiting for my name to be called at Joe’s Barbershop today. It also explains why the future seems to be happening a lot faster these days: because it is.
There are also the abstract underpinnings of futurology that accelerate the acceleration of the future. Removing frictions in communications means a faster flow of ideas, which leads to removing more frictions in communications which leads to a faster flow of ideas… and so on. And these phenomena compound with others to unlock new portals of invention and discovery.
Let’s get back to that flying car—most predictions have us manning some simple controls and zooming from point to point in a sleek glass-enclosed pod-type thing. But it’s hard enough to drive around San Francisco today for 20 minutes without pulling your eyebrow hairs out in a boiling exasperation—and that’s just 2 dimensional space. Imagine the aviation nightmare we’d have on our hands if humans were handed some nascent technology to coordinate in 3D air traffic? So, flying cars, as depicted in pop culture’s past seem quite a ways off from now. But, then again, you might be able to look at two very current developments that may give us flying cars at their convergence: drones and driverless cars. We just need drones to be big enough and safe enough to carry a human pay load, while the extension of driverless car technology to air space seems like a mere software upgrade (let’s call it Level 6).
At PitchTop, we’re particularly interested in the parallel trends in product innovation that will make today’s trip to the store to pick up a new dishwasher read like getting your mail from the Pony Express in a few decades. There’s a full stack upheaval of the innovation and production cycle happening right under our noses, just ready to burst onto the mainstream. Call it the Hardware Revolution, or the Maker Movement, or what have you. There are countless trends that are easing the path from idea to production to customer doorstep—better software, online marketplaces for components and human resources, 3D printing for faster prototyping, access to customers for earlier validation, access to funding for longer runways, standardization and abstractions to enable leaner teams to create more complex products, and markets opening up to accept the replacement of almost anything you buy with a connected, sensing, automated, or simply rethought version of that thing. When we get to the point where a high school kid can garner social capital (in other words: attract girls) by building a robot in his basement and pre-selling it the next day, we’ll be on the fast path to the George Jetson-ing of our lifestyles we’ve been waiting for ever since we sat cross-legged in front the tube slurping from bowls of Pop cereal in our laps.
And while we do not take the position that all technology is good technology, or that all products are worth buying, we are excited about the potential of what this neo-D.I.Y. future holds—a realistic opportunity for more people’s imaginations to collide with the physical world, and many more occasions for us all to sit back, widen our eyes and exhale “Wooooowwww”…
Well, those are our humble predictions, and we’re staking an entire platform upon it. Next time, we’ll be telling you more about what that platform actually does. Between now and then, will you please tell us what are your predictions for the future? Go here and tell us what they are. We’ll pick a few to share with the community, and we’ll reward our favorite response with a $100 gift prize redeemable on PitchTop when we launch in Fall 2016.