Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Having Seen The Future So Many Times

Some of my friends and a few readers of this blog think I’m prescient, but in the words of Nicholas Negropointe, founder of MIT Media Lab:

“One of the few advantages of age when you talk about the future is you’ve been there so many times.”

What can seem like anticipating change, in my case at least, is really only a matter of sizing up how patterns of evolution repeat themselves, something anyone can learn to do.

As few are, I’m certainly no Negroponte, who spoke in 1984 at the first TED Conference, an organization I had not even heard of until just before I retired nearly four years ago, following launch of its website.

I still remember how astonished I was at having been totally ignorant of the TED movement until a friend, Larry Moneta, leaned over during a meeting to explain when I first heard the TED acronym mentioned that it stood for “technology-entertainment-design”.

I suddenly felt as lost as Rip Van Winkle after a twenty-year snooze.

Negroponte, by the way, is the founder of the “One Laptop Per Child” movement which I have blogged about before.  It has become more like one tablet per child and is being used by 2 million children in 42 countries across the globe.

As Guy Raz marveled recently, Negroponte is also the person who foretold touch screen technology nearly a quarter century ago.

His 1984 touchscreen vision was presented only three years after I had first set eyes on an IBM personal desktop computer in a store window in Philadelphia where I was attending a conference.

Occurring less than a year after the launch of the first cell phone, Negroponte anticipated the first touchscreen smartphone by a mere 23 years.

The source of such visions is not isolated.  Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants explains that “ideas are not self-contained things; they are more like ecologies and networks.  They form clusters.”

In his fascinating book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson notes that it is a myth that innovation can be incentivized or driven by the competitive pressures of the profit motive.  They spark from creative environments.

While both are technology gurus, these observations relate to any evolution or change.

Johnson’s history includes the role of the coffee houses in launching the Age of Enlightenment in the late 1600s and 1700s which was such a powerful influence on the founders of our nation.

Any foresight with which I am credited is a lower form of innovation, more like seeing patterns and connecting dots.

An example that Johnson details was also summarized recently by Pagan Kennedy in the wonderful innovation column “Who Made That?” which appears in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

She mentions the person in 1858 who came up with the idea of putting erasers on the end of pencils sold the idea to an entrepreneur who was denied a patent because all it did was connect two existing and already prevalent inventions.

Maybe not an invention but that is often how innovation occurs.

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