Old sci-fi story highlights gulf between foresight and vision
As a book review, it doesn’t start well: I have forgotten the author’s name and the book’s title, and, to make it worse, I only ever read a sample chapter. In my defense, it was about 35 years ago during an English class in my secondary education middle years.
Here is what I remember.
In what, at the time, looked like the future, two sibblings aged approximately 8 and 12 read books on the TV screen. For books are no longer priinted on paper. They are all available on screen. Amazon and Apple would have applauded at the foresight. But there is no mouse, no clicker, not even a key board or any kind of user-controlled interface. So the on-screen pages turn automatically after a set time. If you don’t read fast enough, as is the case for the youngest sibbling, tough! Even Microsoft would have been appalled by the lack of user-friendliness. In fact, it’s not completely hopeless: you can call a specialised technician as you would call a plumber to fix the toilet, and the guy will open up the TV set, fumble with the electronic and set the timer to a slower pace. It will probably cost you an extortionate plumber-like fee, and as you children’s reading skills improve, you’ll have to pay again to quicken the pace, but at least you can, to a limited extent, adapt the technology to your needs.
What does that story tell us?
It highlights, on the one hand, the impressive powers of human imagination: however enticing it might have been for schoolkids at the time to no longer have (school) books but instead have parents’ permission – even blessing – for staring at a TV screen all day long, it certainly felt more like fiction than science. And yet, as we know today, onscreen books have become, if not the majority, at least mainstream. It highlights, on the other hand, the no less impressive limitations of human imagination. As we know today, user-controlled interfaces, from crude to highly sophisticated, came into our lives long before the advent of the Kindle.
This strange combination of foresight and lack thereof is at the heart of the so-called innovation gap. There is no doubt that we live at a time of momentous innovation wave similar to that of the Renaissance in the late 15th / early 16th century or the Belle Epoque in the late 19th / early 20th. Such waves typically come in three phases in rapid succession: scientific advances, technology building blocks, creative synthesis – see earlier post here. But, in this early 21st century, we feel stuck in the technology building blocks phase. We imagine more or less futuristic uses for every single building block, but we seemingly lack the imagination to create an integrated vision of human progress and start assembling the building blocks accordingly. At this time we painfully experience the gulf between foresight and vision.
I am optimistic though. Highly, not cautiously. My sense is that we stand on the edge of the creative synthesis. New modes of working, consuming, learning are emerging, most of them enabled by technology building blocks but also driven by the urgency to create new ways of living. They do not make an integrated vision yet, but such a vision will emerge sooner rather than later from the mist of this new innovation dawn. As the millennials take centre-stage and change the ingredient mix of society, a new chemistry will drive the creative synthesis. Smarter is coming!