An Insufficient Present
I've had three particular web pages open in my browser for a couple of weeks now. I knew that they were saying something to me, but I wasn't quite sure what. I think I may now have finally figured it out.
The future belongs to those who find the present insufficient.
The phrase is a deliberate variation of something that Clay Shirky argued recently, that the future belongs to those who take the present for granted. By this, Clay means that people who can accept the (technological) conditions of the present are better-able to see what's next than people who are still wrestling with whether those conditions of the present make sense. He cites Freebase and Wikipedia in this: while some people still argue about whether Wikipedia is a good thing, folks at Metaweb are already building a next-generation collaborative knowledge base.
The Time graph shows the comparative value of mobile phones, computers and television across five different generational cohorts*. For Gen Y, computers and phones are more important than TV, in that order; for Gen X, phones and television swap rank, with computers still on top; for the remainder, TV is the most personally valuable technology of the three. The Business Week graph splits similar cohorts (Gen Y has "Youth" split out at the bottom end, and a "Young Teen" is added below that) along six different online usage patterns. What's notable is that, although these are all ostensibly computer-based activities, some of the activities map nicely to abstracted uses of TVs and phones. The same cohorts that put TV above computers and phones predominantly engage in passive consumption of online content; the same cohorts that put phones above the others predominantly engage in social networking. (Gen X'ers seem to do a little bit of everything.)
Now, from the "takes the present for granted" perspective, these graphs can be interpreted to mean something along the lines of Boomers are still trying to figure out if social networking tools are a good thing, even while younger generations are just going ahead and using them as if they've always been there. That maps to the moral panic we've seen about MySpace and the like. As older generations say "wait, it can do *that*?" the leading edge says "of *course* it can."
But taking the present for granted is not enough. Saying "of *course* it can do that" isn't a catalyst for change, it's a symptom of complacency; it's looking back with a sneer at what has gone before, forgetting that the present that one takes for granted will be just as ridiculous soon enough. Transformation comes from saying "...but why can't it do *this*?"
And this is about more than technology. The exact same set of reactions -- "wait," "of course," and "but why" -- work equally well to social and political phenomena. We could apply the reasoning to global warming, for example:
Dissatisfaction with the present, not simply acceptance of it, drives change.
*Note: The age splits for those cohorts is inaccurate: "Boomers" skews too young for both start and end years, and "Seniors" is not a generational cohort description but a chronological age description -- it should be "Silent Generation."