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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.

Look at these two graphs, generated by Forrester Research for the New York Times and for Business Week.

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:

  • As the entrenched economic and political leaders fight over whether or not we should do anything about it...
  • ...up and coming cohorts have already gotten past that debate, and take it for granted that action is required...
  • ...even as the people who will take charge of tomorrow are asking not just how to stop global warming, but how to use the effort to make the world a better place.

    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."

  • Comments

    I was born in 1961. While most generally accepted "generation" charts label me as a late Boomer, others place me post-boom, but somewhat pre-X. The truth is, based on the what makes a true Boomer, or X-er, I never truly felt like I fit in - not that I've ever actually lost sleep about this, mind you. Apparently I'm not alone however - in the not fitting in dept.

    I recently came across the term "Generation Jones", as defined by Jonathn Pontell, and after further reading, think I'm Home. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Jones

    While this probably puts us into one of the "TV-first" categories, many of us are also in corporate, government, and technology leadership positions, fostering & bringing about the circumstances through which todays teens have become the "active engagement" and "takes for granted" leaders taking us into tomorrow.

    Like Troy, I'm a tail-end boomer (1959) but feel very little attachment to the older boomer mindset. I would place myself in the group who considers my computer more important but mostly consume from the web and do little interaction back out.

    "younger generations are ... using them as if they've always been there" - I think I understand what you mean here but consider that for the young (especially, say, those under 25) cell phones, the web, google and other internet features really have always been there - many are just now moving into being aware of their worlds.

    "Our generation is supposed to be defined by these technologies, such as instant messaging, that are more or less given to us." argued a classmate approx. five years ago. This is not a person who perceives themselves as owning the future, but the exact opposite. It is not only "a given", but literally given or forced. As a conclusion, it is the opposite of world changing, but taken as a challenge or initial point of departure, it could be very productive...

    Jamais, I think the distinction you make is important. The future belongs to those who interact with it, co-evolve with it. That's different than ignoring it, resisting it, or even seeing it on the horizon. Those are all reactions - but the future is a creative act, constrained by physics of course, but otherwise ours to choose.

    In good company...

    "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." George Bernard Shaw

    Hi Jamais
    I take your distinction, but I'm with Clay on this. I feel that the important thing is that for those developing the future, they have already been shaped by the current. Take plant succession as an analogy, you have a barren environment and some primary colonizers move in (lichens usually). These die, break down the rock and form a rough soil. Mosses can then establish themselves. These likewise change the environment so that grasses can move in, and so on.
    So, I don't feel that it's people find the present insufficient as such, it is that they have been affected more by the current wave of colonizers.
    Marshall McLuhan argued that 'technological environments are not merely passive containers of people but are active processes that reshape people and other technologies alike.' Some (the young in particular, although not exclusively) are reshaped more than others, and these are the ones who will have the biggest influence on where things go next.

    If it is likely that the near future will bring problems such as peak oil and energy shortage, water shortage, food shortage, global warming, human migration from poor to rich countries, conflict over resource scarcity, increasing population and resource consumption per capita, epidemics (due to global warming, food and energy scarcity, overcrowded urban areas, human enroachment, antibiotic abuse, etc.), and more, then it is possible that many of these technologies will disappear because they require a middle class lifestyle that the world will not be able to sustain.

    In that case, the future might belong to those who can live with decreasing resources.

    Ralfy - That's an interesting comment; I appreciate you adding that.

    Those who dwell in the advanced technology space, whether research, ops, or sales, tend to focus on things that are typically on or just over the consumer horizon (whether that consumer is the person walking into Best Buy, or even sometimes research Phd's/MD's)

    Unfortunately, one of the problems in this paradigm, is that they begin to look at all problems/challenges with the "everything looks like a nail" syndrome - though most would never admit that - and therefore think that all can be solved with yet-more "advanced technology".

    In addition to the idea behind the Shaw quote posted by John B Stone above, there is another idea we must all employ in our work - "The highest application of Technology, is not necessarily the application of the highest technology."

    It does little good to try and deploy/implement wireless technology into barren, starved, underdeveloped third-world countries (whether for "healing the masses" using telemedicine techniques, or for merely selling more iPhone's) if the masses in said county don't even have safe drinking water.

    So what's the technology priority there? Yes, technology CAN help, but it has to be the RIGHT AND APPROPRIATE technology.

    Great point and reminder to us all - thanks so much for bringing that up!


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