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The Fuzzy Now

Thought experiment: imagine you've been taken, somehow, and dropped into a big city in another place, with comparable technological and economic development, somewhere you don't speak the language. Here's the twist: it's also time travel. How long would it take you to notice that you've been shifted in time as well as space?

I've been thinking more lately about how it is we (as a collection of societies) respond to the world evolving around us. I've written before about the banality of the future -- the idea that changes that seem mind-boggling and transformative from the perspective of today would seem utterly boring to people who have lived through the development and slow deployment of those particular changes. There's also William Gibson's famous line, "the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed." I'm fascinated by the idea that our perception of "the future" is contingent upon where and when we live.

At the Institute for the Future's 2013 Ten-Year Forecast event, I offered the concept of the "fuzzy now" -- the stretch of time before and after the present day in which there seems to be little if any significant change. The length of the fuzzy now period corresponds to how much disruptive, dislocative change is taking place. Which brings us back to the thought experiment: if you're within the "fuzzy now," you may not realize that you've traveled in time for days.

Dropped into a new place, your first clues that you're in a different year would come from the gross physical environment: transportation types, building size/materials/designs, clothing design. You'd also be looking at what people are doing as they go about their business -- if they are fiddling with mobile phones, for example. Are there cues in terms of social behavior around ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation? (Of course, if you spot an abundance of Zeppelins in the sky, you know immediately that you've moved to an alternate universe.)

Clues would come in two broad categories: things that should be there, but aren't; and things that shouldn't be there, but are.

If you were to be sent back ten years (2003), for example, you might not immediately recognize that you were in a different year. Clothing, building, and automobile designs would be familiar enough, and the lack of the most recent items wouldn't be instantly apparent (especially if you factor in being in a different country, where such differences would be masked by cultural/market variations). One possible clue you might notice soon is the fewer number of people using mobile devices, the complete lack of any kind of "tablet," and that the mobile phones in use are essentially all the old "feature phone" with buttons and tiny screens. Nobody has an Android or the like -- the iPhone wouldn't be coming out for another five years. Depending upon where you were, you might also see more public telephones and newspaper boxes. And once you saw that, you'd likely start picking up all sorts of other clues, especially about technology and media.

In short, we can say that ten years back is probably just beyond what we'd consider the "fuzzy now" -- you wouldn't notice immediately (as you would if you were bounced back a hundred years, or probably even 25), but you'd very likely pick up on it within an hour or two. Five years, conversely, would almost certainly be well within the "fuzzy now;" you'd eventually pick up on the shift, but it might take a day or more.

What about if you were shifted forward in time ten years, not back? I'd hazard a guess that you'd notice much more swiftly that something was very, very wrong. Why? Because while the physical objects, designs, and media of ten years ago might seem dated, they would also seem familiar; decade-old stuff is often still in active use. New stuff would be a surprise, especially if the overall appearance was distinctive from anything back in your home time. Some of it you might discount as being in another country, but seeing big signs for electric vehicle rapid-charging stations, or bunches of people walking along the street wearing the descendants of Google Glass, or just about everyone wearing hats for sun protection, these would quickly stand out, especially in combination.

A five year forward jump probably wouldn't be detected as quickly, but -- depending upon what kinds of developments we see -- could start to feel weird and wrong within an hour or two. This parallels the depiction of ten years back: the changes may not immediately be noticeable, but would not remain hidden for very long. This could actually be more dizzying than a jump in time that's immediately visible -- your sense of safety, already compromised by the unexpected shift in place, gets steadily undermined by the gnawing sense of wrongness. A bigger shift in time, conversely, is like ripping a bandage off -- shocking, but all at once.

The observation that a five year forward jump might parallel the effects of a ten year backwards shift suggests that a "fuzzy now" might extend twice as far back as it does forward. The you from 2013 would likely feel at home anywhere from (say) 2008 to 2015/2016, perhaps going for days without realizing that you've moved in time as well as space.

There's a futurist adage that to get a sense of the changes we face, you need to look back twice as far as you look ahead. My suggestion of the structure of the fuzzy now seems to align with that, at least superficially. But what needs to be clear is that I'm not saying that we'll change twice as much over the next ten years as we did in the last. Rather, it's that we are more sensitive to the emergence of the new than to the persistence of the old.

This has a few implications for foresight work.

It's a useful way of explaining the "banality of the future" idea. It's all about perspective. We may think of developments happening eight or ten years from now as being wildly disruptive, but for people living eight or ten years from now, today (2013) seems only marginally different at best.

It also offers a language for thinking about how different parts of the world experience change. A stable part of the developing world may have a broader fuzzy now than a place going through conflict or environmental destruction. Similarly, it's a way of articulating the disruption arising from different kinds of changes or events -- do they (temporarily?) shrink the fuzzy now period? Does a global economic downturn make the fuzzy now period expand?

Ultimately, it's a way of articulating the shock that can accompany big disruptions. We rely on the comforting knowledge that tomorrow will be pretty much like today. That seeming stability -- the spread of the fuzzy now -- actually allows us to think about the future. We don't have to look at our feet when we walk, figuratively speaking. But if you're accustomed to the present feeling like the last five or six years, and the next few years likely to seem like more of the same, suddenly having that perception of the present reduced from years to weeks, even days, can be enormously debilitating. Suddenly, we have to watch our feet.

A disruptive, cataclysmic future doesn't goad us into action, it eviscerates our ability to look ahead.

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