Tomorrow is Today, Just Later

Imagining the future can be difficult. This isn't to say that we can't imagine it to be whatever we want, full of radical change, sweeping waves of disruption, step-changes in technology, unforeseen behaviors, sci-fi innovation etc.  And given the opportunity to devise scenarios depicting the future, many scenario authors, "professional" and layperson alike, tend to want to go for the gold, taking the opportunity to pack storylines with massive change. As Jamais Cascio wrote a few months back in a meditation on this issue, even futurists create pictures of a future that has "Changed Your Life Forever."

Personas, essentially the personal form of a scenario when used in a futuring context, frequently suffer from overcooking. Whether created by bright and well-meaning designers or strategists or an ad-pitch team looking to convince a client, they often depict lives of the perfect user/consumer, whose average day is an unending sequence of early adopter behaviors or optimal use cases, complete with flawless experiences of new products.

Driving to pick up my children the other day, I was reminded what the future is really going to be like. I happened to catch the top of the hour news on BBC World Service, one of the benefits of satellite radio. As I listened to the top headlines, I was reminded of a conversation with Bruce Sterling some months ago about how strange the world is right now, even without adding any "juice" to the plotline. Our consensus was that it's harder every day to do what we do in foresight, or even in the more creative field of science fiction writing, because, as the saying goes, truth is frequently stranger than fiction these days. In a period of accelerated change, whatever the drivers, we are seeing the unusual play out daily at the moment, right before our eyes.

What's the connection to BBC headlines? Stories about the current price of oil ($145 at the time I heard the news report), an African-American presumptive presidential nominee (Barack Obama), a pocket-sized, touchscreen computing device (iPhone), and a major bank failure (IndyMac), all rolled by, sprinkled alongside the mundane stories of human interest, crime, politics as usual, and other usual suspects of a newscast. Despite a few interesting nuggets and some top headlines that would have sounded outlandish and breathtaking a decade ago, it wasn't a breathtaking litany of staggering disruptions or earthshattering advances in science, and my day wasn't much different than the day or week or month before.

There is a purpose to depicting radical scenarios--they help us decide what we might do in the face of very different circumstances, and therefore be somewhat better prepared should they come to pass. But increasingly the tendency among both their authors and users alike is to veer too far to the absolute - focusing on total disruption without worrying about the legacy relationships, investments, commitments, etc. that are still in place. When this happens, they become the strategic equivalent of escapism. 

While an average day doesn't sell scenarios as well, it does present a normal context against which alternatives, be they product concepts, government policies, or what have you, can be considered. The world remains a mix of the chaotic, surprising, and just plain bland, even if the mix does occasionally get slightly out of balance. We have very, very few moments that "Change Your Life Forever." We have many more where we live through very incremental change, just like today. It's a pretty safe bet that, in the big scheme of things, tomorrow, and probably next year, is going to be to a high degree just like the one described on the radio last week. Painting this picture should be the easy part. The hard part is identifying which of these very incremental points of change in the near term may become major drivers of our world's evolution in the long term.