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Back to the Arrogance of the Present

One of my favourite books is Jonathan Margolis’A Brief History of Tomorrow”, (if you’re into thinking about the future like we are here, then you should really give it a read).  One of my favourite concepts from the book is something Jonathan refers to as “the Arrogance of the Present” – essentially identifying that it is hard to measure the future potential of new technology when all you have is a mind-set from the “present” from which to make the judgement.

In many ways it’s like the situation Henry Ford found himself in way back in 1903, asking for funding for his new project only to be told by the President of the Bank of Michigan that “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad”. Now with hindsight, it’s easy to sit here and make fun of that poor bank president and how stupid he must have been, but in reality, at the time that he made that statement, he was actually probably _right_.  His judgement on the future potential of Mr Ford’s ideas was coloured by his own understanding of the society at the time and his ability to understand how it may change.

Obviously we do not possess the ability to predict the future, but more importantly, we simply cannot comprehend the complex series of changes that society makes as it continues to evolve and therein lies our challenge.

We see examples of this kind of problem every day – many new technologies are misunderstood, dismissed and downright despised because we struggle to comprehend their role in a society that is significantly evolved from the one we experience today.

Camera phones are a great example of this – when they were introduced, I don’t know anyone that was inspired with excitement about the prospect of carrying around a poor quality, low resolution camera on their phone of all things.  Fast forward to today, when that functionality is poised to change the way society works whether it’s through citizens interacting with their local council on anti-social behaviour or augmented reality solutions that make a tangible difference to the way people are able to live their lives.

There are many more examples to illustrate the point but I’ll pick just two more – social networking and street level imagery – both of which are much maligned and misunderstood. That’s not to say they aren’t with their problems, but when we think about their potential it’s crucial that we do so not in the context of our understanding of today’s society, but instead by thinking about how they might work with the society of tomorrow. 

Of course, that’s not to say we should blindly accept any new technological principle, but instead of constraining our perception of value and relevance, we must use our experience from the past to help inform the right way of getting the most from the future potential innovation by implementing it in a way that is respectful and cognisant of all we have learned along the way.

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