The other day an association hired me for a return speaking visit, noting that the last time I’d spoken to them, five years ago, I’d predicted that there would be “tablets everywhere.” And that was several years before the iPad was launched.
I was pleased that they had remembered—and happy that I’d been right. And while I don’t think that precise prognostication is the most valuable offering of the futurist, the fact is that anyone who talks about the future almost inevitably starts making predictions.
For me, predictions started with writing science fiction thirty years ago. And going back over my old short stories I see that even some of my odder predictions ultimately came true. For example: flowers implanted with bioluminescent genes so they glow in the dark in a story called “Lilies of the Trench.” Or a violin with electronic bow and strings so that it can only be heard through headphones in “Klysterman’s Silent Violin.”
Lately, along with tablets, I’ve predicted what I call heads-up goggles—eyeglasses with clear glass that also have a small projection of your computer screen down in one corner. In my speech The Virtualization of America (and the World) I describe how via devices like heads-up goggles we will someday be connected to the virtual world almost constantly. Kids born in 2025 will have to be taught what “offline” means—because “online” will be the normal state of things.
I’ve been talking about heads-up goggles for five years or so and so I was happy earlier this year when Google announced their Googles Glasses program. Google, in fact, predicted their heads-up goggles would be on sale by the end of 2012. That’s a prediction I don’t agree with—the technology is still too complex and expensive. I suspect Google is just trying to grab some mindshare with a premature announcement. Google Glasses is, after all, a pretty catchy name. Although I think Apple should hurry up and announce something as well—“iGlasses” sounds even better.
But the real value of the futurist is to talk about directions, rather than destinations—to use examples of what might be in the future to suggest ways to change what we do today. If you rely too much on making precise predictions, sooner or later you’re going to get in trouble. In fact, futurists as a breed are still often mocked for their predictions of “flying cars.” In fact, in 1957, on the cover of of Popular Mechanics, a futurist promised flying cars for everyone by 1967.
Wrong, of course. But flying cars seem to be eternal. At this spring's New York Auto Show a company called Terrafugia showed off a $279,000 flying car and said they already had 100 orders. So Popular Mechanics was off by 45 years and a little too optimistic about the price tag. But that’s all too often par for the course on predictions—and I feel quite comfortable in predicting that the same will be true for many years to come.
The news today about Steve job's decision to delay surgery for cancer and instead use alternative therapies fits his view of the world perfectly. Steve was famously one of the ultimate control freaks in technology. And Apple products have always reflected that--they tend to be closed boxes, rather hostile to user interventions. How many companies could, at this late date, still get away with selling a mobile phone in which you're not even supposed to change the battery yourself?
And so it makes sense that when Steve confronted the idea of surgery, it seemed a lot like letting someone else open the box. It was a process outside his control, and so he opted for alternative therapies--diet, acupuncture--that were both external and controllable.
Contrast that to Andy Grove of Intel who, when diagnosed with prostate cancer in the mid-Nineties, went on an incredible scientifically rigorous search for the very best treatment, and even documented the process in an article for Fortune.
Grove took an engineer's approach to his disease. Steve's was more of an artist's approach. And of course, Grove just turned 75 last month and, while now battling Parkinson's disease, remains deeply involved in funding and writing about medical research.