In 1996 the Web was a relatively recent invention, and the Internet itself, while having evolved in a small community of scientists and academics, wasn't well-established, at least not in the mass market - it was just hitting the scene. There was a lot of speculation as to where it might be headed. Some would offer hopelessly inadequate predictions with no vision (It will be twice as fast!). Still others predicted laughably optimistic science fiction (The Internet will give us flying cars somehow!).
I remember those days, and it made me wonder - what makes the difference between an accurate prediction and a failure? How do we avoid making an investment of time, money, and energy in a technology doomed to obscurity or inevitable obsolescence? Is it even possible?
With the sheer volume of the technology at our fingertips, fully investigating their possibilities seems impossible. Each inquiry we make costs resources, and the higher the number of potential technologies there are to investigate, the greater the need for making better decisions about what to filter out and what to focus on.
Understanding the past
All technologies have a progression, from obscurity to fame, and beyond to obsolescence and death (and sometimes rebirth). Predicting the future of technology is essentially the same as identifying the technology that is currently climbing in relevance. While we can never tell the future with any certainty, we can analyze the past for trends. Technology which has succeeded and is in wide use today was started by some lucky son of a... I mean enterprising and industrious person. Some of it was the result of luck, while some of it was a drive to sell and market something new. Even the greatest sales pitch, though, can't sell a useless product - at least not with any sustainability. And luck can't explain everything. These visionaries must have had a strategy, whether they were aware of it or not, to put the odds in their favor. Their journey to success left clues for us to find and modify their ideas.
Identifying needs and wants
The most successful technological advancement will always be the most practical and useful. In fact, the success of a technology is really not about the technology at all. It's about the people, the networks they make up, and the trends they create and follow. The Internet was invented for defense networks, and some of the first implementations of it were to exchange academic knowledge. The early days of personal computing were dominated by a species known as computer geeks - a different breed of human being that were shunned by the masses, frightened of their wizard-like abilities.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the "best" technology is for any given purpose. What matters is if people actually use it. How a technology is used becomes far more important that whatever its intended purpose might have been.
Focus is time, time is investment, and investment is obligation. People will never use something if they don't know about it, and people only know about things they are exposed to. This usually means things which are already being used by others. It's a vicious catch-22. Traditional marketing may work, but it can be expensive, and is just as much of a gamble as any other investment. Market research gives us another clue about predicting the future. It helps to explain how people make decisions about technology by demonstrating that
the advance of technology is more psychological than technical.
The consumer is primarily concerned with how technology will make them feel. We all avoid painful emotions and we all chase pleasurable ones. We develop communications technology because we want to feel more connected. We develop labor-saving technology because we want to feel freer and less stressed, and we feel better during leisure time than working time. We develop computational technology because we want to feel more productive and smarter. This extended our abilities to solve problems. We develop weapons technology because we want to feel more powerful, and thus safe. Whether our feelings accurately reflect the real world is essentially irrelevant. We believe that they do.
Identifying the cost
The greatest barrier we can run into is a large price tag, and not a literal price tag in actual monetary value, either. What is the price tag for training and maintenance? What's the learning curve? Access to community, to documentation, and to the technology itself is extremely valuable, and can be the killer attribute of the next generation of technology. This is especially relevant to the younger generation which has less capital to invest. When faced with a decision between proprietary and open source software, for instance, the choice is obvious, especially if the project has a large community and an abundant supply of tutorials, videos, and other documentation available online to learn how to use it.
Identifying the progression
As the number of people using a technology grows, it's important to leverage the human capital of the past - the skills, tools, and other assets already present. In the world of programming, this means abstraction - the building of new tools using old tools, to accomplish a given goal. Scientific discoveries created the formation of natural laws - the formulas, theories, and other abstractions describing the way nature actually works.
Those natural laws eventually led to the creation of
- Electronic components which manipulate nature (such as a transistor, which manipulates electrons)
Those components led to
- Integrated circuits which led to
- Low-level assembly language which were used to create
- High-level programming languages which were used to create
- Applications which were used to create
- Higher level systems such as content management systems leading to
- User interfaces resulting in
- Content ready for consumption
This is how we "stand on the shoulders of giants". This is almost always the path that successful technology takes - the path of least resistance.
All of this implies a goal, but goals are dictated by market forces - by people. If we could identify the goals of people, then predicting the future would be easier, as we could simply choose to focus on what technology best achieves those goals. Just as there has been an explosion of technological choices, there has been an equal explosion of personal choices The real challenge is to find the common ground between those choices - the center of this trend - the core of all human goals.
Identifying the center
I want things simple and I want them now, just like most people. Why the draw for instant gratification? The drive for all technology is the individual itself, and the trends have been to increase the number of choices available for that individual. The Internet gave us decentralized communication and news. We are the editors, and sometimes writers, of our own personalized newspaper, filtering it via "likes" and "following" and "subscriptions". Ecommerce is giving us decentralized shopping. We are no longer bound by physical location, as a near infinite "store" has come to us. 3D printing is giving us decentralized manufacturing. Uber and Lift are giving us decentralized transportation. However, "decentralization" may be a misnomer. It is really "recentralization", as the center of the new technologies is the individual.
We know that advances revolve around the individual. We know that the individual makes decisions based on how they believe that decision will make them feel. We know that cost is important, and that one of the most important emerging costs is the time and attention that individual must invest. And, we know that the cost is lowest with technology that is open and free, already established, and being used by the greatest number of people. Simply put, it is all about access to what the individual values at the lowest cost, and what the individual values is decentralization. We are becoming the center of our own universe. Just the way we like it.
Where is all this going? I'm in the market for some technology. What I really need is to get a 3D-printed brain implant, and embedded personalized data filtration system, through which I can integrate the relevant information I need directly into my brain. Once I have that, adapting the technology I use to my own biology, I will be better equipped to answer these kinds of difficult questions.