Framed in the past

We can’t predict the future. However, I still read futurologists like Calum Chace, Alvin Toffler, Bruce Sterling, Vernor Vinge, Joël de Rosnay and so forth. A good futurologist won’t even attempt to predict the future for real, but he will offer a new way to think about the present. Indeed, I think that to really understand the present, it useful to first put ourselves into an imagined future, and then look back. A fish can only see the pond if he first jumps out of it.

The default in our culture works in reverse. Instead of imagining the future and thinking back, we put ourselves in the past. Instead of thinking as futurologists, we think as historians.

People buy phones. In 2016. Of course, they actually mean portable computers with a touch screen. Nobody in the 1970s would recognize an iPhone as a phone. It is actually far superior to the Star Trek communicators that people in the 1970s saw on TV. That should not be surprising given that an iPhone is more powerful than any computer that existed in the 1970s. But we still frame these portable computers as things (phone) from the past.

We talk about shows that appear (sometimes exclusively) on Netflix as “TV shows”, whereas a “TV” is entirely optional to watch the shows in question.

By framing radical innovations in the past, we are effectively dismissing the genuine novelty. That is the very purpose of this framing. It is hard to sell something new. So marketers have to relate it to what you know. Everyone knows about phones. They are useful. Companies pay for them. So let us sell phones, even if they are no longer phones.

I was invited to talk at a major music industry event in Montreal recently. People complained repeatedly that they had a harder time selling discs. They were angry. Yes, it is not a typo. In Montreal, people in the music industry still talk about selling discs. Of course, they mean, I suppose, getting royalties from people listening to their music online. Or maybe that’s not what they mean. I am not sure. What is sure is that they frame their problem in the past.

A colleague conducted a set of interviews with education professors specializing in distance learning. They were asked whether technology (the web, basically) changed distance learning. Their answer was unequivocal. It did not. The change is superficial, they say. I am sure that they are being truthful: they view contemporary distance learning as it was 20 years ago.

You will find exactly the same thing in a computer-science department. Did the technology of the past 20 years disrupt software? You will have no trouble finding professors who will carefully explain that nothing at all is new.

Past-tense framing is useful in that it gets people to accept radical change. But that’s not entirely a good thing: it also prevents people (including smart people) from thinking clearly about the present. If the present is like the past, then whatever worked in the past will work in the present.

Historians are fond of quoting Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I prefer to say that those who can’t see different futures won’t have any say in the present.

As you organize your upcoming industry event, you should probably recruit speakers who can tell you about the future of your industry. Of course, they are going to be wrong, but you can be wrong in interesting and useful ways.

Daniel Lemire, "Framed in the past," in Daniel Lemire's blog, November 7, 2016.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

3 thoughts on “Framed in the past”

  1. For me it (the smartphone) has always been primarily a portable life-organizer – that has a secondary (and often irritating) function as an always available communicator.

  2. Regarding futurologists, by far the greatest of them was Stanisław Lem, especially in his Summa Technologiae.

    Regarding software – a lot has changed in a way we treat memory leaks 🙂

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