Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How 2001: a Space Odyssey got the future right

Digital displays, computer graphics. Normal today, visionary 44 years ago. 
In June of 1968, I sat in a dark Cinerama theater, all three projectors perfectly synchronized on the big curved screen.  A prehistoric proto-human ape, having learned to use a bone as a weapon, throws it into the air in celebration...we track the skyward rise of the bone in slow motion...

And then the future happened before my eyes.

The astounding amount of personal space while traveling is pure fantasy.
The cinema-ratio flat screen video monitor?  Dead-on correct.
Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey redefined forever what a science fiction movie would look like.
Do hospital monitors look like this today because
we first saw them in "2001?"

But beyond that, it predicted the look of the early 21st century so accurately that, when we look back, it seems ordinary.  Of course there are digital displays. Of course all the video is flat-screen and 16:9 ratio, and there are handheld pad computers.  On that day in 1968, few had even considered them, let alone thought of them as ordinary.

Kubrick and his team visualized them into a world so everyday, there were brand names like Whirlpool and IBM on view.

A personal tablet. In 2011, Samsung argued in court that this scene
from 2001:a Space Odyssey was a reason that Apple
had no legal leg to stand on in claiming rights to the iPad design. 
2001 was so right in its vision, so complete and natural in its depiction of a nearly-inevitable future, I also contend that it powerfully shaped the future we got, especially from a design standpoint.  At once it is both a magnificent distillation of our 1960s expectations of a bright future, and a reference manual for what that future should look like, and what it would be like to live there.

Consider airplanes.  Chances are good, if you're an Infrics.com reader, you're one of many knowledge workers and executives who spend a lot of time flying.

Where did the look of modern aircraft interiors come from?  Look at the photos below:

Today, if you set foot aboard JetBlue, Virgin, or just about any version of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, you can almost feel as if you're on a set from the Kubrick movie.

Of course, there are many things 2001 didn't get right: mechanical push buttons were still everywhere for instance.  Heywood Floyd steps inside a phone booth aboard the space station, so there was no prediction at all about mobile phones, or personal computers.  And when he arrived on the station, a subservient secretary-type woman asks him to state "last name and christian name" (italics mine) for voiceprint identification. Ouch.  But on many levels beyond the special effects, this was a groundbreaking effort of futurism.

So how did they do it? What can we learn from Kubrick's movie that will make us better predictors of the future?  That's the next story.

All the images shown here from 2001: a Space Odyssey are screen photos from my own Blu-ray DVD of the movie, and of course are copyrighted by the current owners of MGM intellectual property.  Many of us have never seen 2001 in high definition, let alone in a theater.  I highly recommend it; you can find the movie streaming and on disc at Amazon.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Future: A Dog Wagged By The Tail of the Past

commentary from Don

Eero Saarinen's early '60s TWA terminal at Idlewild.
Long live the future. 

I've been nostalgic for the spirit that was everywhere in the mid-20th century, the idea that the future was going to be a wonderful place. The optimism.  The certainty of a brighter tomorrow.

The future we got is a lot different.  Our life today --yesterday's future-- does have things wonderful and amazing. But in many ways it is totally unlike what we thought during those great celebrations of the future, the 1962 and 1964 World's Fairs. (I am 61 years old.  I attended both fairs as a boy of 9 and 11.)  Why?

The study of emerging technology is all about the future.  What's going to happen?  When?  If you're thinking about it from a business standpoint, you add the element of "what opportunities and threats does the future hold?"

"I can't wait to live in the future!"
This illustration of the General Electric exhibit
at the 1964 World's Fair brims with the
certainty of a brighter tomorrow.
Figuring out answers to those questions is an art.  I think we can apply some process and analytical thinking to the art, and think about ways to be better at looking ahead.  Maybe predicting can't be a science, but I think (and will argue) that there are ways to structure the art and make it more like a science.

One of the best ways to do that is to look back at those glory days of future-optimism, to find the patterns in what they got right and wrong.  That's why I say "the future is a dog wagged by the tail of the past."  And what if a really good prediction about the future can help shape it?  I think there's a case for that as well, and will explore it.

So that's what's coming up.  Next story: a future vision from the '60s that got an amazing number of things right.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Catching up on the history of the future


It's been some time since I posted on Infrics.com.  Many things have happened in my own life since last July, not the least of which is my sense of what this technology blog should be about.

This is a quick post, just to warm up, but three points to make:

  1. Tech reporting and commentary suffers from the "24 hour news" syndrome.  There are  scads of analysts and reporters trying to reach a limited audience, but there are few truly newsworthy things going on.  Like cable news, what happens in that case is that trivial matters get blown up to the status of "BREAKING NEWS!" Furthermore, search engine optimization has taken over editorial content and headline writing.  So we get a huge volume of stories that contain the same carefully-vetted keywords, and oftentimes the outcome is boring at best, bilgewater reporting at worst.  I'll try to keep my mouth shut unless I have something worth your time to say.  If fewer people find Infrics because I didn't worship the SEO gods, so be it.
  2. In a little over a month, it will have been 3 years since Infrics.com got started.  I'm happy to say that the big ideas I introduced as coverage areas have held up pretty well as guideposts for the direction of emerging tech and societal trends: a)the emergence of services that can be recombined in different ways to achieve enterprise value.  One surprising, and related, development is the way that idea is being expressed in the consumer space through companies like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb.  More on that soon.  b) the growing personalization of our interactions with businesses and each other, enabled by ever-increasing sophistication of data analysis, location awareness, social connection, and context.  c) the move toward decoupling of content, consumption, and transmission of information.  This idea, which I aggregate under the term "stateless," is gaining in momentum and influence.  In posts to come, I'll offer some ideas about what that means.
  3. In keeping with the "different from bilgewater" idea expressed above, I'm going to change the tone here a little.  You'll still see the occasional long-form analytical reports, but there will be a lot more "letter from Don to you" posts as well, more like a conventional blog.  I voluntarily left a job that paid me very well in order to start Infrics; some things about that choice turned out well, some things have been, shall I say, a learning experience.  I'll talk about both, and about what I've learned about business and enterprise tech along the way. 
One last thing.  I now live in northern California, in the San Francisco Bay area.  I'm a lot closer to some of the most exciting things going on in technology, so I hope to find some of them and share them.  If you're close by, let me know what you're up to.  Friends and colleagues all over the world, if you're headed to SF or Silicon Valley, please look me up.  I'm still at donald.ham@gmail.com