Living in the future

I live in the future.

I don’t mean that in any sort of wacky time-travelling sci-fi sense, but in the sense implied by the William Gibson quip: “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” I live in a world that’s a few years ahead of the mainstream. My friends were the geeks with Palm Pilots and cell phones and laptops before they became ubiquitous. We were the ones downloading digital music before iPods made it easy.

Sometimes I forget that my world is not the mainstream. Here’s an example – I’ve been amazed that more websites don’t have an iPhone-specific interface. The ones that I know do are Google, Twitter and Facebook. But the rest of the sites on my typical rounds (sports sites like ESPN or community sites like LiveJournal or even Internet standards like Yahoo) don’t. And I can’t understand why these sites would be so short-sighted. After all, half the people I know have an iPhone! Why wouldn’t these sites be catering to this massive population…oh, right, my friends are not representative of the mainstream.

That last statement needs to be modified, though – my friends are not representative of the mainstream now. There’s a reason my community is consistently living in the future – it’s because we shape what the masses adopt. We are the early adopters of technology, recognized by our other friends and family as the ones that have done the research and figured out what the useful gadgets are. We make the recommendations that drive adoption and help certain technologies cross the chasm into the mainstream.

Companies that think they are making the wise financial move by not investing in “fringe” technologies because they are a small percentage of users are missing out on the chance to influence these early adopters. To take an obvious example, if you go to any conference of leading thinkers these days, the vast majority of presenters will be using a MacBook. Most of my friends are Mac users now, except for the ones that are constrained by work obligations. Any software company that wants to capture future mindshare needs to support Macs. The same holds true of Firefox support, as nobody I know uses Internet Explorer as their default browser. Even though the overall percentages are small (8% for Mac and 15% for Firefox adoption), the percentages among the technology influentials are far higher, and their impact on future adoption needs to be considered.

As an aside, this dichotomy presents an interesting question – should companies target the mass market of Microsoft and IE or the leading edge of Mac and Firefox? It’s another instance of the perennial dilemma for companies: deciding whether to allocate resources towards short-term or long-term results. Of course, whenever presented with two choices, you should ask why not both, and that’s what many companies are doing by moving to the web (although cross-browser compatibility is still an issue).

This idea of living in the future is a powerful one to me, and one that came up again this week in a conversation with Wes. If I know I’m living in the future, then I should be able to figure out a way to leverage that fact. If I can identify problems that are facing my community now, I have a few years to devise a solution before those problems will be faced by the mainstream and create the market for that solution. It’s a tricky forecasting problem, as I have to identify the problems that will cross the chasm and actually be an issue for the mainstream. For instance, information overload is an issue for me, with 130 feeds in my RSS reader and dozens of emails a day from a variety of mailing lists. But it’s unclear that most people would ever face these issues – heck, less than 10% of people today use an RSS reader.

Another example of an issue I face that may not ever cross the chasm is keeping track of a geographically distributed set of friends. It seems perfectly natural to me to still be in touch with college friends scattered across the country, but I wonder if that’s as much of an issue for others. For instance, I suspect most of my high school friends ended up in the Chicago area, so if they want to visit old friends, they can just do so. So the adaptations my community has made, taking advantage of Internet technologies, free long-distance on our cell phones, and cheap air travel, may not be necessary for most people.

One example of a problem that may be useful to the mainstream is the mobilizing of weak ties. This is a problem that LinkedIn is starting to solve for job-searching, as it lets people find out connections they have to target companies of interest. But we need tools like that for everything in our life – “Who do I know that has the answer to my question?” Even in Google world, we still need to consult expertise. Sometimes the answer is obvious (if I have a home repair question, I call my friend Batman), but other times, somebody may have expertise that you are completely unaware of. I wonder if there’s a way technology can make visible the latent knowledge in other people’s heads.

Another example is a phenomenon that BJ Fogg is calling mass interpersonal persuasion in a comment he left on my post. It’s the idea that the tools of persuasion are being democratized, that anybody can create an application that goes viral and is seen by millions of people (the students in his class created Facebook applications that were collectively getting a million views a day by the end of the term). This is a fascinating development – the next step beyond the democratization of publishing and organization that Clay Shirky describes may be the democratization of persuasion. I don’t really know how this will develop yet, but it’s interesting to me, and one of the advantages of being connected to the people who will be mapping and creating the future.

Speaking of which, another topic that came up when talking to Wes is this phenomenon of feeling like something new is important, without quite being able to describe why. Wes asked why I was so interested in Jane McGonigal’s work and I couldn’t quite articulate it. The idea of games as a medium is clearly important to me, and her work is pushing in all directions to understand what makes a game good and how the same principles can be applied to more serious purposes like Peak Oil. The same holds true of other friends like Squid Labs – people who I respect doing interesting things, even if I don’t always understand where they’re going. To some extent, I feel like I’m on a similar path – I can’t quite articulate the generalist path (even though I keep taking stabs at it in this blog) but I feel like at some point I’ll be able to look back and say “Oh, I see how it all fits together now” in a nice retcon. Again, by the time somebody can justify what they’re doing in terms of mainstream values, it’s too late – they’ve crossed over into the mainstream. So much of the interesting stuff in society is being done by people that you question “Gosh, what the heck are they doing?”

As usual, a wandering post, somewhat centered on the idea of “living in the future” and the implications. Most of this post was written on the bus up to Cornell, and then I added a few closing paragraphs this morning despite staying up too late last night. But I wanted to get it posted before the festivities begin. Happy Fourth of July to those who care!

8 thoughts on “Living in the future

  1. I think the thing you’re missing in the first part of this post is that there are multiple leading edges. The reason that companies don’t presciently invest in upcoming technologies is because the future fingers out from the mainstream in many directions, forming hundreds of different tendrils of future, and it’s difficult to see which ones are going to grow (“cross the chasm”, as you say), which will shrink, and which will just hang around as subcultural pockets.

  2. I would argue that your friends are the most selfish and resource consuming people on the planet, and if more people lived like them we’d be even closer to global ecological collapse overnight.

    That may not be caused by using Mac books at a “conference of leading thinkers”, but it’s hard for me to go along with your happy joyous success story of successfully living in the future with your similarly happy joyous successful friends.

  3. Two thoughts:

    1.) proximity, 2.) Batman

    1.) “Another example of an issue I face that may not ever cross the chasm is keeping track of a geographically distributed set of friends. It seems perfectly natural to me to still be in touch with college friends scattered across the country, but I wonder if that’s as much of an issue for others.”

    I think in the future, it will be substantially more common to have a geographically distributed set of friends. I think the thing that’s enabled people to keep these networks open remotely is almost entirely technological – the presence of the internet, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, blah blah blah. It really is all, “out of sight, out of mind,” and if out of mind long enough, the friendships fade.

    So, the solutions are to keep all the plates of friendship spinning – they don’t need to be “restarted” anymore because your friends still retain some peripheral awareness of you all the time.

    Thing is, in the younger set, this is already an ingrained part of the way they behave. (I don’t think this is the result of living at least to some respect in one of these “future bubbles”, but I could be wrong.) They already leverage a lot of the available technology (IM, SMS, Twitter, blah blah blah) to keep in touch even when they’re *not* geographically divided, which makes the times when they *are* geographically divided a lot easier to deal with.

    My wife’s little brother is here now, and he’s still getting SMS messages and calls from his friends as though he were still at home. When I used to visit my cousin in Canada when I was his age, for all practical purposes, I was completely off the radar for a month or more at a time. That never happens to the lil’ bro.

    2.) re: Bats – when you write a sentence like that, without context, unfamiliar readers will think you not only live in the future, but in comic books. Who calls “their friend Batman” for house repairs?

    “Hey, Robin – hand me the bat-wrench!”

  4. Eric,
    while most of your friends use a Mac, very few of mine do, at least that I know about..
    instead we run Ubuntu, Fedora, and know how to build our own (desktop) pc, and install our own os. Until I can try (at the same cost of trying Ubuntu) the Mac OS for my Lenovo thinkpad.. I’ve got zero interest in the mac.. Apple’s products are nicely designed.. but I’m much more a fan of the Woz than Jobs..
    — and companies HAVE to conserve some of their resources or else their is no Chasm to cross, and no tornado following to build the Gorilla..
    — I wonder if thats all just an artifact of proprietary standards? Will “open” and the “long tail” decrease the “mass market” effect? THAT would be a big change!

  5. Josakana,

    You have stated that Eric’s friends are superlatively selfish and resource consuming. Now please argue the point, as you promised to, by supporting the statement.

    Also, please suggest a solution: which of the behaviors in which Eric’s friends participate should change, and how?


  6. The weakness in this analysis is that it’s very technology specific. For instance, how do you compare your iPhone’d community to the countries like India and China where cell phones are ubiquitous because of, not in spite of, the lack of infrastructure? (Indy will be willing to talk your ear off about that this weekend.) Or to the profoundly old-school, non-geeky business travelers who HAVE TO turn on their bluetooth headsets as the plane hits the runway? Like Beemer said, there are multiple “leading edges” but that at least as much cultural as it is technological.

  7. Wow. I should write ill-thought-out off-the-cuff blog posts more often – lot of great responses here.

    Beemer: Yes, I perhaps should have said “Living in _a_ future”, as Paul Saffo might.

    Wes: Josakana points out that, among other things, my geographically distributed friend network means my ecological footprint is crazy big due to jet flights. Also, it’s unclear that the resources necessary to support a techno-centric lifestyle are indefinitely sustainable i.e. it’s probably not possible to get everybody in India and/or China up to a similar standard of living.

    Seppo: Life would be much cooler in comic book world. And good observation about the transmedia conversations that the younger generation has as a matter of course.

    Jessie: Yeah, it’s not a very good analysis. And good point about other cultures, which was also a point Jofish brought up.

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