Briefing #3 – The future ain’t what it used to be
In the first of our background briefings we looked at the fable of the chessboard and wheat and saw how exponential change can rapidly transform a relatively stable environment into something profoundly disruptive. In the second briefing we saw that an increasingly large number of technologies bear the hallmarks of exponential change and carry with them the potential to radically transform the world around us.
Those observations might at first seem very obvious. You might say that surely it should be easy for everyone to foresee disruptive threats and opportunities and either take evasive action or capitalise on the opportunities they create.
The problem, however, is that we’re not naturally good at comprehending exponential change. The reality is that our brains generally aren’t wired for it. They are much better suited to linear thinking.
For most all of human history people have lived lives that looked largely the same as the lives of their parents and generations before them. It’s only in relatively recent times that we’ve witnessed massive shifts in the experience of one generation to the next.
As a result, when people think of the future, they intuitively take a linear view and assume that the current rate of progress will continue. In fact it’s quite common that even sophisticated observers extrapolate the pace of change today to determine their expectations about tomorrow.
Source: Ray Kurzweil – The Web Within Us: When Minds and Machines Become One, Presentation to Google, 1 July 2009
The graphic above shows how quickly the linear view can become disconnected from reality in a non-linear, exponential world.
To make matters worse, experience and intelligence can be a hindrance rather than a help. That’s because one of the biggest obstacles to comprehending the potential for change in the future is our experience with the past. As Mark Twain wrote “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”
The result is that we significantly underestimate both the magnitude and pace of change in a world where the future is effectively being folded forward into the present.
Recall that in our very first briefing we argued that disruption occurs when people and businesses get taken by surprise. In a world where change is increasingly exponential but where the expectations of people tend to be linear, the chances of being disrupted rise dramatically.
In our next briefing, “Invisible gorillas and the disruptive fringe” we’ll continue exploring why exponential change and disruptive threats and opportunities can be difficult for business leaders, strategists, innovators and entrepreneurs to foresee.
In the meantime, please take a moment to reflect on our natural tendency to think linearly about the future and what it might mean for your business or industry.