The Future Is Not Now

The Future Is Not Now

The future is, by definition, in the future. Sounds obvious enough, so why did I think it would be worth pointing this out?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read proclamations that “the future is now.” That we are “living in the future today.” That the future “has arrived.” Over the past few years, everyone from Wired magazine and scientific journals to NASA and The Smithsonian (in their case using the tweaked Future Is Here) has declared that we are indeed living in tomorrow, today. I myself have been fond of occasionally quoting William Gibson’s apocryphal statement that “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed,” although I take his point to be more about the uneven diffusion of innovation than about the early arrival of the day after tomorrow.

Don’t get me wrong — “the future is now” is a nice bit of semantic shorthand to underscore the sense of marvel we feel upon recognizing that things we speculated about years ago are the things we see all around us today. The Minority Report technology Philip K Dick imagined in 1956 is finding its way into our modern world through the efforts of Apple and the NSA. Dyson promises Rosie-like robots to take on our housework (The Jetsons was produced in the 1960s and aired through the 1980s). If the rate of technological change is remarkable, the results of technological change can appear truly wondrous.

But sorry, the future is still not now.

“The future is now” carries just an air of the self-congratulatory “we have arrived.” But in truth we have not arrived. We are merely taking the first steps in what is destined to be a long journey. If it’s true that the last 10 years have delivered more change than the preceding 100, then it’s equally true that each coming year will deliver more change than we’ve seen in the last 10 combined. We are living in an exponential era — progress greatlyand increasingly outpaces the linear march of time. This is not the time to let ourselves off the hook. If the future is now, then we might be tempted to believe that the actual, chronological future (the one coming next year or next decade) is meant to look like our actual, chronological today. Worse, we might be satisfied to simply recreate today, all over again, rather than envision and create new futures. Better futures. More prosperous futures. Futures in which we solve the problems that plague the present.

To put this in a business context, this might mean holding your ground instead of forging a new path — maintaining the same products for the same markets, taking last year’s numbers and forecasting an additional 10%. Instead of identifying your next high growth opportunity — by anticipating changing market conditions and emerging consumer needs to innovate your products, to reinvent your business models, to evolve the experiences you deliver, and to exponentially increase the value you create. You will be disrupted. If you don’t reimagine your business for yourself, you will be reimagined out of existence by others. And you won’t reimagine your business if you imagine that you’ve arrived at “the future” already.

In 2013, mobile computing devices (iPhones and iPads) accounting for more than 50% of Apple’s revenue — devices that did not exist before 2007, prior to which Apple was not even in the mobile business. Had Steve Jobs and his team not envisioned a future in which desktops and laptops would give way to tablets and handhelds, Apple might have remained little more than an also-ran computer company (with pockets of passionate fans for sure, but marketshare so small as to be insignificant). Had Netflix not foreseen the movement of media into the cloud and reimagined itself as a streaming media service, it might have found itself chained to the sinking ship of physical DVDs. But they did reimagine themselves; so much so that they rendered their own prior business model archaic if not outright obsolete. I suspect this is not the last reinvention we’ll see from either of these organizations. Nor should your last reinvention (what? you’ve not yet gone through a reinvention of your own?) be your last.

So no. The future is not now. The future is next. But while the future might not be now, it is created by the decisions you make and the actions you take now. What’s next for you? 

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