One thing I like about the process of predicting the future is that our vision of the future is contrived from our perception of our current world. It’s not possible to know what the world will be like 10-20 years from now and as technology changes the face of our world at an ever increasing pace our vision of the immediate future feels that much more blurry. Today, if there’s one trend in future forecasting it’s the admission that accurately predicting the future isn’t possible. Even for those of us who’s jobs rely on the ability to accurately predict trends the possible face of the future in the digital, and post-digital ages, changes too quickly. So we malign accuracy with quotes about wanting to be wrong and then predicting negative eventualities.
The common mistake we make when looking “into the future” is we assume the future is defined by technological innovations. The fact is, it won’t be. It won’t be because technology has never actually defined our future. Sure, new technologies come along and change the way we live. But what we don’t notice is that these technological innovations don’t change what makes that particular future happen. Why? because the technologies we adopt don’t change our core desires, they are a response to them.
When looking at what the future could be like we have to start with what drives the adoption of new technologies. These are simple. We can use the top part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a framework. Looking at the emotional needs of individuals we know that a few key needs are true for the vast majority of healthy human beings.
Every person on Earth wants to feel respected by the people they care about. You could also say that most of us want the people we don’t consider close to at least be friendly to us as a symbol of respect and to ensure that we view the world as a place of kindness. Even those of us who view the world as inherently dangerous and people inherently selfish still respond affirmatively to respectful, positive reinforcement.
Every person is hardwired to communicate with other people. Our species is cooperative. period. Some desire it more than others, some desire it less but communication is a hardwired, basic, immutable need for us. We learn through the communication of knowledge. Traditionally this was done verbally and through physical example. But technological innovation over the past 4,000 years has allowed for new ways of communicating. Yet not one of these innovations changed our core need to communicate.
Everyone has a need to feel connected to something bigger than themselves. Our strongest transformative events are often described as “religious” experience. These experience share one major factor. Religious experiences are always rooted in a sense of feeling connected to a higher power or a movement bigger than ourselves. Psychologists associate this need with our natural abilities for empathy (which we use in communication).
We strive to lower the cost of completing daily tasks. This is born directly from how our brain functions. Our intuitive brain (often called System 1) tries everything it can to keep our rational brain (System 2) from having to kick in. Why? Turns out that our rational brain burns 50% of our caloric intake. So going around and constantly analyzing things is quite costly. Think about the last workshop you were in or big meeting, how badly did you want a sugary Coke or cookie or a piece of candy well before lunch or dinner? Your brain was hungry.
So going back to our potential futures. If you want to imagine the next generation of technologies then a good place to start is with these needs. Because all technology is created to reflect one or more of these emotional needs. Working from these needs you can probably imagine whole sets of new technologies and functional needs that are solved by these inventions.
But what about the technology we’ve already invented? I’ve mentioned him before but a French philosopher by the name of Paul Verillio proposed that all new technology creates an entirely new set of problems to be solved. In other words, no one died in an airplane crash before airplanes. But the invention of airplanes created an entire set of new opportunities for invention. Many of these were fixes to the issues airplanes created. This is the space that many “futurists” start from. What fixes to existing issues will create entirely new markets.