I’m feeling very nostalgic today. And old. Very, very old. I woke up to learn it’s the 50th anniversary of the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing, New York. I may have been little – 7 years old, to be exact – but I was there. Twice, actually.
I remember so much, so vividly, it’s hard to believe it was so long ago. But what really got me was the Hall of Science enactment of a space shuttle – I think they called it a space taxi – docking with a space station in orbit to transport astronauts and supplies.
Of all the marvelous and occasionally overblown expo exhibits, that’s the one that really rang my bell. It’s also one of the few visions of the future that actually came to pass, almost exactly as demonstrated. And there’s a very good reason for that.
The future of technology used to be driven by the federal government, usually courtesy of well-funded defense and space programs. And those programs took years – sometimes a decade or more – of planning, research, and development before they ever saw the light of day.
I’m sure the space shuttle concept was on the drawing board long before construction began on Columbia in 1975.
On a job interview with General Dynamics in 1979, I got to board the second nuclear-powered Trident submarine before it was launched. I was wildly excited until I got inside and saw how ancient the technology was. What a letdown.
The following year, at my first job as a design engineer, I developed a chip for the Department of Defense’s next-generation navigation system. The Global Positioning System or GPS, for short, wouldn’t be fully operational until 15 years later. See what I mean.
Somewhere along the line, technology stopped being about rocket science and started being about computers and communications, semiconductors and software, the Internet, and finally, smart gadgets and social media.
So much for nostalgia. If there’s no app for it, nobody cares.
But here’s the thing. Now that technology is driven by the fickle tastes of consumers instead of the snail-paced needs of an enormous defense complex, it’s become nearly impossible to see anything coming until it’s right on top of us.
How can we predict where technology is going when consumers don’t know what they want until they see it? The truth is, we can’t. It’s up to a few hundred, maybe a thousand visionaries in Silicon Valley and beyond to throw their sleek little gadgets, their millions of lines of code, their billions of transistors at their garage walls to see what sticks. It’s up to the Steve Jobs’s, Mark Zuckerberg’s, and Larry Page’s of the world to figure out what we really want because, truth be told, we don’t have a freaking clue.
Not to burst your bubble, but all the prognosticating about tech that fills your Twitter feed is really just a guessing game. The product marketers, founders, entrepreneurs, angels, and VCs are all just guessing. And none of the pundits, the gurus, or the bloggers have a clue, either.
Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner says, “If you look at academic study, one after the next, it turns out that even experts are only nominally better than a coin flip. But there is a massive demand for prediction and thus arises a big supply.”
Not only that, we’re all so distracted and our attention spans so minuscule that we’re not even the slightest bit inclined to circle back to see who, against all odds, somehow managed to get it right. Nobody really cares.
Tech might not be rocket science, but at least back then, you could see what was coming years and miles away. Not anymore. And anyone who thinks he has it figured out is just breathing his own rocket fumes.
Or maybe we’re all just looking for answers in all the wrong places. When I asked Siri what she thought the next big thing would be, she said, “It’s your opinion that counts, Steve.” She’s right.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.