Disregard the Brand New
How will the world look in fifty years? What will your everyday life be like? With which items will you surround yourself?
People who pondered this question fifty years ago had fanciful notions of how “the future” would look: Highways in the skies. Cities that resemble glass worlds. Bullet trains winding between gleaming skyscrapers. We would live in plastic capsules, work in underwater cities, vacation on the moon, and consume everything in pill form. We wouldn’t conceive offspring anymore; instead we would choose children from a catalog. Our best friends would be robots, death would be cured, and we would have exchanged our bikes for jet packs long ago.
But hang on a second. Take a look around. You’re sitting in a chair, an invention from ancient Egypt. You wear pants, developed about five thousand years ago and adapted by Germanic tribes around 750 BC. The idea behind your leather shoes comes from the last ice age. Your bookshelves are made of wood, one of the oldest building materials in the world. At dinnertime, you use a fork, a well-known “killer app” from Roman times, to shovel chunks of dead animals and plants into your mouths. Nothing has changed.
How will the world look in fifty years? In his latest book, Antifragile, Nassim Taleb gives us a clue: Assume that most of the technology that has existed for the past fifty years will serve us for another half century. And assume that recent technology will be passé in a few years’ time. Why? Think of these inventions as if they were species: Whatever has held its own throughout centuries of innovation will probably continue to do so in the future, too. Old technology has proven itself; it possesses an inherent logic even if we do not always understand it. If something has endured for epochs, it must be worth its salt. You can take this to heart the next time you are in a strategy meeting. Fifty years into the future will look a lot like today. Of course, you will witness the birth of many flashy gadgets and magic contraptions. But most will be short-lived.
When contemplating the future, we place far too much emphasis on flavor-of-the-month inventions and the latest “killer apps” while underestimating the role of traditional technology. In the 1960s, space travel was all the rage, so we imagined ourselves on school trips to Mars. In the ’70s, plastic was in, so we mulled over how we would furnish our see-through houses. Taleb traces this tendency back to the neomania pitfall: the mania for all things shiny and new.
In the past, I sympathized with so-called early adopters, the breed of people who cannot survive without the latest iPhone. I thought they were ahead of their time. Now I regard them as irrational and suffering from a kind of sickness: neomania. To them, it is of minor importance if an invention provides tangible benefits; novelty matters more.
So don’t go out on a limb when forecasting the future. Stanley Kubrick’s cult movie 2001: A Space Odyssey illustrates why you shouldn’t. Made in 1968, the movie predicted that, at the turn of the millennium, the United States would have a thousand-strong colony on the moon and that Pan Am would operate the commuter flights there and back. With this fanciful forecast in mind, I suggest this rule of thumb: Whatever has survived for X years will last another X years. Taleb wagers that the “bullshit filter of history” will sort the gimmicks from the game changers. And that’s one bet I’m willing to back.