Unexpected Consequences

There are many reasons why we can’t foresee the future.

  • We are tramlined by the familiar:
    A class of fifteen years old children in 2006 was asked to design a mobile phone of the future. They produced a range of fantastical devices, all variations on the basic Nokia style telephones that were in common use at the time. Not one child sketched a touch-screen, Internet-connected device on which making telephone calls and sending texts were a small part of their daily use. Yet the iPhone was launched the very next year.

  • We use new technologies for familiar things:
    The newly possible long lengths of cast iron, mentioned on the front page of this section, were used in place of wood to build a bridge. It may have been better than a wooden bridge but it wasn’t a new idea. Building a bridge with iron was doing an familiar thing with a new technology. Steam engines came later. Easy to see in hindsight but the bridge builders couldn’t have guessed at them.

  • There are unexpected consequences:
    New ideas bring dramatic change. They introduce unexpected consequences. The invention of printing, for example, made it easier to reproduce books - no more copying out by hand. This was doing a familiar thing with a new technology. The unexpected consequence was dissemination of ideas - and this led to massive political and religious change.

Future Gazing
As we stand here, in the early part of the 21st Century, we look forward, imagining that we can foresee the future. Space travel, driverless cars, wearable health monitors. All these we happily foresee - and indeed many are almost with us. If you have an Apple Watch or a FitBit you are already starting to monitor your health, and if you’ve bought a car recently, it will have some driverless technologies built into it even though you can’t yet take your hands off the wheel*.

But if the past teaches us one thing it is that we have no idea what the future will look like. We cannot glimpse it! Each of these technologies will have unexpected consequences. Forecast these and you might begin to get a idea of what is to come - but it’s harder than you think.

Here’s one guess: Since time immemorial we have gone to a doctor when we have symptoms. By then damage to your body has been done. The future is probably the health system calling you in long before you have any idea you have a health problem. Early detection = better chance of a cure.

But this is a pretty obvious unexpected consequence. It can’t really be called unexpected. Look at the technologies that surround you now and try to see what consequences might arise. It’s not easy. If you can do it you may be a jump ahead of the rest of us. And that might be important, because another unexpected consequence might just be the complete disappearance of jobs!

After a couple of hundred years of being educated to get a good job with a pension, we may find ourselves in a world where jobs don’t exist.

Puzzled? The next page will look into this idea.

Next: The End of the Job

* Not strictly true because the new (at the time of writing) 2016 Audi A4 allows you to do just this when in heavy traffic).

© Brian Smith 2015