I happened upon Back To The Future 2 on the tv last week. A great movie, it arguably even improves on the first. There are few movies where I would argue that the sequel improves on the original. The Godfather 2, Superman 2, The Dark Knight are the first that come to mind. Considering I first watched the movie 20 years ago, it came as a shock to realise that when he travels into the future, it is only to 2015. 2 years away.


The world hasn’t quite turned out the way Robert Zemeckis imagined it. The list of innovations that haven’t become commonplace:


Self drying clothes,

Flying cars,

CGI waiters


Neither are we all wearing silver suits and flying around like Buck Rogers in the 21st century. It illustrates how poor we are at predicting the future. This was a topic of a previous blog post at http://firsttomarketing.co.uk/predictably-ridiculous, so I won’t cover old ground. My focus is on why the future hasn’t ended up like the movies.

The first is that many of the inventions aren’t particularly practical compared to expense or other considerations. Why have a self drying coat, why not change into something different whilst you dry it for the very small proportion of times you will need this? If it is really important, then people will pay the money for what would be a very expensive piece of clothing. It won’t reach the critical mass to make the expense of manufacturing it worthwhile. How would you possibly monitor and control tens of thousands of cars flying around the sky, where a crash will probably lead to you falling out of the sky to your death rather than with your insurance going up?

For me, the major consideration is people always over-estimate the rate of technological progress. We didn’t move from records to cassettes to CDs to mp3s in 10 years. It took many years where the technology had to catch up with the last step. There were periods of consolidation where people were happy with the current way of listening to music and companies focused on making it cheaper or better quality. There were also wrong forks in the road, such as mini-discs. Of course, records are still used widely, especially due to their benefits in the DJ’ing community. The internet is helping to change the world by informing people on an unprecedented scale. However, it took 20 years to make its way from the lab to the beginnings of its current shape.

I attended a lecture by Ray Kurzweil talking about a technological singularity where progress continues to speed up until it becomes exponential. I have my doubts. It is feasible in theory. However, the reason this cannot happen now is because of the way science works. Scientific history has rarely been about the pursuit of a goal, which is then achieved by singular focus. The most famous examples, like the Moon Landing and the discovery of DNA spring to mind. However, may times more numerous are the accidental discoveries, penicilin discovered by poor laboratory hygeine or Viagra discovered when testing a heart drug. It is no more than an urban legend that all that is required to cure a disease is money, time and a definitive goal. A passing knowledge of science tells us that.

There are a number of factors required for an invention to come about. It needs to significantly improve on what is already there. The technology around needs to be able to support it. It needs to capture the public attention. The most important factor is time and lots of it. Even then it might only supplement current products, and not replace them. For example, e-readers co-existing with paperbacks.

The human race has done a lot of amazing things in such a short time. However, don’t be fooled by predictions of how we will live in the future. In 50 years it will bear a remarkable similarity to how we live now. Better in many ways, but similar.