The Signals Are Talking: Why Today's Fringe Is Tomorrow's Mainstream
December 16, 2016
Futurist Amy Webb teaches us to decipher the signals popping up on the fringes of culture and society and what they mean for our industries and organizations.
The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream by Amy Webb, PublicAffairs, 336 pages, $27.99, Hardcover, December 2016, ISBN 9781610396660
How could regulations that zone different areas or strata of the sky for private and commercial use develop into invisible drone highways and lead to a more horizontal cityscape in the plains and midwest that brings about the demise of agriculture in America? It is a scenario only a futurist could imagine, but one that could affect the way the world is organized that may very well affect the organization you lead—which means you should learn to think like a futurist. Luckily, that is possible, and Amy Webb has given us a book, The Signals Are Talking, that teaches us how.
The drone experiment may seem somewhat far out there, but consider this: Amazon made its first customer delivery by drone last week near Cambridge in the United Kingdom. And Webb has used her own drone for such mundane tasks as checking for a possible leak in her roof, streaming aerial footage of unplowed streets after a snowstorm to her neighborhood association, and to take photos of her daughter’s kindergarten field trip.
But perhaps you still think drones a novelty? Don’t let it obscure the larger implications on the horizon.
Novelty is the new normal, making it difficult to understand the bigger picture. We now inhabit a world where most of the information that has ever existed is less than ten years old. From the beginning of of human civilization until 2003, five exabytes of data were created. We are now creating five exabytes of data every two days. In fact, in the minute it took you to read that last sentence, 2.8 million pieces of content were shared on Facebook alone. On Instagram, 250,000 new photos were shared.
We are clearly not making better decisions with all this information, either individually or as a society. I worry that the quality of this overwhelming amount of information, but Webb has a more straightforward psychological reason for it: “Exposure to more information tends to confuse rather than inform us.” It is the “paradox of the present” that blinds us to the signals developing on the fringe, some of which turn into trends that ultimately normalize and change the very fabric of our society in the process.
To spot such trends, Webb suggests we need to become “chronologically ambidextrous,” to hold in your mind a firm grasp of what’s happening in the present while also imagining any number of iterations of the future, how new signals currently on the fringe of our business and society may be amplified into full blown trends and industries. Webb defines six steps to do so, but there are three more general rules to keep in mind:
- The future is not predetermined, but rather woven together by numerous threads that are themselves being woven in the present.
- We can observe probable future threads in the present, as they are being woven.
- We can impact our possible and probable futures in the present.
Futurism isn’t a new thing. Webb, tracing its history, tells us that none other than H.G. Wells suggested that futurism should become a new academic discipline decades before Ossip Fletchman even coined the term in 1943.
Most of what we do in business involves making projection, making plans based on what we think is coming.
You must flip the paradigm, so that you can be actively engaged in building what happens next. Or at least that you’re not as surprised by what others develop.
It requires thinking systematically about the environment or industry you’re in, rather than focusing on one technology or product. Webb opens the book with a telling example of BlackBerry’s co-founder Mike Lazaridis, who couldn’t see how the iPhone would wipe out BlackBerry market share—even after it was released. Comparing the two devices, he found the iPhone lacking. It didn’t even have a keyboard! What he failed to see was the ecosystem that would evolve around it, that it would be less a phone and simple, secure on-the-go email solution like the Blackberry, but a PC in every user’s pocket, along with a camera, walkman, gaming device, and television—even a notepad and universal map. In 2007, when the first iPhone was launched, Blackberry had 70 percent of the mobile market share. By 2014, it would be just 1 percent.
The iPhone seemed like just another trendy new gadget, a flawed one at that. People were addicted to their “CrackBerry,” and they had over 17 million users at the time. But there is a big difference between a trend and something that is trendy. You can probably make a quick buck on something trendy in a mall kiosk, but a true trend is something you can build a sustainable, even dominant, business on. And the iPhone was a trend. Just do an online image search for “before iPhone after iPhone” and it’s clear. So how do we spot a trend?
- A trend is driven by a basic human need, one that is catalyzed by new technology.
- A trend is timely, but it persists.
- A trend evolved as it emerges.
- A trend can materialize as a series of unconnected dots that begin out on the fringe and move to the mainstream.
Perhaps more importantly, how do we spot and capitalize on trends in business, or at least not get wiped out by them?
Nintendo is a company my three brothers and I grew up with, the consoles upgrading as we did through the years. If I had to guess when Nintendo was founded, I’d guess sometime in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. I’d never imagine it was the 1880s. But that is, indeed, when it began—as a playing card company. They have remained a game company ever since, but company leaders always kept their eye on emerging technologies on the fringe and connected the dots between them and their own company. As plastics were being invented, they brought them to playing cards for the first time to create more durable cards, and then teamed with Disney to create the first playing cards for kids. They linked the rise of videocassette machines with the electronic games computer programmers were tinkering with to create their first consoles, and later brought motion-sensing technology into gaming for the first time. They not only saw the future coming, they invented the future of gaming many times along the way. It doesn’t mean they jumped at or capitalized on every trend—Super Mario just made the jump onto our mobile phones this week —but consider this:
As of 2016, Nintendo was one of the most successful video-game companies in the world, and it was still the leading playing-card manufacturer in Japan.
Webb goes beyond stories, though, laying her book and arguments out in a way that truly educates. She provides us with a new outlook, and a playbook for the future of our lives, business, and society—emphasizing that we have agency in each. There’s no way to know the what the future will bring, but by keeping an eye in what is probable, plausible, or even simply possible, we can begin to decipher the signals on the horizon and understand what they’re telling us about our future.