Thornton A. May: Is the future knowable?

Can we know the future? IT practitioners, like others who work for a living, tend to view future-peering as an esoteric, abstract and impractical exercise practiced only by eggheads in think tanks, economists in Europe and lotus-eating guitar pluckers.

But the future is where we are all going to live, and those who have some idea of what that place will be like will be better positioned to live there comfortably. As Al Ries, a real-world marketing professional, author of the book Positioning (and coiner of that term), has said, "The primary job of corporate management is to find the future. Not just the future in general, but specific futures for the corporations under their care."

I believe that knowing the future, or at least preparing for a shared perception of what the future requires, is a big part of the new IT skill set. Many CIOs agree with me. One says that a critical element in his decisions to promote his direct reports is the way they respond to his request to "Describe a day in the work life of your future."

Of late I have been asking executives this: "If your boss came to you next Monday and said, 'By Friday, please have on my desk a report regarding what our organization will look like 20 years from now and your thoughts on how we get there,' what would you do?"

Younger executives (those who are the children of the Internet but not yet the spawn of the smartphone) tend to suggest that you type into your favorite search engine some variant of "Future 2033." This exercise is not exactly clarifying. Using Bing, that query yields 273,000 results. With Google, the haul hits 10.2 million. (And remember, in search, bigger is not always better). A large proportion of first-page search returns point you to Mexican director Francisco Laresgoiti's speculative, dystopic sci-fi thriller 2033: Future Apocalypse. The next set of suggestions are a trailer for the video game Metro 2033; BarnesandNoble.com's early release of 2033: The Future of Misbehaving, an anthology examining the future of sex; and the article "Top 30: Things to Look Forward to in 2033," sponsored by SVEDKA Vodka. Going deeper, you might click on a link to an April 3, 1988, Los Angeles Times Magazine article offering a 25-year look ahead to 2013. While all of these entries are interesting, they don't help us comply with our boss's request.

Where Do You Find the Future?

Baby boomers may look at these results and be comforted to find that the Web does not hold the answers to all questions. But traditional business media don't offer much more help. Most business publications don't treat the future effectively -- if they cover it at all. If you read Walt Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal or David Pogue in The New York Times, you might believe that the future is all about technology devices. No, no, no! The future is about what we do with devices -- not the devices themselves. These writers feed executives' gadget obsession, a disease that trivializes the true value that technology can deliver to enterprises, individuals and society at large.

No, if you are going to find the future, you have to know where to look for it.

Like Dorothy Gale, you should look in your own backyard. You are not going to be the only person in the future. Start having conversations with the smartest and highest-energy people you know regarding what they think about the future. I'm confident you will get a clearer picture than the Los Angeles Times Magazine presented about our present back in 1988.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com or follow him on Twitter (@deanitla).

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies