Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Future Is Not What It Could Be

An article in September's FastCompany talks about why it seems that the future never arrives. Why do the innovations that were dreamed of years ago, such as flying cars, teleportation, moon bases and personal jetpacks not come to fruition? There are two answers to this question though I believe both are related. And, well, maybe some of these ideas (jetpacks?) weren't so great or even possible.

Innovation, or more accurately invention, matters less today then it did 100 years ago. We live in a world today where universities get their funding from corporations - to deliver concrete results and not to come up with new ideas. The days when university researchers worked on expanding human knowledge for the sake of knowledge are over. Universities are now, in businesspeak, 'hotbeds of innovation' or in plain English, 'manufacturers of salable product ideas'. The same is true of large corporations. Businesses can only afford research if it will deliver the next 5-10 years' revenue stream. Research is done today to generate future (but short term) cash. The monopolies of yesteryear were able to 'play' (they could afford to) and so acquire knowledge in ways today's companies cannot. The market economy forces them to be short-term focussed. The average tenure of a CEO - what is it now, 5 years? - forces him or her to focus on the short-term.

What about government? They used to massively fund research and make sure fundamental research was being done. Oh right, I forgot, that's the reason universities have turned to business for funding - government funding for research and education is down. Is is the rising cost of healthcare and other sprawl issues that keeps the government tight or is it the supersizing of government that's draining the coffers?

There should be a base on the moon or mars or a program to harvest minerals from asteroids in place today - or something analogous. Technically it's possible. There could be flying cars but the early years of that industry would be risky. There would be accidents until we got the kinks out of the system.

The truth is we are afraid to invent. It's risky. We may lose our competitive edge temporarily until we can commercialize the R&D. People might get hurt. We would rather remain comfortable in our wars and global economic games. Comfortable as we continue to use up the planet we live on.

There is no time to think about the future. We are too busy living in the present.

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