Friday, May 25, 2012

The eternal present

John Lilly has a post that has been doing the rounds lately, in part because of this money quote:
I picked up a phrase some time ago that I think applies: “The next big thing is always beneath contempt.” Implication being that it is, of course, until it isn’t. Until it’s too big to ignore. This has happened over and over again in our society. In the middle ages, people assumed that no serious discussion could happen in anything but Latin — the so-called “vulgar” languages had no merit. And writers assumed that nothing interesting or lasting would come from this new medium of television. And, I think, people assume right now that nothing important will be created from a 10” touch screen without a keyboard (let alone a tiny 3.5” screen).
With the benefit of hindsight, we're tempted to point at history and laugh. "How could they ever imagine that an idea expressed in Latin was worth more than one expressed in German, French, English, or Italian?" But they were stuck in what they perceived to be an eternal present. At the time, all sophisticated discourse was composed in Latin, and they assumed that this would continue forever.

This error -- the assumption that present conditions will continue indefinitely -- is a fundamental weakness of human cognition, and you'd do well to become skillful in identifying it when you see it in front of you. I once heard a television sportscaster confidently predict that women would soon be running marathons faster than men, because their times were improving so rapidly. That was 30 years ago. It didn't happen because the current slope of the curve does not define its future slope.

Extrapolating current conditions into the future is the thinking that leads otherwise sensible people to pay $1 billion for an iPhone app with niche appeal -- it is growing in popularity today, and so it will certainly be overwhelmingly popular tomorrow. It's the thinking that left Apple for dead, crowned Microsoft the champion for all time, and says Google has won search and Facebook has won social and nothing will ever change that. It's a style of thinking that's wrong every single time.

Tomorrow will be different from today. The people who change the world are the ones who can escape the eternal present.