At school and at university, I was reminded by teachers not to allow the knowledge I’d accumulated to constrain unduly my thinking about the future. There was something liberating about the mere process of trying to understand that knowledge could be considered a constraint, a liberation that continued throughout my life, evinced at different times and in different ways.
Early on, it was a personal fascination with the concept of time, triggered by an experience every child in India goes through: finding out that the hindi word for yesterday: “kal” was the same as that for tomorrow: “kal“. While still at school, as with most of my fellow students in the Sciences stream, the thoughts and writings of Richard Feynman entered my life. His teachings on The Character of Physical Law, more particularly the chapter on The Distinction of Past and Future, influenced my conceptions of time even further, giving me a sense of its irreversible nature. Most 13-14-year olds have a blank-slate approach when it comes to absorbing ideas, and so it was when we were first able to think about what Einstein had been saying about relativity, allowing us to view time as a dimension.
Then came university, where I read Economics, and then work, where none of this appeared to matter. The nearest I came to thinking further about all this was in my late twenties, when I went through a long period of regular dreaming, often lucid, often with repeating themes. [The commonest theme had me in flight: I'd slowly lengthen my stride and then gently take off, more gliding than flying, able to keep myself airborne for a minute or so, soaring and banking using my arms as wings, never flapping, unable to hover.]. They were dreams rather than nightmares, relaxing me, letting me feel rested and refreshed; this, coupled with their lucidity, meant that I tended to remember my dreams. And occasionally, very occasionally, I would experience something in “real life” that seemed, if I stretched it enough, to be something I’d experienced before in a dream. But I “knew” it wasn’t possible and so I dismissed it. Sort of. It didn’t stop me from reading Michio Kaku from the mid-1990s onwards, starting with Hyperspace/Parallel Universes. But the Feynman in me ruled, time continued to be seen as something irreversible.
One other principle stayed with me, influenced by some of the sayings and quotations I’d been attracted to over the years: Einstein saying that we couldn’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create the problems in the first place, Einstein suggesting that common sense was the collection of prejudices one has by age eighteen, someone (occasionally credited to Schopenhauer) saying that talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see. In each case, I was reminded of what my teachers had said to me, about not allowing my “knowledge” to constrain my “thinking”. Easier said than done.
Over time, I understood more about cognitive biases and anchors and frames, a learning that was accelerated by conversations with colleagues like Sean Park, Malcolm Dick and James Montier while at Dresdner Kleinwort. So it should come as no surprise that in my roles as deputy CIO and CIO, and as chief scientist, in multiple organisations, I kept taking the “don’t let the past predict the future” tablets, religiously, systematically, every day. That didn’t always endear me to everyone, but it helped me keep my thinking fresh. It was the reason I kept wanting to connect with people outside the organisation at least as much as I spoke with people within the organisation. It was the reason that I’ve always tried to support a graduate intake program in firms I’ve worked in, one way of ensuring that fresh thinking is allowed to enter an organisation.
Which is why I loved the Wayne Gretzky quote about playing where the puck is going to be, not where the puck is or was. Which is why I loved the Steve Jobs quote, in his Stanford Commencement Address in June 2005:
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
In the words of Stephen Stills: Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now. [That’s taken from my all-time number one favourite song, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. You can hear a sample, containing the quote, here…. and even buy the MP3 download if you so wish.
It is with all this in mind that I spend time thinking about streams of information. For most of my adult life, these streams have been about the past. Transactions that had already happened. We spent a long time studying the fossil remains of human activity in order to try and predict what the future would look like, a mongrel form halfway between scatology and eschatology.
More recently, we’ve been able to “life-stream”, sharing our current activities and our “status” with others, aided and abetted by near-ubiquitous connectivity, ever-smarter devices and digital frameworks that support the social networks. In the past, we were only able to capture things that had happened. We were used to calling things that had happened “transactions” and so we called the analysis of those records “transaction processing”. We’re able to look now at what people are doing, within “activity streams”, and, because we share our activity streams within social networks, we call the study of this “social media monitoring”.
But we’re on the cusp of something way way more exciting, in a classic William Gibson future-is-here-but-unevenly-distributed kind of way: we’re beginning to what we intend to do.
Doc Searls, a good friend, was the first person I heard using the term “Intention Economy” to describe this. And I’ve signalled my intention to him, by pre-ordering his book on the subject, due May next year.
Esther Dyson, another good friend, when talking about the future of internet search, complimented Bill Gates on saying “the future of search is verbs”….. now that gets interesting, really interesting, when you consider verbs as having tenses. Tenses that help segment the continuum of time. Past. Present. And future.
When I was at university, one of the things I studied in classical economics was the works of Jean-Baptiste Say. And one of the ways in which his “Law” was paraphrased, originally by John Maynard Keynes, was as follows: Supply creates its own demand.
We’re soon going to be able to signal our intentions in ways that we could never have done before.
Over time, those signals will become more sophisticated, more evolved, more nuanced. Social norms will be formed, telling us what we can or can’t do with our signalling of intent. The semaphoring of intent will slowly come to include disinformation, the false-carding, feints and dummies, elaborate ways of disguising intent in order to further some other intent. With that will come the need to watch for, and to recognise, the digital “tells” in the world of supply-and-demand poker. On both sides.
And over time, the systems and processes required to interpret and assimilate those signals into actionable information, this too will evolve.
I cannot wait.