The 1960s, in plastic

The future happens to us a lot quicker than it used to.

The late Douglas Adams, of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, was interviewed for a documentary. He recalled a magazine article written in the 1960s, speculating about what the 1990s would be like – society, fashion and mores, appliances and the built environment. Two things struck Adams – first, to one who’d seen what the 1990s actually looked like, it was obvious these predictions were really projections of the fascinations of the 1960s. The 1960s, in plastic, he joked. But the other thing that struck him was that the biggest change came from something that already existed in the 1960s but was entirely absent from this future world of the 1990s – computers.

Something else is striking about this anecdote: Thirty years. To an inhabitant of the 1960s (unless you were Rod Serling), it would be ridiculous imagining how different society would be in ten years, since it would be largely the same, assuming of course that we all hadn’t died in a nuclear holocaust. Transformations take much longer to work themselves out.

Apart from the changing climate, which is really the working out of physical processes and not the outcome of humanity’s infinite and irrational variability, would anyone dare predict the society that will attend in even 10 years’ time?

Despite all the talk about from business and industry about disruption and transformation, business craves stability. Maybe not technological stability, but certainly regulatory stability, financial, political, social stability, and of course environmental stability. Stability is a state of affairs that persists over time. It is the antithesis of disruption.

And, in an era where everything is changing so rapidly, the period in which a state of affairs can remain stable is shrinking . And that is an inherent threat to business planning.

If a business needs to plan over a 5 or ten-year period, their ability to predict the state of affairs is going to be increasingly difficult. They are more likely to succumb to the 1960s-in-plastic syndrome: transferring superficial aspects of today’s world into the future, missing the profound and subtle changes taking place now, and assuming that everything else will remain equal.

In another interview – the last TV interview before he died – Adam’s was asked about the impressions he’d like his work to have on non-readers. “Some people think it’s some kind of vision of the future, which it isn’t.” He explained that he invented the hitchiker’s guide, a precursor of handheld mobile devices, and the Babelfish, a precursor of universal instantaneous translation, as a way of solving narrative problems he had and the whole satire as a way of “looking at us”. He wasn’t trying to predict the future, and yet the future seemed to make his stories seem predictive.

If what artists create take a generation to become part of the world around us, then these creations are of no immediate concern to business. But what if it takes only 5 years? Can wise decisions be taken, a case be made, and money spent when the Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns” are so close, so present, and so central?

Businesses, especially tech businesses, both shape and serve reality. But the relevance of the arts to this activity is even more important because the world being ushered in by digital transformation is even more uncertain, unstable, and unpredictable. It is artists that venture into that realm and create the ideas that lead to the realities in which business seeks its return on investment.

And as the Australian writer Richard Flanagan wrote, “what reality was ever made by realists?”