I was reading about the iPhone 5 a couple of days ago (who wouldn't be). An article by Mat Honan at Wired really struck me more then most of the usual drooling stuff. Not that I dislike the drool, despite what damage it does to my keyboard. With a nicely provoking title (The iPhone 5 Is Completely Amazing and Utterly Boring), I was all set to froth at the mouth. Until I read it. Without stealing the thunder from Wired, the conclusion right at the end pretty much sums up the argument.
But the iPhone? It’s boring. And it’s probably going to remain that way for the foreseeable future. It’s not bad, it’s just the march of time and technology. Revolution becomes evolution. And that phone in your pocket–or more to the point, in the store window–becomes just a part of your life. It’s something you use, something you rely on. And then completely forget about. And in its own way, that’s actually kind of mind-blowing.
Essentially, all radical revolutionary design pathways at some point becomes evolutionary improvements on the same path. I don't want it to be true. I've become accustomed to the mind-blowing design that continues to seep out from under the door at the secretive Cupertino design factory. I have visions of design oompa loompas and vast lakes of... what? I'm not sure of the design equivalent for chocolate. Anyway, I'm missing the point. The point is that evolutionary and revolutionary work together on the road into the future.
It was magical to change from the Nokia brick I had at university with it's postage stamp sized screen to the bright (and massive) touch screen of the iPhone. Yet, large touch screens are now included in most modern smart phones. What was ground breaking becomes commonplace.
I think there are a lot of concepts that help us take a groundbreaking idea and optimise it. But how do you generate the revolutionary idea? The thing that seems to leap forward past all the competition?
Vannevar Bush imagined a revolutionary future in a ground-breaking article, As We May Think, where he describes what sounds a lot like a modern computer, with control inputs, outputs. There were things that sounded like hyperlinks as well as functions for image storage and retrival. This would seem commonplace, except for the fact the article was written in 1945. The computer (or 'Memex') descrived in the article was the size of a small desk. At the time of the article, the nearest computer took up several floors in a large building.
It seems such a leap to go from a building sized computer to a desk. How did he do it?
I think he imagined a very different context to his own.
I've started to really appreciate the power of context on the human imagination. We really are constrained by our social, political and technical context. Some leaps seem possible, especially when technology reaches the point where can deliver on the imagination. Other leaps seem too improbable and are quickly discarded by a negating impulse.
So how do you go about imagining a radical future?
1. Shut down negating impulse
Prepare yourself by shutting down your negating impulses. Our instinct to negate crazy ideas will negate anything new before you have had a chance to think it.
2. Look to the future
Look to the future by considering technologies that seem just on the cusp of being viable and explore what opportunities they give you. I think much of the future is being invented in laboratories, not company boardrooms. In physics, chemistry, biology and engineering. New materials are being developed, new processes, new substrates upon which we can base the next leap forward.
3. Look to the past.
Consider alternate worlds where specific variables are different. I leave it Big Bang Theory to provide a light hearted example via the game of Counterfactuals.