How to Think About the Future

Steven Pemberton, CWI, Amsterdam


From the book Lorna Doone

"The roads are much improved, and the growing use of stage waggons (some of which will travel as much as forty miles [64 km] in a summer day) has turned our ancient ideas of distance almost upside-down"

Paradigm Shift

This is a paradigm shift. Not an incremental improvement on what you have, but where your view of the world gets altered.

My Grandfather

My grandfather, a middle child of 20(!), was born in 1880.

At the time of his birth there were only really two inventions in his world that we would call modern: trains, and photography.

Both of those had been paradigm shifts.

Home 1880

In those days they had cold running water in the house, and indoor flushing toilets.

But no electricity for instance. With such a big family, each child had a task, and it was my grandfather's to ensure that all the oil lamps in their large house were full.


When domestic electricity came, it must have been very exciting to my grandfather, to be able to produce light at the flick of a switch, with no filling of oil lamps, and no danger of flames.

That was a paradigm shift, and my grandfather dedicated his life to electricity, setting up a factory to manufacture electrical switching gear.


He was born in a world of only two modern technologies, but in his life of nearly a hundred years, he saw vast numbers of paradigm shifts:

electricity, telephone, cars, film, radio, television, recorded sound, flight, electronic money, computers, space travel, ... the list is enormous.


But does that mean that paradigm shifts are happening faster and faster?

Yes. Kurzweil did an investigation, by asking representatives of many different disciplines to identify the paradigm shifts that had happened in their discipline and when. We're talking here of time scales of tens of thousands of years for some disciplines.

He discovered that paradigm shifts are increasing at an exponential rate!

If they happened once every 100 years, then they happened every 50 years, then every 25 years, and so on.


In this extraordinary accelerating of life, it very easy to get trapped in thinking about the short term, and losing track of where you are trying to go.

So let me tell you a story.

New College, Oxford

Built in 1379, New College had a dining hall with huge oak beams in the roof.

Eventually the beams needed replacing. But where do you find oak beams?

They approached the University forester, and asked him.

"Which college are you from?"
"New College."
"Well, I've got your trees".

It turns out that around the time that New College was built, they planted new trees to be ready for when they would need them. They were thinking 500 hundred years in the future.

The future

I'm not asking you to plan for 500 years in the future.

However, it is worth asking yourself what improvements you would like to bring to the world, and what you would like to look back on at the end of your life and say "that is partly there thanks to me!"

Two examples

Internet: just a couple of guys setting up an internet connection, and then spinning off companies to expand it

Python: a guy who needed a new programming language for a project, and took an existing design and extended it, and then spent years developing it