So, for the first time since I was 18, I am soon going to be without a car. That's no small emotional transition for a southern California native who grew up in a culture where if you hadn't been in the car for an hour, you hadn't gone anywhere. It was a world in which every boy in high school counted down the hours until you were old enough to take the driving test. Since back then it was age 16, you pretty much started counting down when you turned 12.
When I moved to New York City twelve years ago, I had my car shipped out from San Francisco. And even though the cost of garaging and insuring a vehicle in New York are ridiculous, I always felt that it was worth the price. I even started planning how to convince my apartment building to install a charging station for the plug-in hybrid I would buy next.
But no more. Two things changed my mind. The first is that traffic in New York City, never good, has gotten dramatically worse in the past decade. Driving, always difficult, is now just about impossible: there is almost no time that you can count on a trip without severe congestion somewhere along the line. And the second is that there are now four Zipcars in the basement parking garage of my building, available for hourly rental whenever I really must have a car.
Suddenly I'm far more sympathetic to the thesis that automobiles are becoming less interesting to the Millennial generation.
The open road is not exciting if you spend most of your time sitting in traffic, and it's going to get worse: the US is still the fastest growing industrialized nation on earth and we'll add 15 million more licensed drivers just in the next three years. Even the smallest towns I visit these days have rush hours and traffic back-ups.
Add to this the fact that more Millennials are moving back into city centers or close-in suburbs, where there is either mass transit or services like Zipcar.
Obviously, once you start a family, the car becomes more important, so it's not as if the automobile industry is going to collapse. But it will be a fundamental shift in the American psyche when the car--once a symbol of pleasure and freedom--becomes just another somewhat onerous duty of adulthood.
I often look ahead to the year 2020 for industries ranging from finance and media to transportation, energy and more. But last month it was an enterprise closer to my heart: the Professional Conference Management Association educational meeting in San Antonio, where I talked about “Imagining the Convention of 2020.”
Will virtual conferences and events supplant their real-world predecessors? The short answer is, of course, no. Consider last summer’s five year college reunions for the class of 2006—the first class to graduate with Facebook in full flower. Ever since 2006, alumni organizers have worried about this class: these graduates have been talking to each other regularly on social networks ever since they graduated. Would they still want to meet in person as well? The answer was yes: five year reunions for the class of 2006 were well-attended. Hugs and beers, in short, are still not effectively shared online.
However: virtual events will become a far larger part of the conference industry in the late Teens and Twenties. The shift will be driven by much better (and cheaper) video displays and ubiquitous high-bandwidth connectivity. Add to that a new generation of virtually-adept attendees—and the increasing cost, both economic and environmental, of conference travel. And crucially, conference sponsors—the folks who buy the booth space and sponsor those lunches and coffee breaks—will also start to move more of their marketing budgets into the virtual world. Thus the conference industry needs to think hard today about how to make money on virtual events.
Too many conference planners remind me of newspaper publishers a decade ago, for whom online was a sideshow that didn’t get the intense focus it deserved. Now, as print revenues plunge, newspaper publishers have far less time and money left to reinvent their businesses. The printed newspaper may still be the centerpiece, but the audience is spending far more time online. Ironically, traditional publishers are increasingly turning to real-world events to bolster their bottom lines. Event organizers need to do this in reverse: begin to think of events as content, and figure out how to “publish” them to larger audiences.
The first problem is that virtual conferences are today a Babel of various interfaces and technical standards. That’s not how it is in the physical world, where every conference venue is fundamentally familiar—whether in Hong Kong or New Orleans, attendees immediately recognize registration booths, hallways, meeting rooms, the convention floor. And at every convention center the exhibitors’ trucks deliver standardized booths onto the loading docks, which then set up, in a standard way, on the show floor. But virtual conferences vary wildly in look, navigation and function, confusing to attendees and frustrating for exhibitors who have no interest in building a different digital “booth” for every show that comes along.
More of my thoughts are in this interview in PCMA’s magazine, Convene. But it’s worth noting that for me the best part of the PCMA speech was after I was finished: the people I met the rest of that day in San Antonio. That’s an experience we can’t yet entirely duplicate in the virtual world—but we will grow much better at it in the years ahead. The conference organizers who get it right will literally reinvent the meaning of event.
The other day an association hired me for a return speaking visit, noting that the last time I’d spoken to them, five years ago, I’d predicted that there would be “tablets everywhere.” And that was several years before the iPad was launched.
I was pleased that they had remembered—and happy that I’d been right. And while I don’t think that precise prognostication is the most valuable offering of the futurist, the fact is that anyone who talks about the future almost inevitably starts making predictions.
For me, predictions started with writing science fiction thirty years ago. And going back over my old short stories I see that even some of my odder predictions ultimately came true. For example: flowers implanted with bioluminescent genes so they glow in the dark in a story called “Lilies of the Trench.” Or a violin with electronic bow and strings so that it can only be heard through headphones in “Klysterman’s Silent Violin.”
Lately, along with tablets, I’ve predicted what I call heads-up goggles—eyeglasses with clear glass that also have a small projection of your computer screen down in one corner. In my speech The Virtualization of America (and the World) I describe how via devices like heads-up goggles we will someday be connected to the virtual world almost constantly. Kids born in 2025 will have to be taught what “offline” means—because “online” will be the normal state of things.
I’ve been talking about heads-up goggles for five years or so and so I was happy earlier this year when Google announced their Googles Glasses program. Google, in fact, predicted their heads-up goggles would be on sale by the end of 2012. That’s a prediction I don’t agree with—the technology is still too complex and expensive. I suspect Google is just trying to grab some mindshare with a premature announcement. Google Glasses is, after all, a pretty catchy name. Although I think Apple should hurry up and announce something as well—“iGlasses” sounds even better.
But the real value of the futurist is to talk about directions, rather than destinations—to use examples of what might be in the future to suggest ways to change what we do today. If you rely too much on making precise predictions, sooner or later you’re going to get in trouble. In fact, futurists as a breed are still often mocked for their predictions of “flying cars.” In fact, in 1957, on the cover of of Popular Mechanics, a futurist promised flying cars for everyone by 1967.
Wrong, of course. But flying cars seem to be eternal. At this spring's New York Auto Show a company called Terrafugia showed off a $279,000 flying car and said they already had 100 orders. So Popular Mechanics was off by 45 years and a little too optimistic about the price tag. But that’s all too often par for the course on predictions—and I feel quite comfortable in predicting that the same will be true for many years to come.
The news today about Steve job's decision to delay surgery for cancer and instead use alternative therapies fits his view of the world perfectly. Steve was famously one of the ultimate control freaks in technology. And Apple products have always reflected that--they tend to be closed boxes, rather hostile to user interventions. How many companies could, at this late date, still get away with selling a mobile phone in which you're not even supposed to change the battery yourself?
And so it makes sense that when Steve confronted the idea of surgery, it seemed a lot like letting someone else open the box. It was a process outside his control, and so he opted for alternative therapies--diet, acupuncture--that were both external and controllable.
Contrast that to Andy Grove of Intel who, when diagnosed with prostate cancer in the mid-Nineties, went on an incredible scientifically rigorous search for the very best treatment, and even documented the process in an article for Fortune.
Grove took an engineer's approach to his disease. Steve's was more of an artist's approach. And of course, Grove just turned 75 last month and, while now battling Parkinson's disease, remains deeply involved in funding and writing about medical research.