Waving to the Future

future

While we are sitting around chatting about the Wave of the Future, it has already washed up onto the shore, left a heap of sand on the beach, and gone back out to sea.

Restricted to a one-way street on our plane of existence, we are very much a future-centric species, we humans. The present is either spent planning or conjecturing about the future or ruminating about the past (mostly with an eye to assess the future).

As a result, when someone talks to me about something new, I know full well that that the “new” thing belongs to yesterday and the next big thing is being cooked up in a lab, a poet’s pen, or a scientific brain. This is our essential paradox.

E-commerce has been around for a very long time. I remember watching my high school friend sitting in front of a massive looking computer back in the dark ages of the 80s and buying his groceries and paying his bills. My first thought? Cool. My second thought? Lazy.

There is an argument to be made for the laziness engendered by the Internet. Nearly everything can be done online now. Where once we had to put on shoes and go out, take a car, take a plane, and get our asses off the sofa to do anything, now we can stay put. We can Skype a live conversation into existence. We can browse a bookstore. We can visit the utility company. We can get the paper. We can have sex. We can tour the ruins of Knossos.

If the Internet could cook, we would never have to move again.

Companies today have to be aware of the fact that they can sell to faceless clients more effectively and more often than they can get walk-ins. The world’s online population is estimated to be approximately 2.4 billion people (2012 data). The number is big enough by itself, but when you factor in the economics of it and cross-reference that with your potential customers, the percentages shoot up to the 80s and 90s. It means, effectively, that at any one time ALL of your customers could be shopping your aisles at the same time.

Think of all the shopping carts you’d need to buy!

And let’s not fall victim to the Grumpy Old Man’s argument that people still want the full sensory experience of shopping – the feel of fabric, the smell of new books, the taste of chocolate. A traditional thinker will tell you that the Internet can only provide visual and auditory stimuli, but people are already working on extending it to all five senses. When you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the Internet of Things, using the real world becomes an act of nostalgia.

When you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the Internet of Things, using the real world becomes an act of nostalgia.

But is it BETTER than the real world? That is the great debate. Do we really need to see other people and interact with them to fulfill our needs as a social animal? Let’s check with Maslow.

The hierarchy of needs – physiological, safety, love & belonging, esteem, and self-actualization – can be pretty much all accomplished from the comfort of your couch. The physiological level, which includes breathing, food, water, homeostasis, sex, sleep, and excretion, may all be achieved with very little movement around the house. We can order in the food and water. We can regulate the conditions around us with remote controls (which can be controlled online as well). We can have a wide variety sex (solo, virtual, by invitation, or home delivery). We can sleep. And going to the bathroom is only as arduous as the position of your couch in the house.

The remaining four levels in the hierarchy can be achieved without the interference of the real world as well. Facebook alone connects 1.3 billion of us inextricably together. We can tend to our needs for love, respect and socialization from there.

There is a catch however.

Once we decide to trade in the real for the virtual, a big question remains: who will be left out there to deliver the food and water, to service the heat and air systems, to service us? The only way that this system will work, in fact, is to maintain a healthy number of non-Internetted people. People who answer our calls and bring us stuff.

Extending this thought to its most absurd, we would become a split society. The moving parts of our society would have to outnumber the sedentary part by a factor of at least 10 to 1, if not more, in order to maintain our virtual existence and live fulfilled lives.

To service today’s online community, we would need a global population of at least 24 billion.

It is an absurd number, to be certain. But maybe it is an absurd concept as well. But as a word of caution, people were saying the same thing about the industrial revolution 250 years ago. Replacing people by automation? By machines? In 1760, this was a real fear. People would be out of work. Craftsmen would lose their crafts in the shadow of the machine.

Demographically, they were right of course. Industrial machines cut the number of workers needed on the job market, but what was not seen in all this was the massive increase in demand. When a pair of shoes took twelve hours to construct, not everyone thought they needed a pair. When that was increased to 12,000 pairs in the same amount of time, we got Nike and Reebok.

And we ALL need Nike, right?

Our needs as a society are changing. We want more things, we make more things, we then make it easier to make new things, and we want even more. It is not a particularly dim view of man, only a common sense approach. Marketing manufactured consumerism aside, we are materialistic and define whether or not our lives are good by our ability to acquire new possessions – useful or un. We have travelled a road from sticks and stones to iron tools to factories to data.

Meanwhile, back at the question of “better,” I think we need to rethink things. It is not better or worse. It is simply is as it is. The question is how we decide to confront the new world.

The Wave of the Future – and one which still very far out at sea and headed our way – is integration and assimilation. The Internet vegetables described above are tied to their couches by the limitations of my imagination in writing this. The reality is that more and more people access the Internet on the go, on phones, tablets, and other devices. Google Glass, as one example, is the closest thing we have to placing a computer inside our heads.

I am eagerly waiting for the day in which the motherboard is installed in my brain. On that day, equipped with the whole of human knowledge, I will feel free to turn it off from time to time and go shopping.

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