When Will We Reach the World of Tomorrow?

What 1939 can tell us about 2022

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02/18/2022

Colin McMahon

 

“The eyes of the Fair are on the future—not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors, the Fair will say: "Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”
Source: Official 1939 Pamphlet

 

Not to go overboard on the quotes, but it was author J.M. Barrie who famously wrote the line, “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” And while that was part of his novel Peter Pan, there does appear to be a definite cyclical nature to aspects of history, whether it is caused by some unknown unifying principle or simply just people being people—but this is a topic for another blog. For now, I would like to focus on an event that happened nearly 100 years ago: the 1939 World’s Fair, which was also known as “the World of Tomorrow” event and was designed to showcase a utopian future powered by technology and automation.

 

 

The Surprising Similarities Between 1939 and 2022  

To set the stage: 1939 was a time of pivotal change in the US and the world. The average person was reeling from forces such as economic depression and uncertainty. Fascism and authoritarianism were political movements on the rise, and the world was still struggling to recover from a global pandemic that had killed millions. On top of all this, early adopters and futurists were aggressively pushing technologies and concepts such as automation—stating that it would not only be good for business, but humanity as a whole, to enter a new era where we were all more connected and productive.

 

Ah, but how could anyone from 2022 relate, right? In all seriousness, a main theme of the 1939 World’s Fair was efficiency. One of the chief exhibits, Futurama, led attendees into an at-the-time theoretical look to the future. Set in the 1960s, it showcased a US united by automated highways, roads designed to accelerate the distance from point A to point B while promoting greater safety and still allowing drivers and passengers to see the sights of America.

 

 

If the Futurama exhibit were redesigned today but kept its focus, what would it look like? If efficiency is a mark of progress, then it is difficult to see highways as the pinnacle. For knowledge workers, there is no more efficient journey than from the kitchen to the home office.

 

The logic is the same then as it is now. What does technology allow us to do? The final words of the pamphlet ring especially true: There can be no proper utilization of future technology going forward before one is familiar with the solutions out there and available right now.

 

Why People Change Slower than Technology

The World’s Fair in 1939 was met with mixed reactions. Many visitors praised its visions of hope and progress, while others felt alarmed by the life and culture overhaul that would be needed to move society forward. Still others largely dismissed the Fair and its exhibits as gimmicks—solutions that might work in niche markets, but would be hardly transformative.

 

Again, exchange 1939 for 2022 and similarities are abound. Conversations around cryptocurrency, extended reality (XR), NFTs, the metaverse, and more all generate similar opinions. The reality is that while technology changes, people—and their sense of priorities—do not. Keypoint Intelligence has long segmented its survey respondents by adopter status. Early adopters rush into new products and solutions, eager to be on the frontlines and happy to deal with bugs, glitches, and false starts. These solutions, however, are never considered successful until they can reliably sell to mainstream adopters (think of Blackberry phones vs. iPhones). Late adopters are quite content to wait until there is no alternative but to upgrade.

 

At the end of the day, one question always wins out when discussing the merits of new technology: Does it work? Some respond to this question with optimism, others with skepticism. Not every new technology becomes a hallmark of society. Case in point, zeppelins are on prominent display in that 1939 newsreel. While the highway arrived, the mass use of blimps as air travel was a textbook example of a passing fad.

 

What Is Required to Reach “The World of Tomorrow”

In many ways, the “World of Tomorrow” is now the land of yesterday. We’ve been connected by highways and innovations like air conditioning, color photographs, and nylon are now commonplace. That said, many of the ideas of the 1939 World Fair—including a utopia through technology—are still nowhere to be found.

 

And yet, at every CES (and at many other large future-thinking tradeshows), it is still not uncommon to hear innovators discuss the society-changing nature of their latest and greatest invention. XR, in particular, has consistently hailed itself as innovation that will change the world as we know it since 2016.

 

 

That said, the pace of change is not constant—nor is it always forward. Right now, we are undergoing several notable and friction-filled advances. The most notable of these is the move away from oil and other fossil fuels toward renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. This movement is nothing new, but factors like climate change as well as numerous technological advancements have brought the shift to a head. Still, not everyone is onboard.

 

Every story of a driverless car failing and injuring/killing a person makes headlines, while countless stories of human drivers injuring or killing people are overlooked. The normal is, just that, normal. It is accepted. Change doesn’t come when someone stands up at CES to hold up the latest shiny gadget; it comes only when a majority of people accept and then use said solution.

 

That said, people cannot be expected to use what they do not understand, and that brings us full circle back to the pamphlet: “Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”

 

The Complexity of Today

In a recent blog post, we discussed how solutions and products used to be far more modular. Even a product like a car was a complex machine, but it was built on simple systems. At first, it just drove the user from place to place; then the radio and other entertainment were built in. Next came onboard assistance and GPS-aided navigation. Now, cars are being built more as simple, electric machines full of complex and interconnected systems.

 

This is happening everywhere. Machines and solutions that once functioned independently are now aspects of ecosystems. This has tremendous benefits, to be sure—just think of all we do with smartphones. It also makes everything complicated. It is difficult to discuss the Internet of Things without talking about cloud and edge computing. And one really cannot discuss XR without referencing or having digital twin infrastructure to enable spatial computing.

 

No matter what we talk about, the jargon starts to come fast and furious. It can be difficult to focus on just one aspect of your workflow without fully understanding how it is all connected. If it sounds like this is building to a sales pitch, we’re not that obvious. That said, there is no denying the difficulty at keeping a coherent and comprehensive view of changing technology and how it will impact your business. We don’t really have World Fairs anymore—just CES and other like-minded events. A pandemic, however, makes it difficult to always be in attendance.

 

Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future, but it can be difficult to fully wrap one’s head around every innovation and new challenge out there. That’s why Keypoint Intelligence and other market research firms do what we do. We will not reach the world of tomorrow stumbling blindly forward and going solely on gut instinct. As was in 1939, so it is in 2022: There are skeptics and evangelists—and the truth is often somewhere in between.

 

 

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