It’s challenging to discern fantasy from reality in the early stages of an emerging trend or technology, and great ideas often seem outlandish near their inception. Here’s a story about a flip phone and a goose that drives that point home for me.
My Flip Phone Buying Decision
In September 2004, I decided to trade in my old cell phone for a newer, sleeker model. At the Sprint store, the salesperson showed me two different models: “Here’s a great flip phone for $250, and here is basically the same model with a camera for just $50 more.”
Me: “Why would I need a camera on my phone? I have a digital camera.”
Salesperson: “Maybe you’ll want to take a picture of something and you won’t have your camera with you?”
Me: “Nah. I’ll take the cheaper model.”
Salesperson: “Great, I’ll grab one from the back and get it activated.”
I left the store confident that I had made the correct choice to forego the camera option.
The Goose Story
Two weeks later, I was at O’Hare Airport waiting to board an American Airlines flight to Tucson when I heard my name called over the PA system, “Passenger Jennings, please report to customer service at Gate 15.” Odd.
I hurried to customer service, worried that there was a problem, and said, “I’m Passenger Jennings. What’s up?”
Agent: “The woman who will be seated next to you on the plane is traveling with an emotional support animal and we want to make sure you are ok with it, or if you’d prefer to be re-seated.”
Me: “Intriguing — what kind of animal?”
Agent: “A goose.”
Me: “A goose? Amazing. Not only do I not object — I’m excited to travel with a goose. I feel like I should pay extra!”
Fifteen minutes later, I boarded the plane and said hi to my row-mate and her large, grey Toulouse Goose. Her name was Portia and she was wearing little goose diapers (which by the smell, she used somewhere over Oklahoma) and honked incessantly during take-off and landing. Of the hundreds of plane flights I’ve been on in my life, it was my most memorable.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of Portia the Goose because I didn’t have a camera on my phone.
The Trend is Not Your Friend
September 2004 — when I bought my phone without a camera — was just three years prior to the introduction of the iPhone and the launch of the smartphone age. At the time, I could not imagine that we’d be snapping trillions of images on our phones annually. Or that these cameras on phones would be key to launching addictive social media that would redefine how we interact with each other (some good — mostly bad).
The challenge of spotting (and profiting from) trends is the subject of the chapter called “The Trend is Not Your Friend” from my upcoming book, The Uncertainty Solution. The chapter discusses mental models that are essential to appreciating trends and understanding how the world works. Here’s an excerpt:
Early transformative technologies and trends like travel via train, the telephone, movies, television, catalog shopping, home computers, video games, and even the internet were derided in their early stages:
▪“No one will pay good money to get from Berlin to Potsdam [on a train] in one hour when he can ride his horse there in one day for free.” —King William I of Prussia, 1864
▪ “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” —Western Union, 1878
▪ “The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” —Charlie Chaplin, 1916
▪ “TV will never be a serious competitor for radio because people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.” —the New York Times, 1939
▪ “The world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most.” —IBM, to the eventual founders of Xerox, 1959
▪ There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” —Ken Olson, president, chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corp (a maker of mainframe computers), 1977
I’ve been as guilty as anyone in not appreciating early trends. I didn’t think CDs would replace vinyl or cassettes. Then I didn’t think digital downloads would displace owning CDs. I thought Twitter would never take off. The idea of expressing yourself in 140 characters or less seemed ridiculous. I thought the concept behind Venmo—combining a payment system with social media—was one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard of. I was even skeptical of texting; why would I want to text a friend when I could send him an email or call him up?
The inertia of the status quo is a powerful impediment to our ability to spot trends. Humans usually imagine a future that’s only slightly different from the present. Even great works of science fiction fail to foresee what the world will be like in the not-too-distant future. For example, the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov is set in a time when humans have spread across the galaxy and inhabit thousands of planets. Book One, published in 1951, focuses on a band of scientists who settle a planet at a far edge of the galaxy to create a great encyclopedia containing humanity’s collective knowledge to shorten the coming of a new dark age. They have to do this because while they may have spaceships, they don’t have the internet or Google.
All they have are big, fat, heavy encyclopedia volumes. Like the ones you donated to your local library (or threw out) decades ago.