Discovering the Future

In December 1943, the world was burning. In the Soviet Union, great tank armies clashed. Across Europe and Asia, millions were fighting. The United States was on a war footing, transforming itself into an industrial machine with the sole object of defeating Japan and Germany. In the state of New Mexico, at Los Alamos, a project so secret and terrible that it would change the course of history was brewing; the first atomic bomb was under development. Barely thirty miles away, a different invention, one that would bring joy to millions, was waiting to be born.

It was snowing in the desert, on that long-ago winter’s day. As a light dusting settled over the historic streets of Santa Fe, it covered the Pueblo architecture with shimmering light. Three-year old Jennifer Land marvelled at the sight. She was enjoying a family holiday with her parents, a short, snatched break amidst the tumult of a nation at war.

The snowfall seemed magical, as if she had walked into a scene from one of Walt Disney’s enchanting motion pictures. She asked her father to take a photograph, to capture the moment for ever. She knew he was a scientist, a wise man. Yet he couldn’t even answer the simplest of her questions. “Daddy, why can’t I see the picture straight away? Why does it take weeks to arrive? Why do I have to wait?”

Her father, Edwin Land, had no reply. He was a successful inventor, who had already changed the world of photography through designing a polariser, which blocked out glare. His invention, applied to goggles and sunglasses, was now helping thousands of American soldiers fighting across the world. “Is this the summit of my creative potential?”, he mused. Land paced around the town, sketching ideas and grappling with the challenge.

“What else can I give the world?” How could he build a camera that could instantly create a physical picture? It would take a radical step, something innovative, unlike any device built before. Many years later, Land wrote “Within an hour, the camera, the film and the physical chemistry became so clear to me”. By the time the family returned to his car, Edwin saw the technical blueprint for an instant camera, shining like diamonds in his mind.

When he returned to work at his small business, Polaroid, he decided to build one. The rest is history. Sixty years before digital smartphones, instant photography became a commonplace in mid-century America. His camera would soon fit snugly in a pocket, and millions would buy one.

Edwin Land lived until 1991. In his old age, he received another famous visitor. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, had come to meet his hero. Jobs was a man singularly obsessed with the fusion of design, vision and technical prowess that Land had demonstrated. John Sculley, then CEO of Apple, was present at this summit of geniuses and recalled Land’s words to his protégé: “These [things] aren’t really invented by any of us; they’ve always existed, right there in front of us, invisible—just waiting to be discovered”.

Jobs immediately leapt on the sentiment. He agreed that the Apple Mac computer had, in some strange sense, always existed; Jobs was simply the person who found it and revealed it to the world.

In Land’s case, the process of invention began with a child’s innocent question, which prompted a brilliant solution. He belongs to the school of pioneers celebrated by the researcher Alan Kay, of the astonishingly innovative laboratory at Xerox Parc: “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”.

How, then, can we become the pioneers, or in Land’s own words, the discoverers of the future? A former colleague of Land provided a clue in a 1991 interview. He noted that Land had a unique capability to look at solutions to a problem orthogonally – from an utterly unconventional viewpoint. Orthogonal thinking draws upon many different well-springs of thought. It looks for power at the intersections of systems, ideas and disciplines, blurring boundaries and blending insights. Upon a two-dimensional map, it draws a rising vertical, flying up into space. To adopt the slogan of Steve Jobs, who famously fused his love of exquisite calligraphy into Apple Mac’s design process, the key is to think eccentrically, creatively and subversively: to “think different”.

Both Jobs and Land shunned focus groups. Rather than build what people said they wanted; they gave people what they knew they needed. John Sculley himself exemplified this forward-thinking approach. The Knowledge Navigator concept that Apple unveiled in 1987 showed uncanny prescience. It was a tablet computer with a voice-controlled virtual assistant; a type of Siri avant la lettre.

Many scientists have taken the inspiration of science fiction and set out to turn its concepts into accomplished science fact. Others deliberately wrestle with problems or challenges which are seemingly unconquerable, regardless of their self-evident impossibility. Leonardo da Vinci designed flying machines, tanks and submarines which were completely infeasible given the technological limitations of the Renaissance, but which set the path for the shape of things to come. Many believe that Elon Musk, with his dreams of settling and terraforming Mars, is attempting to do the same in our own time.

Yet this is not simply about imagining the future, with an intensity that – like Edwin Land – cares little for market research or consumer questionnaires. It suggests a different philosophical attitude to the nature of reality.

As a thought experiment, consider the radical theory that we live in a “block universe”. Let us imagine for a moment that the future is already embedded in the structure of time. Everything that has been or will be created, invented or written, already exists in some form. The only question is when our own temporal perception encounters this underlying, pre-existing reality. It is impossible to say whether this fanciful idea is true, but it offers an unusual and orthogonal view on the world.

How would this approach change your perspective, of your capabilities and your career? Would it limit your choices, in a form of cosmic predestination, or does it actually expand your potential?

It certainly suggests the future might be closer at hand than most perceive. It has already, in some sense, been created. All you need to do is discover it. 

This article was inspired by a few short paragraphs in “How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story” by Billy Gallagher (London, 2018) that led me to explore the story of Edwin Land, who is truly one of the forgotten pioneers of twentieth century innovation.

You are welcome to sign up to my free newsletter on LinkedIn for further business articles.

© Paul Darroch Groden 2024.


Let’s Talk

Please drop us a line and let’s see how we can help.