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Has Digital Technology Killed our Lust for the Future?

I think we’ve lost our lust for the future, and I think digital technology is the reason. I think it’s failing to inspire us, and I think brands can do something about it.

The future was once imagined as big and in your face, full of bright lights and whizzing objects. Technological advance was something you would see and touch.

It turned out quite different. I can connect to the whole world through a smartphone, but where are my personal hovercraft, laser-gun and titanium jacket? Still stuck in video games? As PayPal founder Peter Thiel put it, “They promised us flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Thiel says that technology is lagging, but I think it just isn’t visual enough. There was a time when the brightest new innovations were represented by more than a small bird’s silhouette. They had a shape, they took up space, they were loud. The Industrial Revolution was a screeching steam engine; the Digital Revolution is a whispering laptop fan.

I think this affects our imaginations. As a result of this quiet and unphysical future, design and fashion are failing to evolve, lacking impetus from the visible world. The Industrial Revolution inspired the Impressionist era, but today, regardless of what they do, things look like things used to look. The iPhone 4 was the design daughter of a 1950’s Canon Compact, wearable tech looks like a watch. Retro and vintage are no longer trends, they are facts: if something looks old, it looks good.

So, how to inspire things to look different? How to break the cycle of ‘retro’? I think we need the physical again, but I don’t think this comes at the expense of technology.

I recently worked with consumers to uncover motivations for Digital Detox, and one of the most compelling reasons why ‘unplugging’ from tech is so satisfying was that being online is not. There are endless realms you will not reach online, endless tasks you will not accomplish. In contrast, the physical world is quite small and pretty easy. Herein lies the appeal. We are inspired by what we see, not by what we can’t see.

By understanding this, brands’ use of technology can indeed inspire – think Tesco’s QR-code grocery subway wall in South Korea; think British Airways using digital billboards to spot planes.

These are successful because of how they define the gap between technology and the physical world. In particular, they impose limits: the subway wall ends, the gap between boy and plane is finite. We can see and understand everything, and in turn we are satisfied.

I think brands need to recreate the physical when presenting consumers with technology. They can do it by remembering that ‘limitless’ is in fact limiting, as it is too incomprehensible to do anything with. Instead, brands should build walls around consumer experiences, digital or otherwise. These boundaries will allow us to see the technology, just like the Impressionists saw the steam engine. And eventually I will get my hovercraft, or have imagined something better.

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