The future of mobility: Are we asking the right questions?

By Thornton May Oct 10th 2017
The future of mobility: Are we asking the right questions?

The shape of the future is discernible if we can find the relevant patterns.

In the 2000 documentary No Maps for These Territories, science fiction author William Gibson remarks, “I think we live in an incomprehensible present.” An expert quoted in The New York Times insists that “we’ve reached a new level where nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

I disagree. The present is understandable and it is possible to make foresight-rich preparations for the future if we ask the right questions.

One of the categories requiring the sharpest questions about the future is mobility. The mobile present has many moving parts and is very complex, but base patterns are discernible. I believe every human on this planet needs at least to attempt to comprehend the current point to which the mobile revolution has brought us. Furthermore, I believe modern executives have a fiduciary responsibility to think long and hard about where the mobile revolution is taking us. 

Why mobility matters

The most rapidly adopted consumer technology in the history of mankind, mobile technology has had a huge economic impact — more than $1 trillion — and has changed the corporate competitive landscape as well as how people live their daily lives. Some go so far as to argue that mobile technologies have changed what it is to be human. 

Are the mobility-now and the mobility-of-the-future receiving the kind of deep-thinking attention they deserve? Are we, as individuals and institutions, asking the right questions about the future of mobility?

Here are some of the important ones. 

Technology and purpose questions

We have migrated from a world where 350 million PCs are replaced every five years to one where some 4 billion mobile phones are replaced every two years. Much attention has focused on determining what the future device landscape looks like. Will the smartphone expand from its aspirational beachhead as the universal remote for our personal lives to the device managing the operating system of total digital existence? Will the smartphone be the only device we have to buy? Or will the smartphone be washed away in a tsunami of wearables and implantables? Will this many-device landscape give way to a no-device world of internet of things-enabled ubiquitous computing where access to services is just a voice command or an algorithmically determined action on our behalf away? 

These are the questions market research analysts, product designers, venture capitalists and stock pickers tend to focus on. 

The question social scientists ask in the face of all this exponential technology innovation is: To what purpose is all thisgear directed? What outcomes does using mobile technology make possible? Is all this mobile technology liberating humans to realize our unique individual potential? 

Training questions

Humans may not be the only species that uses tools — or even makes tools — but we are very tool-intensive. The question is, Are we tool-savvy enough? Fire is a powerful tool. Used appropriately, it can cook meat and keep the winter chill away. Used poorly, it can burn our house down. The same can be said for just about every technology tool. They can be used for good or evil. A close friend who is a Harvard Business School grad and a Fortune 500 CIO mentioned that in the hands of a trained carpenter, power tools can create homes and furniture of great beauty. In his hands, they create trips to the emergency room. Our economy spends billions — perhaps trillions — developing tools. Are we spending enough to train and educate workers and citizens in appropriate tool usage? 

Responsibility questions

Will mobile use be regulated in the future? Should it be? To drive a car legally, a citizen must take a driver’s test. Is it totally implausible that at some point in the future a citizen might be required to take a mobility test before being allowed to access publicly provided communication infrastructure? Will there be fines for doing mobility wrong (as there are fines for poor driving habits)? 

The smartphone is more powerful than early supercomputers and increasingly affordable. We put these devices in the hands of 10-year-olds. At some time in the future, will we regulate the age at which an individual can possess a mobile device (similar to the drinking age)? 

The empirical data indicates that a subset of the user population doesn’t take appropriate care of these powerful devices. About 5% of smartphones in America are lost every year — wasting roughly $30 billion in value.  

Henry David Thoreau once commented, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” Anthropologists, futurists and now mental health professionals are now having conversations regarding the extent to which digital devices have become tools of digital enslavement or digital engagement. In Cyber Junkie and Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap, author Kevin Roberts describes cyber addiction. 

The power and affordability of digital tools is increasing at a pace far in excess of our creation of guidelines for their safe and productive use. Are we the boss of our tools, or are our tools the boss of us? 

What might the mobile future look like?

The future of mobility is much bigger than the question of what features and functions the next smartphone will have. Moving forward, mobility will be a mindset, not a screen size or a specific technology stack. Mobility is everywhere every-ware (as in hardware, software, wetware). 

One of my favorite science fiction novels is Kiln People (2002, David Brin). In this pretty good whodunit, we are presented with one view of what the future might look like. Real people — folks like you and me — are “Archies” or “Rigs” (shortened from Archetypes and Originals). Archies can affordably create a “ditto” — a color-coded duplicate of themselves that can go out (i.e., be mobile) and perform the quotidian tasks of existence. This frees them up for realizing their full human potential — whatever that might be. Is such a future possible? 

My good friend Michael Schrage (MIT research fellow and author of The Innovator’s Hypothesis) presents a plausible view of the future, if one less easily made into a movie for the Syfy Channel. Combining the totality of quantified self, surveillance, geo-tracking and social media data collection with advanced analytics enables a capability he terms “selvesware.” He extrapolates the recommendation engines at disruptor companies such as Netflix and Amazon to personal assistants. Michael envisions selvesware serving the role of a perpetually present leadership coach providing real-time advice on executive behavior (i.e., when to say something, when to remain quiet, what to say, how to say it and to whom to say it). Imagine having every leadership book you ever read embedded in action-oriented software guiding your actions. Michael believes the end result might be a more productive version of ourselves. 

What questions are you asking about the mobile future?

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