The history of the future


I was recently having a friendly and spirited discussion with some product experts in the Urban marketplace.  Music became a topic and I suggested Gil Scott Heron’s (RIP) contributions to the development of rap.  While two of the guys waxed on about Gil’s work, one went “who??” I was shocked…sort of.  I strongly believe that you can’t design the future without understanding the past. Of course you can get lucky and come up with the hot new thing, but the changers are more often those with a firm grounding in the history of their mission.

Back at XM in the pre launch years, we were charged to recreate the magic of radio, on 21st century terms.  The first thing we did was look BACK.  We’d play tapes of radio from the 40’s to understand “theater of the mind”;  the 50’s and 60’s to grasp how music could be ‘sold’ by air talent;  the 70’s to experience ‘bigger than life’ and so on.  The point being that programmers were infinitely better prepared to fight the content war and deliver genuine positive  change if they had a strong bond with what made radio magical in the first place.  Of course it wasn’t about re-creating the old days, it was about understanding them as a powerful tool in their creative, strategic and tactical tool box.

It’s clearly not only radio…it’s ALL media and probably all business that has a vision for the future.  Great film makers religiously study the great classic films; Great musicians EVOLVE from the past.  I doubt if there would be a Beatles without a Buddy Holly and certainly not a Led Zeppelin without the Muddy Waters school.  In 2007 we had Coldplay perform one of our Inside The Actors Studio like “Artist Confidential” shows where the late great George Taylor Morris conducted an interview/performance before a rabid audience.  Prior to the event, many young programmers were insisting that Coldplay wouldn’t relate to George and would want to talk about Rob Thomas.  Well, George did the show and the band said it was clearly the best interview ever.  The reason was “George talked about things that interest us like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan instead of this weeks alternative flavor.”  Coldplay of course sound nothing like Bob or Johnny, but part of their brilliance is an understanding and inspiration from that music.

Food is like that too. A strong trend over the past few years has been molecular gastronomy. You know, essence of horseradish foam napped in a mousse of Bolivian clover.  The difference between this style of food being truly awful and truly amazing is in training.  A classically trained chef has the grounding to make magic, one without that background is probably going to deliver culinary hell.

Then of course there’s the military cliche…but it’s true.  The great military leaders certainly understand the historic basics of warfare…just watch Patton again.

The future is obviously digital and the history of the Internet is short, but there’s still a history.  More important is recognizing that the Internet is what CARRIES content, so if it’s say, sports online/mobile, you’d study the history of Sports content.  I have heard things like “This history stuff is irrelevant because everything is online”…wrong.  The Internet is a powerful, global, interactive, life changing transmitter.  It’ll always be WHAT is transmitted that drives things. TV was/is a transmitter too. It’s what’s ON the TV that makes the difference.

I found print to be an interesting case.  I studied newspapers going back to the 1800’s.  There were many things papers USED to do that might actually work again if re-thought for today, but it was generally met with such an obsession with the current state that it was hard to get traction.

The danger is LIVING in the past.  Very bad idea and unfortunately that’s how this stuff is often interpreted.  The truth is that passionately understanding past successes and failures is a powerful tool in designing the future.  So many are obsessed with dealing with the challenges of today where by looking back for inspiration is a ‘depth of thinking’ that has incalculable competitive, creative and end result advantages.

–Lee Abrams, former Tribune Chief Innovation Officer