The Sci-Fi Pay Phone Fallacy

 

Quick Read: Future predictions could sometimes just be past projections – repurposed to fit the current context. Sometimes that could make for a liberating realisation – especially in current times.  

3.15.20

That’s the name of the latest album by Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino – an American actor, comedian, writer, producer, director, musician, artist and DJ – a polymath in the entertainment business.

What’s unusual about this album?

It has no title except the date of release, 3.15.20; no artwork; and except for 2 songs, none of the 12 tracks has a title. Quoting Sanjoy Narayan on mint:

On Sunday, 15 March, Donald Glover Jr, better known by his stage name Childish Gambino, launched a new website called Donaldgloverpresents.com and released a new album, which streamed on a loop on the site for most of that day. There was no fanfare; no announcements; no publicity.

For an artist as high-profile as Glover, this was an unusual approach….

…Shortly after his new website stopped streaming the album and went blank, Glover’s, or, rather, Gambino’s, new album got more conventionally released on music-streaming services where you can hear it now. It has no title except the date of release, 3.15.20; no artwork; and except for the second and third songs, Algorhythm and Time, none of the 12 tracks has a title. Instead, Gambino has chosen to title his tracks by time codes—the points in time that they come up on the album. For instance, the first track is labelled 0.00; the fourth is 12.38; the fifth 19.10; the sixth 24.19; and so on.

donald-glover-presents
The album initially played on a loop on the site ‘Donald Glover Presents’, accompanied by an unfinished illustration depicting a very modern scene of rioting, fiery chaos and selfie-taking. (Source)

What’s truly unusual about the album, however, is how it mocks at our assumptions and shatters our accumulated biases about his music. Quoting Sanjoy Narayan again:

It’s an astonishingly experimental album on which Gambino is, in parts, a rapper, a soul, funk and R&B guy, and a sonic innovator who composes melodies and harmonies and melds them to make songs that push every boundary…

..It’s a super ambitious album that traverses so many genres and styles that it would require multiple listens to try and list out or even describe. Funk and soul collide with electronic music; modern hip hop gets to mate with elaborate orchestral arrangements; and smart lyrics comment on the state of the world and other serious issues.

Unique juxtapositions, delightful blends, unexpected connections, inventive remixes and surprising twists. That’s always been the recipe for great story telling across formats from stand up comedy and sci-fi thrillers to food and fashion.

It is compelling how consistently it works every single time – get people to default to their baseline expectations and add in an unexpected twist to move the carpet off their feet and presto, you have a winner! In fact an entire movie was made literally off this very premise.

Turns out getting us to default to our baseline world views/expectations is not that hard after all. Simply because we tend to base our assumptions of a likely future basis our previous experiences. In fact, research suggests that humans predict what the future will be like by using their memories.

Imagining the future then becomes a kind of nostalgia. 

This fallacy could sometimes be evident in sci-fi movies.

Let’s take a classic example: the original Blade Runner from 1982.

In the film, Harrison Ford’s character Deckard makes several calls to other characters using a “videophone,” which is essentially a glorified payphone with a VHS-quality video screen glued on top. Incidentally, the film is supposed to take place in a futuristic 2019, but it makes a faulty assumption that human beings will still be using pay phones as their primary form of communication by then.

payphone
Video Pay Phone in Blade Runner (1982), Source

Back to the Future II also prominently featured payphones and fax machines—both of which were prevalent at the time the film was made, but are obsolete today.

Writers even have a name for this – the science fiction pay phone problem. It essentially refers to how we often assume the continuity of our previous experiences, and subsequently bring our accumulated biases with us, when trying to predict the future.

This could perhaps help serve as an instructive reminder to us that even though we can dream up detailed, novel scenes of things yet to come, our imagined futures could sometimes really just be projections of our past.

And nowhere is this reminder more relevant than in the current times when we are inundated with predictions and discourses about what a post Covid future could look like and how it could potentially impact us, our educational institutions, organisations, cultures, traditions, industries, economies and nation states at large.

As the sci-fi pay phone fallacy reminds us, the future always holds more surprises than we might predict. So instead of stressing about and losing our minds on what a post Covid scenario would pan out to be, sitting back, relaxing and enjoying some Childish Gambino could just be what the doctor ordered for us.

Stay safe. And here’s hoping we all come out of this better, stronger and together. Real Soon.

[Featured Image: Payphone from Back to the Future, digital wallpaper source]

 

On Looking Back To The Future

Have you ever thought about looking back to the future?

This is not about the acclaimed 1985 Academy Award winning American Science Fiction Comedy directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Steven Spielberg – which by the way is a must see.  The question is whether you have ever thought about the notion of ‘looking into the future’ as akin to that of looking back.

Let’s talk about the Aymaras

Apparently this tribe of indigenous people in South America called the Aymara have an unusual way of referring to the future – when they talk about the past, they point to the space in front of them and when they talk about the future, they point behind them. Wonder why?

As Austin Kleon succinctly puts it …

The reason they point ahead of them when talking about the past is because the past is known to them — the past has happened, therefore it’s in front of them, where they can see it.The future, on the other hand, is unknown, it hasn’t happened yet, so it’s behind them, where they can’t see it.

A very thought provoking concept if one begins to think about it.

After embarking upon a mini thought + search experiment, I have come to appreciate that looking back to the future can be more than just a conceptual metaphor of the Aymara’s. My three riffs on this concept:

1. First a relatively straight forward one –  in a very practical sense, the notion of looking back into the future can be said to be closely related to the concept of Retro Innovation. Think about it. Isn’t it? More about it here.

2. We have heard about Chris Anderson‘s concept of The Long Tail. Of comparable significance is Bill Buxton‘s concept of The Long Nose of Innovation – a must read for anyone fascinated by the world of Innovation and Design. Flip through the following slide deck to get a gist of what he meant by this in just under 50 – 60s.

He makes a strong case that – any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old. And thereby says The Future Is History and goes to conclude with the advice –  “Use history to evaluate new concepts and ideas instead of only gut feel”.
So may be next time we ideate within a category/segment for innovation ideas, it might be worthwhile to look for trends that go back to nearly 10 years from now for a change.

3. Lastly, in many ways the concept of looking back to the future could also be related to the idea of photography as time travel.

Irina Werning was a virtually unknown photographer till she embarked on a project called Back To The Future in 2010 (and subsequently in 2011) and the rest as they say is history, with her photographs going hugely viral – even becoming Internet Memes and her project becoming a big sensation. Read more about Irina’s obsession as a photographer to take her subjects back and forth in time through her unique project here. Enjoy the behind the scenes video of the project here.

I find the idea of looking back to the future hugely fascinating and as Austin Kleon says, the Aymara’s way of referring to the future continues to blow my mind no matter how long I think about it.

And you thought History and Innovation make strange bedfellows?