thenextwave

The noise of a past future

Posted in aviation, future, technology by thenextwavefutures on 29 May, 2009

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When I was a kid in the late 1960s, the hovercraft and Concorde were trumpeted as the great British technological innovations – the result, perhaps, of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s modernising meme about “the white heat of technology“. I even seem to recall, although heaven knows I may have imagined this, a set of British stamps which featured both.

This thought was prompted by a few days spent last weekend in the Isle of Wight over the (English) Bank Holiday. The island often seems, well, quite old-fashioned, and the longest running commercial hovercraft services in the UK plies noisily from Portsmouth to Ryde, across a stretch of water also served by a car ferry and a passenger catamaran.

Concorde, which has been out of service now for more than half a decade, was also as famous, or as controversial, for its noise as its speed. The two technologies raise interesting questions aboout how, and when, particular ideas about the future stop being useful.

As it happens, two things I’ve read recently both refer to the end of that ’60s idea that the future of air travel would be supersonic. In Adam Gordon’s book Future Savvy he points out that average commercial air speeds are now lower than they were in 1970. He ascribes this to the idea that passengers’ ‘utility’ for air travel has changed. (Utility is an economists’ term used to measure the ways in which the users of a product or service value it). Instead of valuing speed (or, more accurately, time), and being willing to pay for it, Gordon argues that passengers increasingly valued price, and safety.  Freddie Laker, the low-cost transatlantic flights entrepreneur of the 1970s, called the market right even if he couldn’t quite make his business model work. Southwest Airlines, the low-cost airline founded in 1971, was another sign of the actual future of the aviation business.

And in his recent keynote speech on the future of gaming, Charlie Stross explains the failure of supersonic air travel to establish itself as the dominant model in technological terms: that the challenge of making planes fly ever faster reaches some steep technological limits which make the cost prohibitive. “The civil airliner business hit a odd brick wall in the late 1960s. The barrier was a combination of increasing costs due to mushrooming complexity, and the fact that aerodynamic drag goes up nonlinearly once you try to go supersonic.”

On Sunday morning, the noise of the hovercraft was the strongest sensation; its drone dominated the aural landscape. Concorde did this too, of course. Fights over its noise levels recurred throughout its history. And given that we are, as a society, becoming more sensitive to noise, it made me wonder how long the hovercraft was likely to remain in service in the face of a new generation of fast ‘supercat’ ferries. Certainly, it wouldn’t survive public scrutiny if it were proposed as a service now.

Social utility and social values

There are a couple of important points here. The first is that the questions about ‘utility’ are at heart not economic questions but questions about changing social values, the value of a social technology, and the way that it is configured, changes as the values of its users change.

The second is that its not just the values of the users of a service or a product which matter. The values of people who are affected by the operation of a product or service (the ‘utility’ of a quiet Sunday morning in Ryde) are becoming increasingly important. In terms of aviation, for example, the noise created by a third runway at Heathrow, or the carbon emissions it represents, or the associated environmental degradation (explicit or implicit), all of which are costs to everyone -service users or not – are as likely to scupper it as the economics of the flights.

I think there’s also another story wrapped inside this one. It’s hard now to recall how strong the idea was that supersonic was the only possible future for aviation. Fortunately, there’s a fine quote in Future Savvy that reminds us, from Richard Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew, speaking in 1972.

It must be obvious to anyone with any sense of history and any awareness of human nature that there will be SSTs [supersonic transports]. And Super-SSTs and Super-Super SSTs. Mankind is simply not going to sit back with the Boeing 747 and say, ‘This is as far as it goes’.

This links neatly, perhaps too neatly, with an idea of Jaimais Cascio’s I’ve been meaning to write about for a few weeks now – the concept of ‘legacy futures‘. He defined it like this: “Legacy futures are rarely still useful, but have so thoroughly colonized our minds that even new scenarios and futures models may end up making explicit or implicit references to them.” Think ‘jet-pack’; or in his account, more controversially, Second Life.

Thinking through legacy futures

I’ve been turning this idea over a bit for the past few months; I’ve even presented to clients, and it’s fine as far as it goes. It captures a problem that futurists sometimes have. As Cascio says;

we have to figure out how to deal with the leftover visions of the future that still colonize our minds. If I describe a scenario of online interaction and immersive virtual worlds, for example, I know that the resulting discussion will almost certainly include people trying to map that scenario onto their existing concept of how Second Life represents The Future.

The problem here is that it’s easy to create a distinction between the dull old ‘legacy futures’ that trap other people in the past, and the smarter new futures which we should be grasping instead. But we all have models of the future in our heads, and we need to have them if we are able to function in our organisations and communities. The point at which our futures model becomes a ‘legacy future’ is not clear cut; the point at which it stops being useful, and starts being a hindrance, is a judgment call.

Which reinforces the idea, I think, that futures is an evolutionary and exploratory process, in which you test the fit of your existing ‘legacy’ future against changing and emerging ideas of the future. And sometimes, legacy futures mutate and re-emerge; the idea of space colonies, captured memorably in the film 2001, and which I’ve written about here before, is long-consigned to the ‘legacy’ folder, only to re-emerge, possibly, as the future of premium tourism.

The picture of the hovercraft at Ryde was taken in 2007 and is from SteRittey’s flickr photostream.

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