What's Not Next: Why The Future Won't Be a Waste of Time

As we head into the new year, we surge forward into a world in which technology has raised the bar for consumer expectations - and advertiser behavior. Today, we want instant access to everything, everywhere, and woe betide the brand that fails to deliver. But even as efficiency becomes an increasingly important metric, there are still areas of our lives that remain rooted in Industrial Age antiquity. Droga5 CEO Andrew Essex looks forward to a future in which the past stops slowing us down.

"The cinema is little more than a fad. What audiences really want is flesh and blood on the stage."
- Charlie Chaplin, 1916

"A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth's atmosphere."
- The New York Times, 1936

"Seven-inch tablets are dead on arrival."
- Steve Jobs, 2010

Predictions have a unique way of coming back to haunt even the best of us. I don't care if you're Steve Jobs or Nostradamus, no one has an infallible crystal ball. That's a truth worth remembering as we enter the season of new year proclamations, especially if you're one of the brave oracles from the intersection of media, technology, and consumer behavior. And if you're trying to predict the future of advertising, well, it's time to admit everything we used to take as gospel is facing sweeping secular change.

About the only thing we can all agree on is that digital will continue to reinvent how marketers do business--ideally for the better--and that software will change the way we live. It's all just a matter of time. The question is... when? Or to borrow a line from The Smiths, how soon is now?

Indeed, it seems to me that the central paradox of our time is the increasing tension between future and past, between fast and slow, between too much and not enough. When an unprecedented economy of abundance rubs up against the immutable hours in a day, when demand for attention outweighs the supply of available seconds, anything that maximizes time is invaluable. In the future, brands will have to focus more on adding value to people's lives, worry more about solving than selling, and efficiency will increasingly become our most important metric. Like never before, brands have the opportunity to make people's lives easier--even if it's tangential to their product. This will mean more rapid prototyping and less inefficient communication. Efficiency innovations, as the writer Clayton M. Christensen has pointed out, save jobs, increase productivity, release capacity, and emancipate capital.

When demand for attention outweighs the supply of available seconds, anything that maximizes time is invaluable.

But all this talk of the future should remind us that many areas of our lives are still rooted in the past. For every shimmering new thermostat that screams "convergence," for every glossy goggle that proves we've finally entered a post-Minority Report paradigm, there are far too many reminders of Industrial Age antiquity. That's the rub: Digital has raised consumer expectations to unprecedented heights. And yet so many inefficient technologies still insist on sticking around. This should give business leaders the confidence that change takes time, but the drive to push it forward.

Imagine what we'll be able to do with the time we save when coders officially render the past obsolete, and antiquated advertising models no longer waste our increasingly limited time.

I'll leave this speculation to the fortune-tellers. The purpose of this piece is to look in the rearview mirror, and focus on a few actionable time-wasters and noise-makers I pray the future quickly drops. After all, what we leave behind is the best barometer of where we're going. Herewith, my hit list of targets that digital needs to re-invent for the better:

#NoMoreCarAlarms - When the entirety of Western Civilization is inured to a noise, chances are it's no longer necessary. Can we please agree that these noxious kazoos don't actually alarm anyone? Let's admit they don't work anymore and stop incentivizing futility. All they do is awaken sleeping babies and shatter our increasingly rare moments of silence. GPS technology and keyless entry have already disrupted entire industries. Can someone do the same to car thieves? Bonus points to the first insurance company that turns this easily made contribution to society into a cause marketing campaign.

#DigitizePassports - International travel now demands a tablet and a smartphone. So why must we still carry around chapbooks better suited to nineteenth-century poets? Yes, the passport is a charming memento to the physicality of travel. So was the horseshoe. TSA Pre✓ and Global Entry are a step in the right direction, and are already changing how we do things--but there's so much more that could be done.

#EndAnalogueVoting - Whether you chose Obama or Romney, chances are you had little chance to vote how your ballot was counted in 2012. I used a machine that pre-dated the Nixon Administration, and braved lines with longer waits than the actual campaign. New sites like TurboVote show how easy it could be to reinvent the system. We put a man on the moon more than 40 years ago--surely we can use our shiny new technology to put a man (or woman) in the White House.

#StopPotholes - It's easy to speculate without the slightest understanding of asphalt mechanics, but surely America can't claim to represent the twenty-first century and still have things like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. We already have fantastic apps like StreetBump, which uses crowdsourcing to help identify roads in need of repair. Why not think of our asphalt as media channels and empower Big Pharma to fix our highways? Depression statistics would immediately shrink. From there, we can focus on eradicating traffic.

#FAALetMeLeaveItOn - Anyone who's ever set foot on an airplane dreads that inevitable moment when an aggressive steward, following FAA regulations, forces you to turn off your device, even if you're Alec Baldwin. This proscription, according to New York Times writer Nick Bilton, is based on unsubstantiated fears that tablets or smartphones can interfere with the plane's avionics, despite zero data confirming this hypothesis, which was last officially tested in 2006. With one in four Americans now carrying tablets, and thousands of daily flights, you can only speculate on the cash value of all that lost productivity. We'd of course follow the rules if the FAA had any actual evidence that our toys threatened safety. But until then this annoying shutdown is yet another reason why air travel remains the heavyweight champion of inefficiency.

Please, someone reading this, fly us into the future.

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