If you get your words right, they will draw you toward the future. If you get your words wrong, you will fight the future.
As a working futurist for some 40 years, it has become increasingly apparent to me that words can both empower and constrain the kind of futures we create. Full-spectrum thinking is the ability to seek clarity across gradients of possibility while resisting the temptation to use past words to describe future opportunities. The best words to describe a better future will be full-spectrum words.
The now-ancient term “horseless carriage” used words from the past to describe the emerging future of automobile transportation that would prove to be radically different from both horses and carriages. Horseless carriage thinking continues to constrain us however. We often use words from the past that lock us in that past, rather than open us to very different futures. We categorize with words and that’s OK as long as the words don’t hold us back.
A good lesson when describing the future is to choose language that describes what the new future is, not what it is not. The automobile is so much more than a carriage without a horse.
Early in my career in Silicon Valley, horseless carriage languaging was everywhere even as the radical potential of digital media was exploding in ways that old words could not capture. As telecommunications became useful for distributed work, for example, the term “Travel/Telecommunications Substitution” was coined. Would telecommunications replace travel?
A bit later, the language descriptors evolved into “Travel/Telcommunication Tradeoffs” and much later “Flexible Work” like we have experienced during the shelter in place orders following the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Early efforts to use computers in offices were referred to as “Office Automation,” a term which was hardly inviting to the humans being “automated.” I spoke at what was called The Office Automation Conference in 1982 at the opening of the Moscone Center in San Francisco. At least they had an acronym: OAC ’82. The early office automation systems, of course, lessoned the fear of human replacement as it became clear that the early computers had only crude capabilities that rarely automated humans.
Long ago, Apple Computer dropped the word “computer” from their name. Apple products became known as the “digital appliances” now associated with the Steve Jobs Era and beyond.
In 1988, I wrote a book called Groupware, which was slightly better than a horseless carriage term but hardly captured the imaginative potential of computing and telecommunications in support of group creativity. Academics studying groupware coined the awkward term “Computer Supported Cooperative Work,” or CSCW for short. Computer supported cooperative work was more descriptive but quite an unpleasant mouthful to say.
The “Internet” is an example of a very good word that continues to draw us toward the future. The “Worldwide Web” is even better.
In my career, the worst term to describe an emerging technology that I experienced was “Artificial Intelligence.” I’m told that in the early days of AI, the inventors debated whether to call it Artificial Intelligence or “Augmented Intelligence.” I think they made the wrong choice.
Here’s what you can do to help make good choices of words that draw us toward the future instead of fighting it:
1. Be mindful of your language and the language of others.
Certainly, there are cases where your organization and your fellow workers are judging new opportunities too soon or labeling too narrowly with language from the past. Expose the limits of categorical thinking in your organization. Seek out narrow horseless carriage thinking and correct it wherever you can—at least point out the limitations.
2. Encourage and reward terms that reflect full-spectrum thinking.
Full-spectrum thinking will allow more people to be future-ready, more able to make sense out of new opportunities and threats. Full-spectrum thinking will allow us to make a better future through efforts like training and executive development programs for corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and the military. Choose your words carefully.
3. Think NOW, FUTURE, NEXT.
Looking back from the future makes it much easier to see full spectrum and choose the best language. The present is just too noisy—frighteningly noisy during a crisis. Most organizations and most leaders think NOW, NEXT, Future; they don’t spend much time at all in Future. Full-spectrum thinkers move from Now to FUTURE, and then back to Next. Many organizations with which I work use something like Now, Next, Future as a strategy framework. Others use similar models like Horizon 1, Horizon 2, Horizon 3. Try changing the order: Horizon 1, Horizon 3, then back to Horizon 2. This is a simple but profound re-ordering.
You should still spend most of your time on the business of now since that’s where you run your business, make money, and pursue your mission. Since it is actually easier to see where things are going if you think ten or more years ahead, it is much better to take this approach than to inch your way out from the present.
Horseless carriage words won’t go away and simple categories will work fine when they accurately match a new situation to an old one. But don’t label someone with a name they don’t choose to be called. In the near future, simplistic categories, labels, generalizations, and stereotypes will be exposed for what they are: sloppy and dangerous. Future-back thinking will help us all be better prepared for the next pandemic. Future-back thinking will help us choose good words that draw us toward the future rather than hold us back.
We need to grow in our understanding of the increasingly novel future and the COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to do just that. It is called the “Novel Coronavirus” because it is new and its impacts are still not fully known. We must choose words that accurately reflect the future that is emerging. What are inspiring words to describe the kind of future you want to create? Please use full-spectrum words and avoid horseless carriage language.
Bob Johansen is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future (IFTF), the world’s leading futures organization, where he served as president from 1996 to 2004. He has written ten previous books on leadership and change management, including the bestselling Leaders Make the Future and The Reciprocity Advantage, and led workshops at global corporations from Intel to P&G, as well as universities and nonprofits. Learn more about his decades of helping organizations prepare for the future and his latest book, Full-Spectrum Thinking, at www.iftf.org/fullspectrumthinkingbook.