We Easily Miss the Big Stuff

Popular imagination typically lags way behind innovation, and sometimes unwanted change.

We live our lives as a continuing series of adjustments to what we know or what we believe. There’s sometimes nothing wrong with this. After all, even when the evidence is clear, it takes a lot of cognitive work to abandon long-standing patterns of thinking. Think of us as moving around a lot of heavy mental furniture.  It took a long time to acquire it, and we’ve carefully arranged it in our minds. We want everything in its place so we can move through it with ease. An active imagination is no help: the goal is to not have to trip over unfamiliar facts or attitudes.

Eventually, a degree of hindsight or perhaps events on the ground force us to acknowledge emerging realities that we could have seen coming years earlier.  For example, I can’t remember ever reading much about GPS systems, which moved from military to civilian applications between the mid-1980s and 2000. I probably didn’t look, and didn’t know that I would care. It seemed like, all of a sudden, a lost hiker or motorist could find their exact position on a map of their area, thanks to the precision that is possible with receivers that can triangulate to signals beamed from from satellites. Car navigation systems have become common, with most now counting on this useful advance. This was the case of a rapid and consequential change coming to most of us from our blind side. I, for one, will never be lost again on nearby Whiskey Lane or Stompf Tavern Road, though I suspect some earlier settlers had their own reasons for wandering in circles.

For most Americans, the same pattern of unexpected and rapid adaptation to an innovation was true with the miniaturization made possible by transistors, or the use of multi-track recording on tape in the 1940s, or ATM machines that suddenly appeared on the outsides at banks. Sound on sound was a novelty when Les Paul applied to music, and “banks that would never be closed” was an advance that seemed like an instant and new convenience.

I’m old enough to remember smirks of disbelief  from others if a conversation turned to the prospect of electric toothbrushes, phones that people would actually want to answer, electronic books, cryptocurrencies, or airlines that sold seat space measured in centimeters.

More recently, many of us have been surprised that reliable vaccines for COVID-19 were developed so rapidly. Who knew that the nRNA idea behind some of them has been around for a while and usefully adapted for this supreme test?  It’s a reminder that other medical marvels are just out of view.

All of this makes me wonder how many tech-savvy people at the time knew that Xerox/PARC was designing the way most computer displays would evolve. Reportedly, Apple’s Steve Jobs’ could see the future in Xerox’s true “visual interface,” which he “borrowed” to make his own devices do more than offer a grey screen with green text. And on a less urgent note, probably no one could have imagined that an obscure British composer, Gustav Holst, would anticipate modern film music so completely. His 1916 tone-poem, “The Planets,” is now a kind of template for music used in modern action-adventure films.

My point is that the popular imagination lags way behind innovation or sudden new realities. Sometimes we are just slow to join the party.  At other times the price we pay may be great. We still have Americans who didn’t notice an attempted coup at the nation’s Capitol on January 6. And the rest of us couldn’t have imagined that such a foul political act might be attempted in the United States:  a dramatic case of incrementalist thinking leaving us clueless about what was about to happen.