Technological shifts and the paralysis of parallel futures

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There is an old running saying, attributed to writer John Bingham, that goes: "The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start." Unfortunately, for a lot of organizations wanting to take their messages from print to rich, interactive media and mobile devices, the courage to start is replaced by crippling paralysis.

I've seen it over and over in organizations I've tried to help make the leap from cellulose to silicon. It's not a failure to launch, that would be too dynamic an expression. It is stupefying anxiety and confusion that makes even a single, stilted step forward impossible. 

This affliction haunts even organizations that claim to clearly understand the mobile future before them and which realize that the days of print and PDFs as the only means of communication are numbered -- on the fingers of one hand.

They are not, to fall back to fitness language again, pre-contemplative. They know they have to change, have invested dollars to make that change, and yet, they can't even shuffle off square one.

Why? What makes some organizations nimble, agile and open to cultural, technological and paradigm shifts, and others systemically incapable of the first step towards an admitted future?

In my experience, it is often because the leadership of the paralyzed companies are capable of imagining two alternative futures simultaneously.

Let me explain what I mean, since most of us do this in a broader sense. It is hard not to contemplate big global issues like climate change, fossil fuel depletion, population growth, overdue pandemics or battles over water rights and not feel that the future will be a bleak, hardscrabble existence a good percentage of the world's population won't survive. But, especially for those of us with children, that future is impossible to truly grasp and honestly believe. So, concurrent with that, we imagine a parallel future in which technology, medicine, ecological planning, diplomacy and human ingenuity save the day. We can't completely shake the nightmare scenario, but at the same time we don't let it push us into a pit of despond because that way madness and stagnation lies. Plus, the cognitive dissonance would shake our heads apart like a junker on 10 miles of bad highway. So, we hold two parallel futures but chose one as the greater of equals.

So too do the leaders of paralyzed companies. They travel on the same commuter trains and eat in the same restaurants as we do. They see dozens of people reading and watching videos on tablets and smartphones. They see texting all around them, photos and videos being shot and shared constantly. And, they know what that means, that they are living in a mobile world. But, then.

But then they go to a party and say: "but I just like the feel of a book and the pleasure of reading a print newspaper on a Sunday morning." If they say that enough, at enough cocktail parties where listeners nod in agreement and laugh ruefully at people "staring down at their screens all the time," they will lull themselves into a stupor of mixed drinks and nostalgia, like the denizens of a Weimar Republic-era cabaret. They will construct two parallel futures and hold onto the one that gives them the most comfort.

And they will be paralyzed frozen in place: not by an inability to act, but an inability to choose between a future that is an extension of the present, and a rattling, shredding future that burns the present like a bonfire of books. They want Shrodinger's choice: to both act and not act.

But, unfortunately, even at that, when the box is open, the cat often winds up dead, frozen by inaction forever.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Eric Hackathorn/flickr

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