Welcome, valued PYMNTS readers, to the weekend.
No doubt you worked hard, and chances are you put in more than 40 hours — probably significantly more. So it may amuse you that according to certain future-minded members of the U.S. Senate in the 1960s, your workweek was supposed to be down to a mere 14 hours by now, thanks in part to productivity gains brought on by digital technology.
In the field of predications about retail, commerce and labor, that one stands as a major dud.
What follows is a review of such predictions, and how they match up to 2019 reality. Some of the forecasts below might be familiar (though we’ve tried to avoid the obvious predictions, the ones about flying cars and robot warehouses and others that already have wide circulation). Others will be new.
This is no exercise in superiority. We all make personal and professional predictions, and not all of them turn out to be winners.
That said, no matter how educated, insightful and humble predictions might be, they are often influenced by culture and even politics at the time. The view that Americans would before too long enjoy what now seems like an impossibly short work week, after all, was birthed from space-age optimism. That view was shaped by faith that a country that had built a global economic powerhouse from the ruins of World War II would keep progressing at a rapid clip –and eventually reach the edge of utopia.
Please also remember that at some point in the future, our descendants — on whatever devices they use to read – will certainly conduct similar exercises on us.
Demise of Cash
None of us are close to being pioneers with the thought that cash — still a major payments participant in the early 21st century — is on its way out. Someday, perhaps, a few centuries from now, this longstanding prediction will finally come true.
Back in 1968 — when the optimism of the early 1960s was giving way to more dystopian ways of thinking — an obscure science fiction writer named James R. Berry predicted that cash would have pretty much disappeared by now.
Credit cards and direct deposit of wages would have taken the place of paper money and coins — both were known concepts back then, which seems to be one of the main tricks of successful prediction, as opposed to wholesale mental invention of new technology and processes. Berry certainly was the not the first — nor the last — futurist to proclaim the looming demise of cash, but so far, no one’s been proven right.
During the 1960s — a time when electronic communications were making great strides, including in space, and when the concept of the internet was coming together, albeit out of mainstream sight — there were a flood of predictions about how human beings would talk to each other personally and professionally in the coming decades.
One of the incorrect forecasts involved pagers and their use in commerce, at least as supporting devices to more quickly match up consumers and service providers.
Sure, those personal devices had their moment in the 1980s — even becoming, thanks to hip-hop culture, a fashion accessory — and you can still find them in use in hospitals (though tablets and smartphones are making pagers less functional). But according to a mid-1960s corporate video from Bell Systems, a pager called the Bellboy was supposed to provide quick, efficient communication “for doctors, salesmen, delivery men or anyone who must be available at all times in the fast-paced world of century 21! When you hear the signal on your Bellboy, you can go to a phone to call your office or home and get the message.”
Granted, there was no expectation that consumers would conduct transactions from those specific pager devices. While eCommerce had certainly been imagined by the mid-1960s, so much of what was anticipated was shopping through rather large, immobile computing devices placed in one’s home – like, say, a TV set. Generally speaking, mobile commerce, according to space-age views, might come via what we would now call smart watches. So the use of a pager in such a way represented to some in the space-age era — people who might have had a hard time imagining retail without physical stores, given the rise of malls and modern chains — a way to employ a small, mobile communication device in the service of quicker, more efficient, on-demand commerce.
Of course, pagers have no meaningful future in this time of the smartphone — a device that enables not just commerce, of course, but also multiple forms of payments, something hard to imagine in a country that was just getting used to the concept of credit cards. But in a sense, those pagers represent at least a small step from here to there, as an important part of innovation is encouraging people to advance their thinking and look even deeper into the future.
As all PYMNTS readers most likely know, food delivery is among the hottest trends in payments and commerce, with multiple players battling for supremacy as consumers increasingly avoid cooking their own meals.
Late last year, for instance, Marc Lore, president and CEO of Walmart’s U.S. eCommerce business, laid out what he saw as the future of food delivery. He said that “delivery right into the fridge” could very well be the next thing in food delivery, as the retail giant continues to expand its services.
In a sense, Lore was late to the game.
More than 100 years ago — in 1900, to be exact — John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., a Smithsonian curator, writer, engineer and futurist, also expressed an optimistic view that technology would vastly improve the daily lives of his fellow citizens, beyond just military or industrial purposes. One of his ideas, made before the invention of “mechanically-cooled refrigerators in 1925,” according to one report, seems oddly on target these days.
“Fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea would deliver fruits and vegetables from around the world to provide produce out of season,” the report predicted. “He even called the development of fast food delivery, anticipating ready-cooked meals … served hot or cold to private houses.”
Looking for Work via Mobile Tech
Applying for a job was a much more face-to-face and personal experience during the immediate post-war years than it is now. And people didn’t move as much as they would in the coming decades. But the interstate highway system was making cross-country travel much easier, and getting across oceans was becoming less of a hassle thanks to the ongoing rise of airlines — plane tickets were still relatively pricey, but the journey was more efficient than was the case with ocean liners.
That’s part of the backdrop for another prediction of this era. This view of the future — which can be seen as, perhaps, accidental foreshadowing of digital hiring processes these days — held that job applicants would use “videophones” to apply and interview for positions that were distant from applicants’ hometowns. In fact, those jobs might be located in foreign countries.
One can argue that Skype, FaceTime and other modern digital communication technologies have indeed taken on such a role. Additionally, the rise of gig work — and global gig work, especially for so-called digital natives — is also making that relatively simple vision come true in a way. Online marketplaces help match workers with employers, bringing together talent with particular labor needs. Meanwhile, digital technology is handling the payment of wages, which are becoming faster and quicker. That’s not to give too much credit to this “videophone” prediction. But it can often require the contribution of some so-so ideas — ideas that might be mildly off-base, or just plain ill-conceived — to help fuel new thinking and workable innovation.
Value of Predictions
Predictions can make anyone feel like an expert, at least for a short time. Even predictions that are spectacularly wrong — how’s that’s 14-hour workweek going for you? — have value, as they force us to review our assumptions, along with the hubris that drives so many forecasts of all types.
As you finish this short trip into the history of retail, payments and mobile futurism, consider that most of what you think will happen probably will not (no offense, but even Einstein got one or two things wrong). Remember, though, that without predictions — and without the ability to take fact and elevate it into something else via the mechanics of imaginative anticipation — there is no progress, not really.