What Can We Learn about Innovation from this Xerox Video From the 90’s?

Do you want to travel through time? Well, click this link to be whisked away to enchanted Palo Alto of the 1990’s where you’ll see things that you didn’t know that you remembered…. Yes, we’re talking about a Xerox video from the 90’s! Also, who is Mark Reiser?

It is particularly revealing to regard our history through the lens of what we thought the future would look like and perhaps reviewing our former predictions can provide some guide posts for innovation best practices in the future.

First Takeaway: obsolete technology almost always generate a warm, fuzzy nostalgia, but is also a humbling reminder that all solutions can be replaced. It is a satisfyingly prescient moment to watch Mark Reiser cross out the “fax machine” from the list of technologies they’re discussing and it elicits a chuckle to think of pager notifications on your “active badge.”

Let’s look at this. They talk about the novel ability to route calls to the nearest phone via the active badge. Yet, they don’t mention the cell phone at all.

That’s interesting as there were plenty in circulation in 1992. They would be fully normalized by the late 1990’s. It shows a blind spot for how they’re thinking about the future.

When it comes to progress, we are never satisfied.

The live video conference showcased in this Xerox meeting was undoubtedly adding a whole new level of value and collaboration to the workplace at the time, but I can’t imagine a single business meeting today that would tolerate that image latency.

We can hardly get past shoddy audio at IdeaScale let alone image and screen sharing delays like that… So, it’s hard to think of how our expectations will continue to shift. Imagine what it will be like in our 5G future when connections are so fast that our brain will experience load times as instantaneous? And then eventually move even faster than that…

We are constantly looking to be social in our vision of the future.

The Xerox Innovation team didn’t predict social media networks like Facebook, per se, but their leaders talked about the power of technology to build connections and share information. Consider:

“The machines that we’re going to see on our desktops in the future are devices that will be defined (above all) by what they’re connected to, what information world do they expose us to?”

Also, what do they allow us to access, and who do they put us in touch with? Even with the paradox of skyrocketing loneliness in a busy networking world, it seems a uniquely human yearning and problem we constantly try to solve through tech.

Our vision moves faster than our ability to implement.

Mark Reiser talks about “ubiquitous computing” and an age where you use “scrap computers” like “scrap paper.” And in many ways, that future is fully arrived… You can change the messages on billboards depending on what you’re shopping for, interact with menus, and pull most data that you’d want to use down from the cloud onto any device, but it took perhaps longer to get there than Reiser might have imagined with Xerox.

This is why we need to build long budgets and test horizons for new concepts. Even if you see them coming, you have to be willing to wait out the technology updates and network adoption that underlie the impact of great ideas.

The Xerox video and being overly casual about our tech ethics.

Reiser admits that with all of this personal information in these new systems “there’s the potential for the disadvantages.. The solution we have to that now is basically social. It’s not acceptable to tap into the computer systems. If you do it, you’re cracking them and it’s a bad thing.”

Now, there are thousands of data breaches in our wake. The expectation that social enforcement could influence good behavior on the web is surely outmoded and rejected. What does seem oddly similar to today’s attitudes is our nonchalance about some ethical and policy-influencing impacts of decisions. How does creating sticky apps create addiction in end users?

Will AI determine our future instead of the reverse? The role of the tech ethicist is beginning to emerge, but innovators need to develop new solutions with the assumption that bad actors will someday enter the field of play and when that time comes, we will need to be able to respond to them. Mark Reiser and this Xerox video certainly has us thinking!

About Today’s Writer on the Xerox Video

Jessica Day is Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer at IdeaScale, the largest idea management platform in the world with more than 35,000 communities and 4.5 million users. IdeaScale empowers organizations to crowdsource ideas from their employees or customers. They then collaborate, evaluate, and further develop those ideas into products, processes, and new initiatives.

IdeaScale’s client roster includes industry leaders, such as Citrix, Marriott Vacations Worldwide, NASA, the NYPD, and Princess Cruises. As part of her role, Jessica Day analyzes and articulates patterns appearing in crowdsourced innovation. Day volunteers for sustainability organizations and lives in Berkeley, CA. She holds an MFA in English, Creative Writing.

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