I had a friend who assured me sometime around 2000 that the internet wasn’t going anywhere. He was a smart guy, and even worked in the tech world. Still, he couldn’t foresee any way the internet could grow large and fast enough to accommodate demand, especially because there was no reliable revenue model. He predicted it would skyrocket in cost and be used only by big players with a lot of cash.
Today free internet at speeds then unimaginable with content beyond the wildest dreams of that time is ubiquitous. But he was not a fool. He just lacked imagination. It’s possible that the relatively high level of expertise he had with the technology actually made him less able to see beyond its current applications.
We can laugh at predictions like this, but how often do we have small imaginations about our own present and future? We tend to overvalue the status quo because we cannot think of any other way. The world is replete with examples if we open our eyes.
At the very time my friend was struggling to see a way companies could offer internet access for free broadcast television and radio were already doing it and had been for decades using advertising as a revenue source. His focus on what was immediately before him prevented him seeing what was all around him.
We suffer not only from inadequately appreciating the present and the possibilities of the future, but blindness to the past as a clue to what is possible. I listened to a recent discussion over whether a coercive government monopoly was needed to provide firefighting services. For nearly twenty minutes there was back and forth as the discussants struggled to think up a viable business plan absent tax funding. If left to decide roles for the state, this group may have concluded firefighting had to be one, as the free market just couldn’t do it. The problem with this conclusion (like that of economists who claimed the same for lighthouses) is that for the majority of history firefighting was privately provided.
In order to make the world a freer, better place we need a combination of three things: narrative, vision, and imagination.
Narrative is our story about the past. If we don’t have enough facts or we interpret them through an incorrect theoretical lens, our narrative about what was will be incorrect. If, for example, we persists in the false assumption that firefighting and lighthouses have never been privately provided, or the American West was a violent and disorderly place before governments took hold, we will be incapable of accurately seeing present and future possibilities.
Vision is how we see the present. Do we see harmony and assume that legislation is the only thing keeping mayhem at bay? Or do we see the beautiful and complex workings of spontaneous order? Our vision will determine how comfortable we are with freedom. Through state-colored lenses we will live in fear of the chaos around the corner and be reticent to allow our fellow man liberty to experiment, try, fail, succeed and progress. If our vision expands and we begin to see the way individuals cooperate and coordinate for mutual benefit absent central direction we will welcome and embrace freedom.
Imagination is what we believe about the future. It determines what we think possible. If we zoom in too close to the problem at hand we get stuck and fail to allow for the unknown. We don’t have to know what will be, or even what precisely is possible. We just have to be humble enough and learn from the patterns of past and present that all our assumptions are going to be blown to smithereens by human creativity. Don’t try to resist it. Expect it.
Only when we have the right narrative about the past, the vision to see the beauty of the present, and imagination enough to allow for the wonders of the future will we have the freedom to create it.