How To Predict the next big thing?
On 14 February 1876, Alexander Graham Bell’s attorney files a patent early in the morning titled “Improvement in Telegraphy.”
Two hours later, Elisha Gray’s attorney files a patent titled “Transmitting Vocal Sounds Telegraphically.”
That two hours delay costs Gray everything. And today, Alexander Graham Bell is credited for inventing the first practical telephone.
Isn’t it curious that multiple inventors were working on the same idea simultaneously?
History shows that this has happened to almost all inventions from airplanes to computer operating systems. For years, nothing moves, and then all of a sudden multiple people start working on the same idea simultaneously.
And this is not limited to scientific discoveries alone. In 2006, when activist Tarana Burke started a movement against sexual violence not many people were aware of it. But in 2017, the #metoo hashtag went viral and woke up the world to the magnitude of the sexual violence problem. Within six months, Tarana Burke’s message reached a global community of survivors. Suddenly there were millions of people from all walks of life saying “me too”.
In early 2011, the world saw huge scale uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria simultaneously. It's as if an invisible current connects different people in the world to get the same notion together.
How can these phenomena be explained?
In his wonderful science fiction book “Foundation”, author Isaac Asimov coins the term psychohistory. Asimov posits that one can’t predict the motion of a single gas molecule. But it's easy to predict the mass movement of gas with a high degree of certainty.
On the same note, while it's difficult to predict what one person can do, it's easier to predict how society as a whole will move.
We would have had a breakthrough in general relativity even if Einstein were not there. And almost at the same time. Because the ingredients that led to Einstein's breakthrough were brimming in the society’s consciousness.
Is it possible to predict society’s movements?
How can you predict what will be the next big thing?
Asimov defines psychohistory as the study of history, social science, and statistics to predict the movement of large groups of people.
And that gives us a good foundation. Because history and social sciences teach us about human nature. And statistics help us see patterns.
But that's not enough. Because the big thing of tomorrow is usually neglected today. It’ll usually just show up as noise in any statistical analysis.
Case in point: tattoos.
Tattoos were not that common just half a century ago. Less than 10% of people got tattoos. In fact, tattooed people were considered outcasts and rebels of society and were even seen as criminals.
But today, 47% of millennials in western countries have tattoos!
The same was true with telephones. Western Union, the leading telegram company of that time, didn’t buy the patent for telephones because telephones could carry voices only for 2-3 km at that time. And they didn’t see how that could be useful to their clients.
But all of a sudden, the rejected telephone made the telegram obsolete.
Tomorrow's big breakthroughs are rejected by today’s experts. They lie at the fringe of society.
To predict the next big thing you have to study the fringes.
The next big thing starts out by looking like a toy - Chris Dixon
Smart people sieve through things that look like toys today and spend all their free time on them. They are passionate about them.
When you find a core set of people passionately talking about something even when the society neglects and rejects them, that's a good bet of it becoming the next big thing.
What are some of the things the smart people are passionate about these days?
I am on vacation from 23 May to 6 July. So if I miss an issue of this newsletter or don’t respond to your comments on time, that is why.
Please keep your comments coming. They encourage me and tell me what resonates with you.
When I get back, I will be running a sprint Write Your Book In 30 Days from 18 July. If you are interested register your name here.
That’s all from me this week.
If you liked this newsletter, please subscribe to it.
A Whimsical Writer is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.