Mr. Penumbra, His 24-Hour Bookstore, and the Future

It all started with Mr. Penumbra and his bookstore, his 24-hour bookstore that is, and the clerk Clay and his girlfriend Kat talking about the future (page 60). This happens in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, a fabulous short novel about a bookstore that is more than it appears, customers who never buy but check out endless books and, of course, a budding new romance. What could be more enticing than that?

Where will the future take us?
Where will the future take us? (Photo credit: Infrogmation)

Here’s part of the conversation from page 60, as we’re going to need to discuss that.

Kat: “Okay, we’re going to play. To start, imagine the future. The good future. No nuclear bombs. Pretend you’re a science fiction writer.”

Clay: Okay: “World government…no cancer…hover-boards.”
“Go further. What’s the good future after that?”
“Spaceships. Party on Mars.”
“Further.”
“Star Trek. Transporters. You can go anywhere.”
“Further.”

I pause a moment and then realize. “I can’t.”

Kat shakes her head. “It’s really hard. And that’s, what, a thousand years? What comes after that? What could possibly come after that? Imagination runs out. But it makes sense right? We probably just imagine things based on what we already know, and we run out of analogies in the thirty-first century.”

Ok, we got a little sidetracked on the sci-fi angle here. It was honestly the hover-boards that pulled me in as I would love to ride one. But let’s just imagine even 20 years into the future.

If we can imagine taking one leap, and thinking of that as something that already exists, then we can build from there. Suppose in the 1980s, we had imagined (and I suppose some people did) that everyone would be online all the time by the next century. What could we have imagined from there? Could we have realized mobile devices were going to be as prevalent as they are today?

The point is that once you go forward 10 or 15 years and realize that one assumption might come true, you can look for the next one. And then nothing seems unrealistic anymore. But if you try and skip from where we are now to something like 50 years later, it becomes more difficult. What would be easier to imagine first back in the 1950s? Having a dial-up Internet connection, or everyone having mobiles that they would carry with them that would have access to the Internet?

What does taking this leap have to do with reaching people? It actually tells us something critical. 

If we don’t do that, think about what could happen. Sadly, Borders did not plan for the Kindle or the Nook (although B&N seems to not be doing too well either). Blackberry did not plan for full-touch screens, and Blockbuster did not plan on how popular mail order DVD services would become.

In short, we always need to be ready to take that leap, no matter how small or crazy it seems at the time. We need to have a definite plan, and we need to be on top of what’s already being developed.

Here are some examples. Some might be a bit obvious (I’ll start with the more obvious ones and build on it, just as Kat and Clay did), but I’ve noticed that organizations are still stuck in that old style of thinking. So maybe we don’t all know this?

Your Presence Online

Where are you online?

  • Even if your organization doesn’t have a social media presence, it is extremely difficult to avoid being online because mostly likely someone is already talking about you. If they’re not, they’re talking about your competitors, and people are going to find them more easily than they will find you.

    Where will we be in the future? Everyone will be online, except for people who purposely choose to live off the grid.

Are you pushing out too much self-promotional material without starting a dialogue with your audience?

  • Or have you started a dialogue, but is it superficial? Are you not really following up with people who seem interested in being supporters?

    Where will we be in the future? 
    Communication online between organizations and supporters or consumers will be a conversation more than just formal promotional posts from organizations (such posts may even be considered spam). 
    We’re starting to see some of this now. The American Red Cross, Unicef, and the National Wildlife Federation are very good at engaging their Facebook audiences. They respond to comments directly from their supporters, which encourages more dialogue. The American Red Cross also raised a huge sum of money for Haiti relief efforts; this probably couldn’t have happened without its huge Twitter following (and it got that following by interacting with its audience over time).

Are you posting exactly the same content on Facebook and Twitter?

  • Even if your audiences on each social media outlet overlap some, people go on these channels for different reasons and respond differently. Content should be tailored specifically for each channel.

    Where will we be in the future? There are expensive tools now (by that I mean tens of thousands of dollars a year) that let you, among other things, create and tailor content for each site and send it out. These tools will become ubiquitous and cheaper. Website platforms may become integrated with social platforms; after all, they are both about our online presence.

Do you have any “super fans?”

What about video?

What about a responsive website?

  • Isn’t everyone planning a mobile responsive site these days? If you have one, you might think, “of course!” But the reality is that many organizations are not. However, if you don’t yet have a responsive website, it’s time to get cracking. There’s a huge audience you might be missing if your website does not function well on mobile.

    Where will we be in the future? We are just starting to learn about Google Glass through the main stream media. (In fact it’s been tested for years). But remember when we thought it was strange to see people walking down the street using Bluetooth technology? They looked like they were talking to themselves; even these days I’m sometimes unsure. Would it then be surprising to soon see people using wearable computing devices, like Google Glass?

    How will this affect our ability to get our messages out? First of all, the site that looks the best on Glass via a Glass browser is mobile. I imagine this might change, but how much since I’d expect you’d usually want a small screen when wearing Glass? (either that or you’d want the ability to resize it yourself). What about the ability to wear glasses, think things with our mind, and make them happen? Or can we make something happen by moving an eye? I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised by this idea since Google already personalizes a ton of what we do — from search to ads.

    It’s integrated into our accounts when we sign in, and I’m sure most of the time we don’t pay it too much attention. (This currently has the nice name of anticipatory computing). But I’m assuming at some point we’ll be able to just think where we want our browser to take us, and we’ll go there (without giving it much thought).

Regardless of the tools or technology that is developed, what will remain central to communicating with our audiences will be what has always remained central: developing connections and being authentic. Websites that are great will be because of the content they offer and how it is displayed.

Still, we need to be aware of what is being developed in our future. How will you adapt; is your organization ready for this? What would change? Can you, unlike Clay above, go even further than this? (It’s not easy, is it?)

What did I miss? If you’re out there reading, let me know I’m reaching you in the comments below.

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