With remarkable prescience Arthur C Clarke gave his character Dr. Heywood R. Floyd a Newspad in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It collected a constantly refreshing stream of all the world’s news. But he also noticed (with even more impressive prescience) that one could live entirely immersed in that stream of information and never exhaust it – or have time for anything else. 

A study I saw a few years back said the combined broadcast news output in the UK created four hours of rolling news for every hour of real time elapsed. Who is watching? I guess only the advertisers know.

Last night I watched a documentary on the comic and gameshow host Bob Monkhouse. Undoubtedly a funny man, but publicly too ‘slick’ and as a ‘stand-up’ a little cruel I felt. There was more to him than that though. He struck me as a rather brilliant polymath trapped in a sharp suit and perma-tan. He was a talented illustrator, wit and observational comic as well as a consummate professional. He didn’t strike me as very happy. 

It transpires Monkhouse was also an avid, perhaps manic, collector. He collected films. I’m sure 2001 was one. He collected so many that he was dragged through the courts for sharing them with the odd celebrity friend, causing allegations of fraud and copyright abuse. At one time he had the world’s 3rd largest collection of films in private hands. In the end the courts didn’t take his precious films from him, but substantially drove his collecting underground. Come the advent of the VCR his obsessive collecting found a new outlet in simultaneously taping multiple channels worth of TV. His collection is now a unique archive – a veritable Noah’s ark – of British TV from the 1970s and 80s before the advent of ubiquitous digital recording.

Back to Clarke. I myself live in a constant stream of news collected by RSS and delivered to my 3 connected devices – my own ‘Newspads’. On holiday in France this year, the lack of mobile coverage meant I was pulled unwillingly from the flow of news and forced to adapt to the stiller waters of the swimming pool and the lapping waves of the Mediterranean. I suffered withdrawal for several days before escaping my addiction.

Three thoughts strike me from this. First the prescience or ‘pre-the-science’ of Arthur C Clarke is remarkable. Second, that the hundreds of hours of Bob Monkhouse performing as a mid-market game show host, might, just be transcended by the thousands he collected, to become his more remembered legacy to human-kind. But that he enjoyed but a small fraction of the hours of either during his life. 

And finally, that I should take care to avoid the danger of the Newspad which Clarke predicted in the year of my birth: “Even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever changing flow of information from the news satellites.” Surfing means just that, riding the crest of the information wave, not swimming or drowning in it.

Adjacent Possible

I read recently that all successful innovation expands into the ‘adjacent possible’. Whether it’s spines becoming feathers, swords becoming ploughshares or mobiles becoming smartphones, successful innovation depends on adapting technology to expand into an adjacent – and sometimes very different niche.

It’s also a useful metaphor for work and life. It’s a dangerous business trying to change everything all at once or trying to leap from one paradigm to a completely different one. I worked for two organisations which set out to change their whole market in the 1990s. In one we got it right, by applying an ‘adjacent’ idea from the restaurant business to mobile phones. The other had exactly the right strategy – cloud computing – just ten years too early. That organisation largely destroyed itself trying to create a new ‘non-adjacent’ future before people or the technology were ready.

Charles Babbage’s Victorian computer was way before it’s time. But despite its potential people stayed wedded to the steam age. A friend told me in ancient Alexandria an inventor allegedly created a tiny table top steam engine, but considered it a mere curiosity – who needs steam power when you have slave labour.

So what of the iPad? Steve Jobs famously failed with the Apple Newton: too big, too slow, too expensive, no market. I bought an iPad in September more out of a sense of duty than belief. I wasn’t sure I needed one, but discovered I more or less do. For me the most amazing ‘adjacent possible’ that lies latent in the iPad is the ability to span all ages. My pre-school son can use it happily and so can his grandmother. We bought my parents an iPad for Christmas and she is now sending email.

Seizing the ‘adjacent possible’ doesn’t necessarily mean incrementalism – there are huge advances to be made by looking at the opportunity next door or putting familiar ideas and capabilities in new configurations. I learnt some years after applying ‘set menus’ to mobile phones that there is a well established marketing creativity trick called ‘related worlds’; namely, looking for new product ideas and inspiration in other sectors. As I emailed back to my mum this morning, she has leapt from the computing stone age to the 21st century in one graceful bound. She’s surfing the web and connected for the first time in her life – thanks to the re-imagined and simplified interface of iPad.

‘Think different’ was Apple’s strapline in the 1990s. It’s good advice. Neither a big phone nor a small computer, iPad is less than either. But it is more than both combined in getting my mum online. Hats off to Steve Jobs – he’s not ‘man of the year’ for nothing.

As soon as iPad became adjacent Steve Jobs made it possible and created new adjacent possibilities for millions of people. I’m writing on one now.