Book Review: The Signals are Talking by Amy Webb

I’ve set myself the goal of reading a book a week, and writing a brief review of it – to evaluate and cement my thoughts on it, not because I want to become a book critic. This week I read “The Signals are Talking“, by Amy Webb. The author is a quantative futurist, which I guess is someone who takes a structured approach to envisioning what the future is going to look like, and this book is a walk through her process for finding and validating trends.

My main takeaway from the book is the concept of differentiating trend from trendy – separate the progress and trajectory of technology from the shiny data-point that is currently in vogue. The author uses flying cars as an example: popular culture, science-fiction and friends, has had an obsession with flying cars (chitty-chitty bang-bang anyone?), and seemingly every generation has had a stab at making one, from Henry Ford’s “Sky Flivver”, to the Kitty Hawk Flyer, and yet we still don’t have a flying car on the mass market. Instead, what we have had is moving sidewalks, public mass transport, and soon, autonomous vehicles. The author shows us how these are all related, and argues that the real trend is autonomous transport, because, once I can get into a vehicle and keep working, it doesn’t really matter if the journey to my next meeting by road takes a little longer than by air. The point is that news, media, popular culture, tend to focus on individual data-points, whereas, if we want to predict the future, we must look a the whole data-set.

The other realisation, for me, is that I need to spend more time paying attention to what the author call’s the fringe – the people tinkering in their garden sheds, doing crazy things that aren’t yet considered shiny objects. Perhaps if DEC had paid a bit more attention to what people were starting to do with their computers, they would have been at the forefront of the PC explosion, not left in its dust. The same can be said for Blackberry, and internet on phones. The point is to keep your ear to the ground, and your mind open.

I found the book a bit harder to take in than last week’s book. I suspect this is because the narrative gradually builds the analytical process that the author herself uses, rather than being a big review of facts. The book has a tonne of great examples from technology history and is a worthwhile read – the true value will be in actually putting it into practice.

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