Expect the unexpected

By Jay Jamison

There’s a wide spot in the road in the 1,000th block of West State Street in Jacksonville. That spot marks the end of the line where the trolley tracks from downtown looped. The trolley tracks are long gone, as are the many blacksmith shops that dotted west central Illinois. We used to have a phone attached to a wall in our kitchen, and you could talk on the phone so long as you held the receiver (what’s a receiver?) to your ear and kept within the length of wire attached to the telephone attached to the wall. My grandmother, who was born in 1883, used to yell into the phone receiver because she was told the call was “long distance” (what’s long distance?). For her, a telephone was a modern thingamajig, probably inspired by the devil. Who would have predicted the loss of these things and then their replacements, the modern marvels we now possess? In fact, the trolley was probably considered a modern marvel when it was first laid out.

In the 1960s there was fanciful talk about landing a man on the moon. In July, we’re going to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that first moon landing. To my nieces and nephews, that event is as distant to them as the Wright brothers are to me. Predicting the end of familiar things is a lot easier than predicting what might come along to render them obsolete.

When I first saw Star Trek on TV as a kid in the 1960s, Captain Kirk would call the orbiting Starship Enterprise from the surface of a planet with a wireless “communicator.” Back then that device was considered a pure mind-blowing fantasy. Now, I carry something like the communicator – a flip phone, in my pocket. A new invention, the smartphone, came along and now my flip phone, my communicator, is outdated.

New, unexpected inventions and novel approaches to problems are often the things and events that render the familiar devices and methods obsolete … and those novel ideas are often destabilizing. In the 1870s, John D. Rockefeller made a fortune refining petroleum into kerosene for lamps. Then, out of nowhere, Edison invented the incandescent electric light bulb. Edison’s unexpected invention placed many established industries in peril. The ability to adapt to unexpected changes is a characteristic of many successful people. At about the same time as the kerosene business was threatened, the horseless carriage started to become the national craze and refiners like Rockefeller made some adjustments and continued to make money by refining oil into gasoline for cars. Elon Musk and others are currently developing electric cars, which may threaten the future of the oil industry in much the same way that Henry Ford’s mass-produced cars threatened livery stables and blacksmith shops.

One of the greatest characteristics of our species is our imagination in devising new and sometimes outrageous solutions to whatever confronts us. Imagine, for example, the reaction of members of that forgotten ancient community, as they watched man’s first attempt to ride a horse. Such innovative thinking was as much a game changer in human history as all the other hair-brained ideas that followed. There are those among us who view the disruption of change as a catastrophe and others who see such changes as opportunities. Optimism is about the opportunities that lay ahead, and pessimism is largely about the irretrievable loss of the past.

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