Thursday, June 19, 2008


It's always easy to take the next step and always impossible to take two steps at a time. —Seymour R. Cray
The capacity to envision a future that is different from the present is often called “imagination.” Sometimes, just a little bit of imagination is required to solve a minor annoyance or inconvenience. For example, we can easily see that having to open certain doors for ourselves—like those in the grocery store—is a pain. “What if,” someone asked, “we could have a door that opens itself?” That is the beginning of a process that can lead ultimately to a useful invention being brought to a market that is willing to pay the price of the invention to solve the problem it addresses.

In other cases, we need to use more imagination. “What if,” for example, “we could use a machine to augment human intellect, to make a person better able to address a complex problem?” Such a question seems pretty straightforward today, though that has not always been the case. It was especially insightful when Doug Engelbart addressed the question in 1962. Pursuing an answer to that question led to a great many developments in what is now computing technology, including breakthroughs in human interfaces and the development of hypermedia. Much of the Web is essentially a reimplementation of what had been dreamed up, built, and demonstrated before 1970.

Each of us every day has probably a hundred or a thousand thoughts that could be articulated in the form of a question that begins “What if?” I propose that at the core of progress great and small is not whether an idea occurs in the first place, but in what happens to the idea. Do we let it vanish into the cosmic void or do we discipline ourselves to capture the thoughts and to turn them into questions that help us to envision a future more clearly?

Even if we have created a clear picture of the future, it does us little good without development. We need not just the idea, but to break it down into the steps necessary to bring that idea into reality. Sometimes, when our imaginations are highly active, we need to invent entire disciplines that will create enabling technologies. This, in essence, is the creative process. It is methodical. Imagination is vital—the rest simply is not possible without it—but imagination alone will not make anything useful actually come about.

So what do you do to develop the power of your imagination? How do you harness those ideas? How do you set about turning those ideas into tomorrow’s reality?



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