October 16, 2004

The Past Is Also Here. And It's Also Not Evenly Distributed Yet.

"The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet."

For two and a half years this quote has been attributed to famed sci-fi writer William Gibson. I've never seen an explicit citation to an actual printed page where Gibson wrote those words. I suspect they may have been uttered in an interview, speech, or possibly in the fantastic and worth-seeing No Maps for These Territories documentary DVD about Gibson and the future. (I seem to recall that's where he said it. Anyone know?)

But did Gibson really originate the quote? Is this notion of a not-yet-widely distributed future his? I never had reason to wonder that until last night.

1. What Triggered the Meme:
First, let's look at the history.

That ol' meme-spreader Tim O'Reilly gave the quote a huge boost by writing about it on 9 April 2004 in his blog, and then later that year including it in PowerPoint presentations, such as the 2002 Emerging Technology Conference.

If you look at the USENET record, the first references to the quote appear on 12 April 2002, three days after O'Reilly blogged it.

There are print references to the quote, with attribution to William Gibson, that appear in 2001 and 2002, including one book, Reinventing Strategy, published also on 12 April 2002.

Philip Kotler's 2003 book Marketing Insights from A to Z mentions the quote without any attribution: "The truth is that the future is already here; it has already happened. The task is to find and study whatthe small percentage of future-defining customers want. The future is already here but is evenly distributed in different companies, industries, and countries." (This same author goes on in the very next paragraph to attribute Alan Kay's famous quote "The best way to predict the future is to invent it" to someone named Dennis Gabor.)

By the way, there are two evenly-distributed variations of the quote, if one checks Google:

"The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." 638 citations
"The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet."599 citations

It's a great quote. I've found myself using it frequently in conversation, in particular when I'm talking about my new startup company to investors. (One of the things I hope my company does is more evenly distribute the future!)

2. The Prior Art?
So what makes me think someone else came up with the original idea of the future being here but not evenly distributed yet? Well, here's the story.

I was doing some research late last night when I came across a quote in a business text called Free, Perfect, and Now: Connecting to the Three Insatiable Customer Demands: A CEO's True Story by Robert Rodin with Curtis Hartman, first published in hardcover in February 1999. The book recounts the lessons learned by Rodin as CEO of Marshall Industries, and how he transformed his company into a electronics distribution powerhouse.

Amazon's page for this book offers customers the ability to browse its pages (the "Search Inside the Book" feature is activated). Well, I had reason to go browsing through the book, as I expect to be speaking with Mr. Rodin soon on a business matter, so I started browsing, and I came across this quote:

The problem is that, in reality, the future can be hard to recognize. It's not evenly distributed; it's hidden in corners. While there is no shortage of clues, they are buried beneath a crush of information. Radical adaptation to shifting customer demand is the first law of business survival today, but how can you learn what you need to know in order to anticipate those shifts?

That's from Chapter 2 (called "You Don't Know What You Don't Know"), pages 21-22. So, did William Gibson ever read this book? Did he come up with the same notion independently? Did Rodin and Hartman hear it from someone else (including Gibson)?

Sure would love to know.

UPDATE -- 1140am.

So maybe Gibson did originate this quote after all?

After spending some more time searching the full text of books using Amazon's "Search Inside the Book", I found this book ("Enterprise.com: Market Leadership in the Information Age" which mentions the quote exactly and attributes it to Gibson. Enterprise.com was originally published in hardcover in November 1998. Alas, it too fails to mention exactly where Gibson said or wrote this.

Someone please ask William Gibson. I'd do it but I don't know how to reach him. His contact information is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet.

UPDATE II: 15:53
Spoke to Rob Rodin today. He tells me he recalls writing that book in 1997. He says these days he uses Gibson's quote, with attribution, in his lectures and presentations. Stay tuned for more details on the true origins of the quote.

UPDATE III: 17 Oct 2004
More citations are starting to appear. If you search for a slight alteration: "The future's already arrived. It's just not evenly distributed yet", you'll find references to that in USENET that go back to early 1996.

There are even more variants of the quote. Here's another one: ""The Future is already here. (It is just not uniformly distributed.)." This is what one sees on a blog called Whuffie.

And this is closer to what TIME magazine cited, when it quoted Gibson in a Bill Buxton essay on October 3rd, 2004: "Or, to steal a line from the science-fiction writer William Gibson, 'The future is already here. It is just not uniformly distributed.'"

Then there's another variant from early 1996: ""The future has already arrived; it's just not evenly distributed yet.", cited in an old USENET posting.

UPDATE IV: 17 Oct 2004
Ok, it looks like this subject was covered fairly well in a USENET thread from Feb 2004, wherein one of the participants mentioned that the original quote comes from a 31 August 1993 interview with Terry Gross in NPR's Fresh Air. Alas, the Fresh Air website doesn't have a link to a digital archive of that program, but I'm going to consider this "case closed".

The fact that the original citation seems to have been a radio program explains a lot about why there are so many variations in the quote and no direct textual citations -- there never was one! It was radio!

UPDATE V --- 31 Oct 2004:
Tim O'Reilly checked with Cory Doctorow who checked with Lorna Toolis who checked with Barry Wellman who checked with Ren Reynolds and Ellen Pozzi who point out that there's an NPR Talk of the Nation broadcast from 1999 where Gibson says, "As I've said many times, the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed."

The actual citation:
NPR Talk of the Nation
30 November 1999
Timecode: 11min 55sec
Link: discover.npr.org/features/feature.jhtml?wfId=1067220
Also: www.npr.org/rundowns/rundown.php?prgld=5&prgDate=30-Nov-1999

Posted by brian at October 16, 2004 11:07 AM


Here's a 1997 reference on usenet, without attribution, in some guy's sig.

Posted by: Joe Crawford at October 17, 2004 09:58 AM


Posted by: Joe Crawford at October 17, 2004 09:59 AM

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