Sunday, September 06, 2009

The trials of being a futurist

There are technologies that are being developed, discussed, imagined, or sold right now, which are not in widespread use yet, or are just starting to come into widespread use; but which will, within the next ten years, become prevalent and ubiquitous, affect your life and the lives of most people you know, and change the world, possibly in unexpected ways.

That statement has been true my entire life. The thing is, it's hard to tell which technologies are the right ones. Name any technology in its infancy and almost everyone who's heard of it, or tried it, will recite a litany of reasons why it will never catch on, why they'll never use it, or why it will never replace something else. (That last one is a red herring: nothing ever totally replaces its predecessor, no matter how huge its impact on the world is. If its predecessor goes away, it'll be long, long after its successor came along. But usually it always survives in some marginalized form.)

And yet it remains true that many of those things are going to end up in those people's hands, and changing their lives. The fact is, most people have no idea which ones are going to get big, and most people barely even try. They look at a new technology, particularly in its primitive prototype form when its weaknesses are stark, and they miss the potential. Or they misjudge how well the problems can be addressed. Or most commonly they find the weaknesses to be glaring but don't imagine the ways that the strengths will play out.

Twenty years ago you could find any number of people explaining in painful detail why answering machines would never catch on, or why email would never succeed. Ten years ago, MP3s and cell phones would always be a fringe market. If you dig far enough, you can find the same reactions to things going back as far as television and probably earlier.

And of course for every technology I can cite that was talked down but did end up changing the world, there's a dozen more that didn't. Those, too, were talked down by people, and in some cases the reasons they gave might be part of why the technology never took off. But most often, the reasons people give are irrelevant. If the technology fails it'll either be because it offers something no one really needs, or more insidiously, for business reasons, usually because the process of transitioning from the current economy and society to the one that includes the new technology becomes a chicken-and-egg problem.

Ever since I was young I was avidly fascinated by the question of which technologies were going to succeed, and trying to predict accurately what would change the world. I even studied that subject for a semester in college. I've had a really good track record, too. Back in 1980, when the vast majority of people had never even heard of email, I not only accurately predicted its ascendance, I also predicted spam (long before it was called that) and the ways that spam would be blocked, in a paper I wrote for one of my junior high school classes.

Over the years I've pegged lots of technologies that I thought would become ubiquitous, and every one of them has done so: I've never, to my recollection, identified anything that I thought was going to touch everyone's lives and been wrong. (Unless you count ones I've made that haven't yet come true. For instance, about ten years ago I made a bet with someone that by 2020 ebooks would be common. I am no longer in contact with him, but while ebooks are still not so widespread that my prediction is an absolute certainty yet, and plenty of people are still ready to talk them down in the usual ways, they're already common enough for me to win the bet according to the rules we agreed on at the time.)

To be sure, there've also been technologies whose impact I didn't foresee, but that's not so bad. It's more important that every prediction I make is right, than that I make every right prediction.

I certainly am not just bragging here, nor claiming that there aren't countless other people who could make the same claims. My point, rather, is that it's frustrating to make these predictions and have people universally dismiss them based on the same old litany of reasons. It's easy to always talk about why this or that will never catch on, and then brush aside the times you're wrong. It's also easy to embrace neophilia and proclaim how every new thing will change the world. Accurately separating the two takes some serious thought about the advantages and disadvantages of each technology, both as they are and as they might become, as well as a consideration of market forces and the transition process. It's a tricky art with a lot of subtle things at play in it, and people have no appreciation of how hard it is to get right, while they're armchair-quarterbacking their way through it.

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