The Only Certain Prediction for the Next Decade: All Forecasts Will be Wrong

As we approach the end of a decade once again the media have begun the tiresome review of the past ten years. Try as you might you will not find a newspaper or TV schedule that doesn’t feature some sort of overview of the noughties. Some, perhaps unwisely, are also essaying some predictions for the coming decades – the “oneties” I call them for the lack of a better name (the word comes from my three year old son who said onety-one, onety-two instead of 11 and 12 when he was smaller).

Normally I would not add to the confusion, but this year I have decided to share with you the only prediction you will ever need. Cut this out and paste it to something everlasting like a pyramid where you can always find it: All Predictions Will Be Wrong.

Why is it that predictions about the future are always so wrong? I believe that there are three fundamental mechanisms:

1. Underestimating the dominance of momentum: the Trains & Planes Case. Browsing through old books and magazines you will often find predications that by the 1960s we would all be travelling on magnetic levitation monorails, if not beaming ourselves around. In reality we are riding in trains that are based on the same technology used by our grandparents, with minor improvements and tweaking. During a radio interview in Marseille I once heard a journalist ask a manager from France’s SNCF what the train of the future would look like. “Run round to the Gare St Charles and you can see one today”, was the reply. And this is true. To build a high speed rail network like France’s TGV took decades of investment and now nobody is going to throw it away to try a new technology. Trains are expensive, too, so each set of cars has to last decades, with an occasional pimping of interiors and upgrades to some electronic equipment. As an adult my little boy will ride from Paris to Marseille on exactly the same trains I do. More advanced technology may be available but who is going to throw away a national infrastructure that works?

2. Underestimating the impact of Disruptive Change: The Mobile Phone Case. Never in any science fiction book or movie have I ever seen any hint that someone might have imagined mobile phones as we know them today. In Star Trek the communication are simply WW2 style radios where people call on shared frequencies. Dick Tracy’s wristwatch radio is just a smaller version of the same thing. Nobody imagined being able to simply call point to point until it happened. Now it seems so obvious, but it was never on the radar of any forecaster.

3. Underestimating the impact of small changes. The Twitter Case. It is perhaps appropriate that we finish with the twitter effect. By now you have probably realized that Twitter has had an extraordinary impact on the way people communicate. At the beginning most people are in denial, but they quickly discover that it is way much more useful than they imagined, and even then they are constantly surprised by the ingenuity of users to create new ways of using this extraordinarily simple tool. Yet Twitter does not bring any revolution in technology – just a small change in dimensions. Blogging tools have been available for years, but just by limiting messages to 140 characters – technically a trivial change – they have created something completely different. It is this mysterious small change effect that makes prediction virtually impossible and why nobody anticipated the success of Twitter. Many people could have imagined such a service existing, but not that it would have quickly become the first place I look each day.

Now you see why true prediction is actually very difficult. I stress true prediction because there is one class of forecast that is dependable but not really a forecast – that is when people are talking about some long lead time project that they are aware of. In some industries it takes years to engineer a product for production so there are some people in the company that know what future models will look like long before anyone ever sees them, but this is a kind of insider information – like using a real witch to make your predictions – and hardly fair.

But what use is it to know that predictions are useless? It is actually much more useful than you imagine. Once you know that predictions are so difficult you need to keep your eyes open, monitor the emergence of new technologies and be alert for new social constructs. You also need to build long term plans with an escape route just in case the context changes mid stream. Nobody can predict the emergence of new tools like Twitter, but you must be ready to adopt them when they come.


Pseudoreality said…
Hi Andy,
Nice article.
I read that one thing about predicting the future IS predictable. The Maes-Garreau law says predictions about future technology will fall just within the expected lifespan of the person making it.

PS. I believe Max in Get Smart had a phone shoe. Does that count?
Andrew Hennigan said…
Many thanks for adding this point. I never saw the phone shoe, but it's likely that the closest guesses were from wierdest ones. All the usual predictions about household robots and jet cars are just too obvious.

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