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The what if before the what is

Nov. 22, 2017

It's tricky business, prognosticating. 

It’s tricky business—prognosticating—particularly in this era of rapid change, when technology seems to be outpaced immediately after its introduction to the marketplace, when today’s tech buzzwords become
tomorrow’s punchlines, when Pokemon Go is considered an antiquated pastime. (We hardly knew ya, Pikachu.)

“Never make predictions, especially about the future,” advised baseball philosopher Casey Stengel. But his predictive analytics were limited to batting averages, so let’s ignore that Yankees’ advice and ponder the very nature of pondering.  

In short, the best approach to predictions is accepting the fact that we’ll probably not only be wrong in guessing about the future, but we’ll likely have our current convictions upended, too. Cultural critic Chuck Klosterman’s latest book, But What If We’re Wrong, is dedicated to this conceit—exploring the fallout if everything we believe to be true today turns out wrong. In the opening of the book Klosterman writes: “When you ask smart people if they believe there are major ideas currently accepted by the culture at large that will eventually be proven false, they will say, ‘Well, of course. There must be. That phenomenon has been experienced by every generation who’s ever lived, since the dawn of human history.’ Yet offer those same people a laundry list of contemporary ideas that might fit that description, and they’ll be tempted to reject them all.”

It's tricky business—prognosticating.

A 1918 technology outlook might have included imminent innovations such as the traffic light and the lie-detector. (“Officer, take my word for it…I did not drive through that red light.”) A 1918 technology outlook might also have included innovations that are laughable in hindsight.

It’s currently trendy to look at the future through the eyes of the past. That’s at the core of what is known as steampunk, a fashion/lifestyle scene dedicated to an antiquated view of tomorrow. In the case of steampunk, this mostly revolves around wearing funky goggles and going to conventions with other weirdos…err…steampunk devotees. A waste of time? Some might think. But a lesson central to the fantasy of steampunk should be noted—how we presume things will be in the future is rarely accurate. We have progressed beyond steam. Our goggles have only grown less funky through the years.

And that’s a limitation of the far-reaching technology outlook…we’re hamstrung by our current grasp of technology. The smartest among us might be better at envisioning a workplace of the future that has no resemblance to the current, employing tools and technologies that aren’t currently fathomable. But most of us use merely envision updated versions of the stuff we have currently to predict how we will work a century from now. (My wife chuckles at those “Kid Inventors” segments on talk shows, where the creations are usually just a mashup of two household items...“My invention is a fly-swatter bookmark.”)

Smart Industry is always stocked with predictions rooted in the early stages of digital transformation. Will we be looking back in 100 years to see these projections realized? Probably some, others not. Looking back from 2118, what will future generations think of this period, beyond puzzling at our infatuation with fidget spinners? It will be interesting, for sure, to see the context in which this period of digital transformation is placed.

Just because predictions are often wrong doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make them. The mere process of prognostication is enriching—a healthy mental exercise, professional daydreaming. There must be what if before we get to what is.

It’s tricky business—prognosticating—but only if you’re banking on being correct. “I figure lots of predictions is best,” opined the Linux computer programmer Alan Cox. “People will forget the ones I get wrong and marvel over the rest.”