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Listening to Foresight
Jamais Cascio   Apr 28, 2011   Open the Future  

When people learn I’m a professional futurist, almost invariably the immediate response is the question, “What predictions have you got right?”

My usual answer is to argue that prediction isn’t what futurists do these days, instead we’re all about illuminating possible implications of choices, and so forth. It’s not a terribly satisfying answer, but it’s better than the alternative, which is:
It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter what predictions I may have gotten right because, when futurists make detailed predictions, the intended audiences rarely ever listen. There are all sorts of reasons for this, and it’s worth exploring.

When you have fifteen minutes to spare, watch this video:

For those of you unable/unwilling to watch, here’s the summary: It’s a 1994 video from Knight-Ridder’s Information Design Lab, talking about the potential development of a “tablet newspaper.” Knight-Ridder was a big American newspaper publisher, and in 1992 it established the Information Design Lab (IDL) as a way to visualize and even build future newspaper technologies. This video illustrated what its proposed newspaper tablet would look like, and how it would work. It’s worth watching just for the details they present.

It’s a remarkable bit of future artifact creation, as much of the forecast ended up playing out in the subsequent 17 years much as the IDL described. As predictions go, it was usefully on-target.

At least, it could have been useful had anyone been paying attention. The IDL was closed the next year, its forecasts essentially forgotten. Knight-Ridder itself was bought out in 2006.

Much of the attention the video has received in the last week has focused on how closely the imagined tablet looks like an iPad. It does, I suppose, but I’m a bit less excited about that—the iPad is a flat, thin slab in black trim, which is hardly a radical departure from what a tablet computer had been imagined looking like since the late 1960s.

2001 tablet

What leapt out at me, conversely, was the video’s prescience about how a digital newspaper would function: the use of the conventional newspaper form as a recognized interface; the seamless leap from headline to full story; the use of animation and video integrated with the text; the lack of limits on space; even the need to pay for the news via advertising.

It was clear that the designers of the tablet newspaper in the video had given careful thought to the evolution not just of digital hardware, but user interfaces. Remember, in 1994 the Web still looked like the image below.

94 Web

What IDL described was a world where people could access their preferred newspapers from anywhere, where readers could copy and share articles as desired, where targeted advertising was a necessary component of newspaper economics… essentially, a world where people grappled with news media in ways very much like today’s reality. If you substitute notebook computers for tablets, even their otherwise-optimistic timeline (with the big developments hitting around 2000) was more-or-less on target.

They didn’t get everything right. Some of what they got wrong was minor, if amusing, such as the use of a stylus or PCMCIA-sized memory cards. Some errors, however, were more critical. Pronouncements that people like advertising nearly as much as they like the news, or that people don’t want generic news items, they want a branded news source, suggest an unwillingness to examine basic assumptions about the behavior of newspaper readers.

But such a re-examination of assumptions could have happened, eventually, had the newspaper industry—or even Knight-Ridder itself—taken seriously the forecast in the video.

So, why didn’t they?

I think the answer to that question comes in a balance between three reactions I’ve seen time and again: a perception that the forecast or prediction is impossible, is unacceptable, or is scary.

1. The forecast future is impossible: what is described is so outside how we understand the world that we can’t see how we get from here to there. Therefore, we can ignore it.

This is a reasonable filter to have regarding forecasts; if the prediction is flat-out impossible, it’s not worth the time and focus required to engage with it. The typical inaccuracy of narrow predictions—almost always wrong, and in big ways—further helps to feed this response. Why pay attention if it’s not going to happen this way anyway? This has been one of the big drivers for futurism moving away from prediction, and towards scenario-based, implication-driven approaches.

2. The forecast future is unacceptable: what is described, while technically believable, is outside of what we deem “right” for the industry/society, or has elements that don’t fit our knowledge of how the industry/society works. Therefore, we can dismiss it.

This often is translated into “you just don’t understand our industry” when outside futurists propose unacceptable forecasts. And that’s sometimes true—but it’s also often the case that an outside perspective is able to catch inconsistencies and oddities that for insiders have essentially become invisible.

3. The forecast future is scary: what is described, while both believable and plausible, would be devastating to us or to our industry/society. Therefore, our only choice is to reject it.

This is precisely the situation that foresight is supposed to help an organization deal with. Sadly, this reaction is more common than you might expect.

All three of these reactions may have come into play with the “tablet newspaper” video.

2011 TabletThe world described projected technological developments that might have seemed silly to people accustomed to giant CRT monitors, clumsy PDAs, and 16Kbps dial-up modems (and, in fact, the IDL timeline for the development of the tablet technology was overly aggressive). For some viewers in the industry, this future might have seemed so unlikely as to be impossible. The scenario presented also shifted the locus of power between the newspaper, advertisers, and readers—readers would have much more control over what they accessed, and advertisers would have a more direct relationship with the readers, with less mediation by the newspaper. For some in the newspaper industry, this would have been unacceptable and readily dismissed. And for the viewers who could imagine some of the implications—advertisers no longer needing newspapers at all, or readers pulling together diverse news sources instead of remaining loyal to a local paper—the conclusions would have been potentially terrifying.

(There’s also the likelihood that most people in the industry didn’t even know about the video, or didn’t pay attention to that future stuff because they were too busy dealing with day-to-day crises.)

This leaves foresight professionals in a bit of a quandary. How do you respond to that kind of refusal to acknowledge, let alone think through the implications of, provocative forecasts?

Each of the reactions has, arguably, a counter:

1. Finding supporting evidence can be a counter for the “impossible” reaction. The IDL video points at a few items that support the technological underpinnings, but a stronger case could have been made that this was a compelling vision of what the future could hold.

2. Bringing in diverse perspectives can be a counter for the “unacceptable” reaction. A single outside voice saying “look out” may be readily ignored, but a diverse set of outside voices, from a variety of disciplines, saying “look out” might be taken more seriously. This could be compounded if some of the outside voices come from parallel fields that have experienced similar changes. The IDL video relied solely on people within the journalism community.

3. Stimulating competitive instincts can be a counter for the “scary” reaction. Just because one audience finds the narrative too scary to contemplate doesn’t mean that all audiences will. Pushing the argument that the group that figures out how to deal with the scary scenario first is likely to have big advantages over its competitors is one way to get over the “scary” barrier. In the case of the newspaper industry, unfortunately, nobody seemed willing to take that step.

Everyone who has done futures work has had a “newspaper tablet” moment of their own, to one degree or another. In many ways, the hard part of this discipline isn’t in the process of coming up with useful and provocative scenarios. The hard part is making sure that the people who need to pay attention to them do so.

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.


In large part to Clay Shirky’s and your own writings, I was able to see the events in the ME ahead of time, although I did not foresee exactly which countries this would happen in, only that it would happen somewhere.

Or was it because, it came much earlier to market before people even felt the need, or even understood it? I have read that AT&T came up with video phones in 1960s and was finally discontinued. So something found its market now, may not mean that it could have been introduced at an early time. Isn’t it?

Social futurism turned out to be fluff, and notice how just when things started to improve in 2000, it quickly went sour? the budget was balanced in 2000, and now it is a case of SNAFU. Merely a couple years after 2000, Leon Kass promises us we will all die on schedule and he meant it too: when someone says they want you to die they are, for once in their life, sincere.
You are not culpable, Jamais; futurism got a bad rep before your time with such as Timothy Leary on LSD thinking he was travelling in outer space or somewhere. It wasn’t being a space pioneer—it was being a space cadet.

@ iPan..

I’m interested in your comment in the other thread regarding misuse/misdirection of energies - do you have any references/a blog site? Also as an anarchist/panpsychist? I’m curious as to your thoughts on unity, both cosmic and sociocultural? Thanks!

Probably the most efficient way is to follow what I’m writing at

“My usual answer is to argue that prediction isn’t what futurists do these days, instead we’re all about illuminating possible implications of choices, and so forth.”

If we take a many-worlds view, then surely what futurists are or should be doing is to illuminate what possible futures may look like. This includes illuminating possible implications of choices, but it also includes simply making us aware of possible futures of which we were not previously aware.

These days I generally think of the future thus:

- many, many scary and/or depressing futures (both high-tech “bangs” and lo-tech “whimpers”, to use Bostrom’s terminology)
-a few utopic or in between futures;
-essentially no “business as usual” scenarios, i.e. the ones most people think of when they conte,plate the future.

And therein lies the problem I think. Most people really have no idea how weird the future is, and they have very neurotic reactions when this is pointed out. The utopia ones are “too good to be true”, and in many ways genuinely *are* unlikely (but what about the power of intention?), while the dystopic ones just make people too uncomfortable.

One solution is to counter derision with derision. I’m increasingly challenging friends and colleagues to dispense with their naive (i.e. “realistic”, but in fact completely impossible) conceptions abbot the future, e.g. by pointing out various weird technologies that are already here. It’s important to define, agree on and focus on the utopic scenarios so that we have something positive to aim for. Also: mindfulness is great for helping us deal appropriately with (i.e. take proportionate action to avoid) the dystopic ones. Whatever you believe about global warming, Al Gore’s comment about this certainly applies to dystopic scenarios in general: “most people go straight from denial to despair without stopping at the stage of actually doing something about it”.

As someone who’s strategy is simply telling truthfully what I see as likely without regard to what people think about it, I’m pretty used to all these reactions. When I tell people I will be walking the streets as a virtual succubus within the decade, they simply cannot bring themselves to accept it, because it is so far outside what they consider “reality”.

And when I explain exactly WHY I will be able to appear as a succubus, they get even more disturbed, because I can describe exactly what technologies will make it possible, and every single one of them is already in existence, is already available and merely needs to be put to use in the right combination. I make it impossible to avoid the “weirdness” through simple denial, because it’s all to easy to connect the dots themselves and see how it could happen.

It’s usually at this point that the absurd objections come into play. “Oh, that won’t happen because of this!” Usually the answer is along the lines of “the corporations would never allow it, or the government will outlaw it, or no-body will ever do that!” i.e. the flimsiest thing they can find to deny the possibilities. When I then point out exactly how profitable the corporations will find most of these technologies to be (at first) and how useful they will be to governments (again, at first) and exactly how many people are ALREADY WORKING ON MAKING THIS EXACT POSSIBILITY HAPPEN, I usually get met with vehement fits of violent denial.

The worst, most idiotic denial is the one that “God will return” before it can happen.

So I’ve just come to smile and shrug, and let them have their comforting little delusions, and go right on telling people truthfully what I see as likely

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