How to Read an End-of-Year Forecast
It seems to be common practice among bloggers, columnists and other species of pundit to offer in the closing days of December a few predictions about the year to come. These usually include some brief sentences about how well or how poorly the predictions from last year fared, and the best include a tongue-in-cheek undercurrent, a subtle implication that the author knows as well as the reader just how ridiculous this whole thing really is. Aside from the blatantly satirical offerings, however, most of these year-end predictions are meant to be taken seriously to at least some degree, and provide a tangible sense of where the author thinks the world may be heading in the months to come.
As someone who thinks and writes about the months (and years) to come on a professional basis, I find these efforts a kick to read. I won't add my own, in part because it would be redundant (I write about the future all the time), and in part because the real fun comes from seeing people who don't spend a lot of time thinking about much beyond the next quarter, next project or next release pulling on their Futurist Pants™.
I enjoy reading them in large part because they often fall into the same traps that can snare the pros, but do so in much more obvious ways. The real value of the myriad forecasts for 2007 emerges not from what they predict, but from how they predict it. These predictions are a terrific training field for critical analysis and skeptical reading of futurist prounouncements of all kinds.
In that spirit, here are eight guidelines for how to read predictions (and scenarios, and forecasts):
- Are they just parroting recent headlines? Are the forecasts and predictions simply rehashes of news items from the last couple of months? These subjects are rarely as important in the medium or long term as they seem in the here and now, but are the current triggers for blog links and Slashdot debates.
- Poked in the eye by the invisible hand? Would the predictor be likely to benefit professionally if the "hot trend for the new year" actually manages to take off? While this doesn't necessarily mean that they're pushing the idea deceptively, it does mean that they're less-likely to be on the lookout for competing ideas and serious roadblocks.
- Are they just reading their own marketing? Many of the end-of-year predictions come from advertising agencies, trade organizations, and other groups trying to get a bit of press. When the forecasts include buzzwords that don't buzz and "consumers" making radical changes to their behaviors because of some swoopy new gadget, chances are you're seeing an effort to predict the future by marketing it.
Less Than Meets the Eye
- Shock and Awe? At the other end of the prediction spectrum are those forecasts that are so disruptive and radical that they simply beg for argument. While they may have some tenuous technological or social justification, they're the kinds of assertions that often get added to lists to make them appear less conventional.
- Why? Next-year forecasts that simply offer up bulleted lists of terse sentences (e.g., "• Foobar defeats Google.") may be amusing, but offer little insight. Predictions that don't include even a cursory effort to explain the reasoning or offer a justification all too often include forecast items that have few reasons or justifications to begin with.
- Have you heard of this before? Somewhere between the items that everybody knows about already because they've been in the headlines, and the items that nobody knows about because they're internal marketing jargon, are those items that specialists are starting to pay attention to, but few others have picked up on yet. If you encounter a prediction that refers to something you haven't heard about, but you find hundreds of sites digging into its implications when you google it, there's a good chance that you've found a useful forecast.
- Greater than the sum of its parts? Do the authors make connections between the predictions, or do they toss each out as unrelated phenomena? No technological or social development happens in isolation, and very often changes in one arena can profoundly alter the course of other trends and practices. Forecasts that show interconnections have a sense of a bigger picture.
- What did they miss? Have the "future" predictions already happened, but just haven't been widely noticed? Are there other known factors at work that would prevent or substantially alter the predictions? Does one prediction cancel out another, without explanation? Are there alternative outcomes that are just as likely, and equally if not more interesting? Do the predictions miss an obvious connection or combination that could end up being far more influential than any of its component changes?
End-of-year forecasts make for a fun read, and are usually done in a spirit of play and cameraderie. Even the ones that are blatant marketing efforts can provide some surprises and (very occasionally) insights. This set of guidelines should not by any means be read as a condemnation of the practice. In fact, I'd like to see more people making lists of predictions and forecasts, as at the very least, it would provide more chances to practice skeptical futurism. Besides, with enough minds, all tomorrows are visible -- the more of us playing in this space, the better chance we have of spotting surprises before they happen.