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Listening to Foresight

Tablet on tabletWhen people learn that I'm a professional futurist*, almost invariably the immediate response is the question "what predictions have you gotten right?"

My usual answer is to argue that prediction isn't the what futurists do these days, 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: 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 a spare 15 minutes, 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 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.

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 to the right.

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 this video.

So why didn't they?

I think the answer 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. The 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    * As I've noted, I don't like the term "futurist," but there's not much in the way of an alternative term that is easily recognized.
  • Comments

    Sometimes failure to act on a vision requires no subtle psychological effects. Sometimes, it just can't be done yet.

    The tablet concept IDL developed wasn't timely because the hardware required wasn't available yet at a workable price. We got real tablets as soon as the key physical components became available at scale. As you pointed out Kubrick's set designers had it clearly in mind by 1968, so clearly there was no lack of vision here -- almost entirely a lack of *means*.

    The fact that Knight-Ridder didn't bring us the iPad has a lot to do with their market position. It takes specialized expertise to develop and market a complex device like a tablet computer. On top of that comes the "apps" layer for presenting the news. K-R had essentially *no* expertise in these areas. They were good at *content* -- the stuff you publish using the apps, using the tablet hardware and o/s.

    Sometimes you just "can't get there from here".

    Note that I'm not saying *nobody* can get there. Just that a lot of people can see a mountain peak before a few of them figure out how to scale it. And in some cases merely seeing it first is no particular advantage in scaling it first.

    After sharing my different take on this particular example, let me add (belatedly) that it was a lot of fun to see the video and I do agree that the psychological effects you described are quite real.

    Thanks for a stimulating post.

    Re the term 'futurist', when I was on Michio Kaku's "Sci Fi Science" program, he introduced me as a 'futurologist'. Do you like that any better?

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