Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
The Perils of Prediction
Predicting the future accurately is extremely difficult. If it weren't, many more of us would be millionaires. Whenever I'm asked to try, I often say only fools or geniuses predict the future. The problem is we don't know who is who until it's too late. We can hardly be blamed for wanting early warning about what to expect. Perspective One's general perspective on life and the future is key. Optimists often hype new technologies, ascribing transformational properties to them that may not be proven or even likely. This pitfall can be difficult to avoid. Having witnessed one of the most technologically transformational periods in human history with the advent of personal computers and the Internet, it is all too easy to think that the next cool thing that comes along will be similarly transformational. Before the Segway was unveiled, word leaked out about a new invention by Dean Kamen code-named "Ginger." There were widespread predictions that it would transform our lives and our urban landscapes. It is very easy to get carried away by the excitement of a new idea. Pessimists, on the other hand, are likely to focus on the potentially damaging or deleterious effects of new technologies. This can be especially true of those who wish to defend the status quo. The natural tendency of those who track technological trends is to focus on the new. It can be problematic when that focus is too narrow to include the complete picture. For example, someone who highlights the trend of more teens using social networking sites such as MySpace.com can easily overlook that most teens ages 12-17 actually don't use such sites (as recently reported in an L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll). People can easily assume that a majority or even most of a given population have adopted a technology. Optimists tend to predict more rapid technological transformations than what happens in reality. History is rife with examples of technology pundits predicting the widespread impact of such things as "flying cars." We're still waiting. The truth is, even if a new technology will have a transformative impact, things typically take longer than we expect. Other points of failure Perhaps the most difficult pitfall to avoid is when the predictor fails to take into account a factor that may not even exist at the time of making the prediction. For example, it wasn't all that long ago when people were predicting a bright future for "teletext." Who would have predicted back then that it would be made completely obsolete by the Internet? When computers and networks began to take over, the "paperless society" became the watchword of the future. Paper would no longer be required, as information, business transactions, and even money would be zipped around on wires. Computers made it easy to print out virtually anything on paper, and so we do, in reams. Those predicting a paperless society clearly expected human nature to change in a way that it didn't. Those who want to be "cool" are likely to track and adopt trends simply because they are trendy. This encourages the suspension of doubt and critical thinking. Instead of wondering whether a new technology really has what it takes to deliver on the hype of its inventors or marketers, technology fans might take such claims at face value. "Numeracy" or "numerical literacy" is the numerical version of literacy and should be a goal of every adult, as my colleague Walt Crawford has correctly advocated. With numeracy, you can quickly see through lies or misleading statements that are being propped up with numbers that cannot be true or are being misinterpreted. Avoid the pitfalls Thinking carefully about such pitfalls as I've identified here can help you make more clearsighted predictions as well as think critically about the predictions of others. Predictions are a part of life, and they can be informative, enjoyable, and thought-provoking. Yet whenever I make a prediction, I can't seem to avoid feeling that time will show me to be a fool. Maybe that's why it's so much fun. For more on the wired library, see the netConnect supplement mailed with the January, April 15, July, and October 15 issues of LJ __________________________________________________________________ Link List Dean Kamen Rocks and Rolls www.wired.com/news/technology/ 0,1282,42420,00.html Teletext en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teletext LITA Top Tech Trends www.lita.org/ala/lita/litaresources/ toptechtrends/toptechnology.htm