On the Ninth Day of Christmas

Posted by on Jan 1, 2008 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Large_logo Pic c/o Dandare.co.uk

New Year is always a good time for predictions: what will happen over the next 12 months?

When I was a kid we expected the first part of the 21st Century to be spent on the moon, or at least in a space-age, Dan Dare kind of world. Disappointly, we are not today whizzing around in jetpacks or eating blue and green pills rather than roast organic lamb (thanks, Mikey!).

Most attempts to predict the future are flawed, either in the specifics or the generality because as the great Physicist Niels Bohr put it,

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”.

I love this site’s collection of bad predictions about science and technology. Something for everyone really.

We all know this truth but we love having a go: Style and fashion journalists are desperate to work out what the big looks are going to be this coming year (they’ll mostly get it right because mostly it’ll be the same stuff that we bought last year); techies and financial experts alike are falling overthemselves to work out what’s going to happen next.

And of course, the music industry (when not worrying about whether it’ll exist in a few years) is always falling over itself to anticipate the “NEXT BIG THING”.

Some look to experts (the colour/textile predictors of fashion) or other sources of “insider knowledge”; some go to the leading edge to find the wierd and the unusual to steal and copy (the coolhunting fallacy); others look for a more “scientific” approach based on past performance…(you know who you are). Of course, mostly this year will be the same as last year (humans are habitual creatures) and changes is in many ways less dramatic than we like to think but we can all be sure that unusual events – the Black Swans that really shape things – will take place this year, even though they are by definition really hard to predict (human behaviour is built on complex human-to-human interactions).

So we will continue to have a go at predicting the future. What to do? How can we make the best of this tricky job?

Well, the answer lies not in the flight of birds, the tea leaves in your cup nor in the minds or spreadsheets of any number of self-proclaimed experts. If you really want to have the heads up on what the future holds you would actually be better served by using our HERD nature and by looking at other folk.

For example, the US is Politics-bound at the moment in its curious Is-there-snow-in-Iowa-and-how-will-that-affect-the-candidates? phase. Opinion pollsters are running riot (as if they had a clue) and journos are indulging in micro dissection. But you could just check the Iowa Electronic Markets (who’ve got the answer more right than the best opinion pollsters on 3 out of 4 days of the last 5 presidential elections. These work on the basis of collective guessing/wisdom of crowds

And the music industry – just like Marketingland – is always really sensitive to what professional peers are up to (even more so in the Dalek-led downsizing fever): however good a band or its music, it’s a whole lot more attractive if someone else wants to sign it. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course. The rest of us sense what’s going on over there – what other folk are doing (it’s a specialist subject) and then follow that; we use other people’s behaviour as a guide for our own.
One of the strongest heuristics/shorthands for all human minds is “what other people are doing”.

BUT whether you go for the Wisdom of Crowds option or just pay attention to what your peers seem excited about, please remember – and tell everyone you know – that prediction’s for the birds. It’s a complex world out there, folks. And complexity is unpredictable and unstable: sudden and rapid changes are possible.

However, if you want to know what my sole prediction for 2008 is, stand by: it’s that this particular well-documented truth in every aspect of human endeavour just won’t fly. We’ll waste just as much time trying to predict the future as we’ve always done; if not more. Hey ho!