Future Forecast: Shocking?! Not

[photo: adapted from Shock by Jeremy Brooks via Flickr]

In advance of the new year, I’ve been looking at futurism and forecasting over the last several days. Actually, I’ve been looking at futurism for a decade; at one point in time I seriously considered a degree program in Future Studies. There were only two schools in the U.S. that offered such a program, and a third one offered a handful of courses in the subject.

For this reason you can bet most future predictions are not made by folks with degrees in Future Studies. Not only are there few courses and fewer programs in this field, but there are very few jobs for graduates. Many grads will end up in think tanks, assuming they don’t have a dual degree in finance, economics, or business, with which they end up getting a corporate sector job.

As small and obscure as this field is, one might wonder how much practical experience many of these Future Studies experts have with regard to how things work.

Apart from climate and weather forecasts, this means the public is subjected to forecasts and predictions by few true futurists, and likely “sheltered” ones at that.

It’s no surprise, then, that we end up with posts like this one via the World Future Society’s The Futurist magazine: Eight Shocking Quotes from 2012 that will Redefine Our Future.

Are these truly shocking? Hardly; while quotes by Richard Florida and Chris Anderson are noteworthy and truly predictive, the rest are filler.

(Note also that none of the eight SHOCKING! quotes are by women. Apparently estrogen prevents those of us born with double XX chromosomes from saying anything that might sharply detour you from the future as you’ve believed it will be.)

Let’s look at a couple examples, starting with this quote by former Microsoft CEO and progenitor, Bill Gates:

“When you come to the end of the innovations that business and government are willing to invest in, you still find a vast, unexplored space of innovation where the returns can be fantastic. This space is a fertile area for what I call ‘Catalytic Philanthropy.’”

What a crock. The Futurist contributor, Thomas Frey, believes this to be a stop-in-your-tracks remark. This ranks among the finest examples of naivete and the obtuse, combined with hypocrisy that I’ve ever read.

Apparently Frey is either unaware or has forgotten that Bill Gates’ organization led the effort to squash independent innovation that business and government wouldn’t fund, in the form of open source software. See the 1998 Halloween Documents as evidence. It’s utter hypocrisy that Gates makes such a declaration as if he’s never run into innovation in the wild, unfettered by corporate and government reins.

Is Gates right about the returns? Hell yes — that’s why his corporation worked for nearly a decade to beat down the under-funded, coder community-based competition. Just look at the amount of open source Linux-based Android software and applications in the marketplace today, along with the hardware they support. Beaucoup returns based on an open source software. Oh, and philanthropically funded, albeit with self-interest, by Google in the form of Summer of Code projects combined with infrastructure support for open source software projects and organizations.

Philanthropy and future redefining, my ass. This is profit in the present, and Gates once again lives in the past as he did in 1998.

Another doozy of a quote offered up was by Netscape browser’s creator, Marc Andreessen:

“Software is eating the world.”

Where have both Andreessen and Frey been living — under a rock? The very reason cellphones have outsold personal computers for the last handful of years has been software, combined with increasingly cheap, miniaturized hardware, and the increasing reach of network connected to cheap servers and storage. The amount of applications exploded with the release of the first smartphones, particularly the iPhone; the middleware environment kept pace to service the data created by applications. Tablet hardware now takes the place of even more PCs, using many of the same software applications that smartphones use.

It’s not shocking at all that Andreessen, of all people, would believe that “software is eating world” — software is his life’s blood, his raison d’être. (Hello, Netscape?)  His remark is hardly a redefinition of the future, but a description of the present and near-term past.

The flimsiness of these quotes with regard to their impact on our future should give us all pause when presented with predictions and forecasts. Perhaps you can do a better job of forecasting without credentials in future studies, simply by using solid analytical thinking and a careful examination of the past and present.

(Disclosure: I have consulted in competitive intelligence related to open source software–me and my double XX chromosomes.)

10 replies
  1. bell says:

    “”Apparently Frey is either unaware or has forgotten that Bill Gates’ organization led the effort to squash independent innovation that business and government wouldn’t fund, in the form of open source software.””

    gates isn’t much different then a lot of folks hero steve jobs in that regard..

  2. Rayne says:

    @bell: No. Worse. DOJ certainly thought so, as did the EU. MSFT business model was based on predatory marketing practices, a.k.a., FUD combined with ubiquitous occupation of consumers’ computers. At the time, Apple only had a puny marketshare of PCs. I’m more concerned about Apple wrt to smartphones and tablets, but over time they will suffer for their “walled garden” proprietary software compared to the free-ranging Android environment.

  3. bell says:

    i agree.. making a fashion statement while playing in the walled garden seems to titillate a lot of apple users, lol.. their is open source and then there are walled gardens.. apple is the later..

  4. JohnLopresti says:

    An acquaintance kindly provided me with a real, oldstyle keyboard; as I type 100 wpm. ?What do dancing fingers do on a laptop computer?! I went into a pre-holiay Apple store in the mall; not any keyboards in sight.

    Steve would have acted more quickly that Tim C in the Foxconn policy adjustments, maybe; but Apple maps Steve would have chastened in his famous scimitar fashion.

    Nowadays, Google has kept a banner atop gmail for months; it warns that ‘some featues’ of IE8’s browser are ‘obsolete’, or about to be so frustratingly implemented on Google that I will leap into the arms of Chrome. ?Who is driving this bike?

    What I notice is people with Apple apparatus have bulletproof hardware and software. In the IE environment, the daily routine is virus watchfulness.

    But I followed Bill G. and Steve J. from the time each was stepping out, early; I daresay Bill wrote better BASIC. Steve always could find people who could rob clock cycles to make cute utils, until another 1,000,000 lines of code could start working.

    And Al Gore was very wrong to hire the anti-MSFT atty to prosecute Bush in Y2K’s election dispute. It’s a business rivalry, not a crusade. I’m not sure how Al G looked at that, or whether simply he was deferring to his Party’s leadership in counsel selection.

    Steve J saw a path to riches for his company and functionality for a lot of people at a fair market price.

    I have not followes S Ballmer’s policy statements. But that’s probably where I begin when assessing another computer. Meanwhile, there is a once-editor of Dr. Dobb’s whose work with new code and new languages always is of interest; those snippets lay the foundation of future OSs. No way I am going to opine on Linus, bless his heart; I hear Mitch Kapoor likes open source, too.

  5. person1597 says:

    Frey says:

    The voids and empty spaces around us will have people stampeding to fill these vacuums once they can be defined and understood.

    Science fiction has done a superb job of defining the broad spectrum of possibilities. Luna City is within reach. Mars and the asteroids will fail to deter colonization. Interstellar space is now tangible.

    What worlds lie beyond? Will they draw the stampede? I’m thinking…not voluntarily. Shunting overpopulation to alien lands seems a bit harsh, but with NDAA in this day and age, it can’t be ruled out.

    So maybe Boomers find themselves packed into a cargo transport to live out existence “in service to the movement of life in the universe”. Not a new theme, but really, extraterrestrial sequestration colonies would be a shocking thing to conscience.

    Alternatively, private space travel is just an anti-matter impulse drive away. There’s a cache of antiprotons just waiting to be inducted into service. Well, maybe if they upgrade the gamma ray afterburner on that old tub.

    Even better efficiency and even higher specific impulses could be achieved if a way to utilize gamma ray energy could be found. We point out that even if gamma ray reflectors are not feasible, gamma ray energy might still be utilized.

    It’s still steampunk, but I like it… And who wouldn’t thrill to the impulsive annihilation of counter-rotating pion rings. Sends the imagination soaring…

    Rather, this gem from Machievelli puts the kibosh on most of the wild ideas:

    There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

    – Niccolo Machiavelli

    The future is in our imaginations. Getting those thoughts into 3D is a killer app. Sometimes literally. And it had better take less than four clocks to get on and off the bus. If the 6502 could do it all in one tick, why not the 68000? There — the past is back in vogue… along with shag carpeting, I hear.

  6. prostratedragon says:

    There are those who have a preference for certainty.

    Not saying I’m one, but sometimes I can sympathize.

    “When the Curtain Comes Down,” performed by Diana Krall and Steve Buscemi.

    Think of it as that shiver of dread just before the revelation of a glorious dawn;) Anyway, Happy New Year everyone.

  7. readerOfTeaLeaves says:


    Methinks there is a cultural element to Gates’ “Catalytic Philanthropy” remark that may be peculiar to the soggy, chilly, damp Pacific NW. But I certainly know people who buy into it.

    Agree with the predatory nature of MSFT.
    One reason that many fled to the ‘walled garden’ of Apple, having been basically screwed out of too much time and money having to deal with multiple, innumerable versions of upgrades, OS issues, etc., etc. Compared with that chaos and MSFT always creaming off a profit from it, Apple’s ‘walled garden’ seems almost paradise.

  8. Kathryn in MA says:

    @person1597: I appreciate your quoting Machiavelli;
    “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”
    I feel like i’m on the edge of things, and sometimes it is scary. I think that evil corporations would wither and die if we did not give our money to them, and that what we need to do is turn our backs on them and see what a non-corporate life would be like. i am part of the Transition Town movement (from England to VT then the Berkshires of Mass) trying to relearn the old skills, rebuild a localized economy. And in that spirit, i ripped out my heating oil system and built a masonry heater. I didn’t blog about it because i didn’t want to discourage anyone should my efforts end in disaster. But i’m feeling rather safe and secure – i have figured out this new system (ilnvolves shopping wood!!!1!) and i am actuarially doing it! And enjoying health benefits in addition. (Good thing as this system does require physical effort)

  9. Kathryn in MA says:

    And indeed, people have to see something in order to grok it better – so i’m having open house etc, to show that i’ve gone first and others can copy what i’ve worked out.

  10. person1597 says:

    @Kathryn in MA:
    Keep chopping! (Cedar splits easiest for me.) Here’s a chart of firewood Heat content

    Tech is still fascinating to innovators because, like a blank canvas, the solution to the puzzle is a work of art. Mundane stuff (like infrastructure) is the bread and butter of corporate continuity, but sometimes it is fun to make things that are just for grins and not necessarily practical in any sort of corporate utility.

    Whimsey is not part of what makes Moore’s law so effectively deflationary, but sometimes, once in a while, a joy-ride ends in epiphany.

    In his most noted letter (December 10, 1513), he described one of his days—in the morning walking in the woods, in the afternoon drinking and gambling with friends at the inn, and in the evening reading and reflecting in his study, where, he says, “I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for.” In the same letter, Machiavelli remarks that he has just composed a little work on princes—a “whimsy”—and thus lightly introduces arguably the most famous book on politics ever written, the work that was to give the name Machiavellian to the teaching of worldly success through scheming deceit.

    When newer-faster-better becomes leaner-meaner–killing-cleaner then uh,oh… the cutting edge becomes the bleeding edge. That is the dark side of engineering, one that nags the conscience. Engineered repugnance, one might say.

    While “making things better” is the intent, the actions taken inevitably create visceral reactions as participants must adjust to a new configuration in the zero-sum game that is politics — local or global. Folks just can’t give up their cherished indoctrinations without grief.

    One might simply say…

    Food, clothing and shelter — these are the basic needs. Beyond that, if you want anything, it is the beginning of self-deception.

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