Posted by: structureofnews | October 27, 2010

Looking Back at the Future

It’s generally too easy to look back at old predictions of the future and poke fun of them; but what the heck.  Cheap thrills are irresistible.  In this case, a 1980 NBC report on how TV would evolve and possibly even kill off newspapers.   It’s funny in its own way – as many as 40 stations on cable! – but it’s actually not that far off, at least in broad terms.

There’s a lot in here that’s not wrong – information delivered to your house, 24 hours a day, on demand, from reputable sources; games that children (and adults) will be glued to; potential problems for newspapers; and so on.  So they were a couple of decades off.  And they underestimated the breadth and depth of change that would come, when it did arrive.  And they hadn’t really figured on how much people’s behavior would adapt to the new possibilities and offerings.  But they were on the right track, more or less.

Which is another way of saying prediction is a tricky business.   And in this case, they did a pretty good job in terms of extrapolating current advances and making informed guesses about how they would play out.   What they didn’t – and to some extent, couldn’t – factor in were technological advances and changes in behavior.  Logic only takes us so far when it comes to human beings.  (Spock learned that lesson over a couple of seasons of Star Trek and in the endless stream of movies since.)

The video notes, for example, that the New York Times is studying teletext delivery systems, and in fact many mainstream media organizations moved early to experiment on the web.  But as Clay Christensen noted in what’s one of the best business books around, The Innovator’s Dilemma, what prevents companies from taking advantage of new, disruptive technologies isn’t technical know-how, but organizational structure – and logic.   (In other words, rational analysis of your customers and the market often leads incumbents to stay away from disruptive technologies and cede that area to upstarts.  It all makes sense – until you go out of business.)

That’s not to say we should abandon trying to foretell the future; obviously we have to do it, or we’d be paralyzed waiting to see what tomorrow will bring rather than trying to anticipate it.  But at the same time, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously when we do it.    And be ready to change our mind quickly when it’s clear we’re wrong.


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