Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Predictions: Extra-artificial simplicity

Whenever forecasters and futurologista claim a certain degree of accuracy (like Faith Popcorn's well-publicized remark about her 95% hit-rate) I always wonder what they got wrong (claim-diggers for men?), but when I ask about their failures and how they adjusted their model in response (and I've asked most of the copy-testing services I've worked with), I always get a much less clear answer, or no answer at all. For me, making predictions about markets or market-place success is to account planning as real-estate get-rich quick schemes are to financial planners. They make such a huge over promise that the real hard work of data analysis and communication development appears either equally shoddy or a weak deliverable. It can be hard to compete with prophets.

And of course Web 2.0 has brought with it a new wave of entrepreneurial activity and a new wave of prognosticators making bold predictions about the year and years ahead.

Of course, the world has long been plagued by prophets, who lacked the data to support their claims. The literary critic Frank Kermode--in his foundational The Sense of an Ending went so far as to claim that being wrong was a constituent feature of most prophets. The failure of apocalyptic predictions to come true never harms prophet's status. On the contrary, they tend to re-energize the faithful, fueling another round of fuzzy math that puts the end of the world, slightly later. Something new to get excited about!

In the early 18th-century, Jonathon Swift got so annoyed with a cobbler/astrologer John Partridge's yearly almanacs (think early Popcorn report) that Swift published his own prediction that Partridge that would die from a "raging fever," and in a later pamphlet announced that his prediction had come to pass, writing a satiric eulogy to the quack. The hoax became hugely popular and plagued partridge throughout his life. When Partridge protested the claim, stating that he was not, in fact, dead, Swift rebutted him in print, saying: "There was sure no man alive ever to writ such damn stuff as this."

I can't think of greater authority than Swift on almost any subject. But if we wanted another take on why predictions are so hard, and so often miss the market , here's Proust in the final book of In Search of Lost Time on the long-anticipated but somehow still shocking departure of the narrator’s beloved Albertine:

In order to picture to itself an unknown situation the imagination borrows elements that are already familiar and, for that reason, cannot picture it. But the sensibility, even it most physical form, receives, like the wake of a thunderbolt, the original, and for long indelible imprint of this novel event. And I hardly dared say to myself that if I had foreseen this departure, I would perhaps have been incapable of picturing it to myself in all its horror….

Even when we foresee something, our imaginations are so limited by past experiences that we still can't believe it when it happens or we imagined such a totally different experience that are emotional preparations are utterly useless.

As I usually say in meetings: I'm not in the business of predicting the future, describing the present is hard enough.

No comments: