Monday, September 5, 2011

Why predictions are almost as boring as nostalgia or conversations I try to avoid

The interminable news coverage of last week's dark anniversary reminded me that back when I lived in NYC, the conversation I most tried to avoid was on the subject of whether New York City was getting better or worse. The point of view most often expressed-- this was pre 9/11--was that NYC was getting worse, in the sense that it was becoming more commercial, more suburban, less, you know, authentic. The person most often expressing this point of view was a usually man who was no longer young. This person would acknowledge that NYC was generally safer and cleaner than it used to be, but these qualities were seen as evidence for his position. The graffiti-covered trains were part of the experience.

I was younger then and it was hard not to think that the most significant difference between then and now had nothing to do with NYC, but had to do with passage of time. What was better about NYC 20 years ago was that the men were 20 years younger. And who can argue with that?

Nowadays, the conversation I most try to avoid is around the question of whether technology is making life/the world better or worse. Life/the world is a pretty big subject so the argument usually doesn't take on the whole enchilada but focuses around relatively smaller subjects: like reading, or social life or education.

In these arguments you undoubtedly hear—on the nostalgic side of the question--a lot about the sensual qualities of books (the smell of paper!) and how all our relationships on-line are more superficial than they used to be while--on the other side of the question--technophiles will talk about how new technology has "changed everything" (really? everything? ) and empowered users to challenge and engage with centers of power from which they were previously excluded (Gopnick did a solid review of books on the various positions which he classified as the “never betters “better-nevers and, of course the "ever wasers" Here)

I find arguments based on both utopian dreams and nostalgic yearnings equally boring for a bunch of reason. One thing, it's almost impossible to extract one’s highly subjective and hugely limited personal investment from the conversation. For another, historical change is very complicated to predict, almost impossible in the midst of it, and totally impossible to do well in the speed with which most of us work in marketing and advertising. As Popper famously remarked--quoted in another recent article Gopnik article on declinism here--What we know next will effect what will happen next and we don't know what we'll know next because if we did, we'd know it now.

But the main reason I avoid these conversations is not that they are sometimes or often wrong, but that they get in the way of much more interesting conversations which are examining the highly surprising ways various ways people embrace, accelerate, resist or refuse to change, regardless of what we tell them is better, faster stronger, shinier, or just plain new.

E-books are an example of accelerated adoption that surprised even the most aggressive promoters, regardless of the fact that many of us love the smell of paper. The same can't be true for those who predicted--a couple decades ago--that "hypertext" stories would replace the traditional novel or that internet would kill traditional retail or even that the internet would make the traditional office obsolete.

To go into why all these predictions were not only wrong, but based on false and unexamined premises is a bigger task than I can handle in this venue, but I can say that I'm much less interested in conversations that begin (and end) with a statement about how some media, technology or form of expression (Print, phone numbers, Hip Hop, irony, ATM's etc) is dead than a conversation about the factors that influencing current rates of adoption or attrition. We live in time. When it come to business (as opposed to science fiction and history) looking ahead with blinders on is only slightly less boring than looking back, but it's always exhilarating to try and feel (and try to measure) the wind on our faces as we move into the passing lane.

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