The same, but different

In a post last week I mentioned Future Babble, Dan Gardner’s recent book which looks at human’s desire to predict the future, and our inability to do it very well. It’s a topic I’ve been exploring a bit more since, talking with a few folk about the subject.
One of Gardner’s key arguments is that pundits who predict the future tend to fall into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a big theory, be very assertive, and then try to bend their predictions into that theory; foxes are more pragmatic, and generally come across less sure about their predictions. The media loves hedgehogs, and are much less keen on foxes, and we as the audience tend to believe more that is said by someone who is sure of their convictions (hedgehogs).

When analysis has been done of predictions against what actually comes to pass, hedgehogs are significantly less good at predicting the future than foxes. But even the best fox won’t get a hit rate of 50%, and so most seers are less effective at predicting the future than flipping a coin. Gardner extends this to suggest that, if you want the best probability of predicting the future, your best bet is to say that it will be just the same as it is today.

This has really struck a nerve with me, and is helping me to rethink how I think about the future.
Whilst the future (in the sense of our use of technology) won’t be the same as today, it’s likely to be the same, but more subtly different than the hedgehogs might predict. Why? Because we humans tend to be fairly conservative in our approach to adopting change.

Let’s take an example: the telephone. The single biggest change in the way in which we operate a telephone came with the move from operator-connected calls to self-dialling. Strangely, with hands-free and voice recognition, we seem to be going back to the orignal way of using the phone. Behind the scenes, the ways in which phones are connected have changed enormously (from operators connecting patch cords, to mechanical through digital to IP). But all of that backoffice stuff is (comparitively) low touch for people, so the transitions have been easier to manage. A modern phone (even if it is a portable computer and media centre too these days) would probably be recognisable as a phone in some way to Alexander Graham Bell.

And even though the underlying technology of telephony has changed, we still have language that is of a former age – giving someone “a ring”, “dialling” a number and so on…
Have a look at the list of “disruptive technologies” on Wikipedia, and (in hindsight) none seem to me to be anything other than evolution. They are better ways of doing things similar to what was done before, rather than a completely new way of doing it. To come back to telephony, and having watched Prof Kevin Warwick give a presentation yesterday, a truly revolutionary change from telephones would be communication between people by linking their nervous systems in some ways. That’s a revolutiuonary step, but one that (to me) seems so outlandish that it probably won’t happen. Nueral interfaces that allow you to “dial” someone up by thinking about them, however, migth be more credible…

5 thoughts on “The same, but different

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