Where is my jetpack?

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

The recent visit of SingularityU to New Zealand and TV1’s What’s Next? show have both sparked debate about what the future holds and what it will mean for all of us.

While we at Research First are excited about the opportunities the future may bring, we feel honour-bound to re-iterate that no-one really knows what the future will hold. Not the slick presenters at SingularityU, and certainly not the pundits on TV1.

As is so often the case, Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian (http://adcontrarian.blogspot.com), captures this perfectly:

I go to a lot of conferences (hey, it’s a living) and I have to listen to a lot of speakers. It’s pretty easy to know pretty quickly who the bullshit artists are. They’re the ones who are telling us what the future is going to be like and warning us that we’d better be ready for it or we’ll be left behind… If you’re a buffoon with a Powerpoint and a bag full of clichés stay away from the present. Nothing to see here. Head for the future – it’s your happy place

In his book Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco could have been describing all these futurologists when he said:

“while they seem to act as a thermometer, reporting a rise in temperature, they are actually part of the fuel that keeps the furnace going”.

This isn’t just our prejudice either. Philip Tetlock's masterful book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? provides all the evidence you need to track how little experts really know about what the future holds. Our wish is that the producers at TV1 or SingularityU spent less time watching TED talks and more time reading Tetlock’s book.

But even a passing knowledge of the history of the future would temper these debates. People have been making predictions about what the future will hold for years, and getting them mostly spectacularly wrong ever since. For instance, the sequencing of the human genome was supposed to eradicate cancer; the invention of the internet was supposed to make wars obsolete; and new technology was going to be so productive that we’d all have so much free time that the world would be confronting a ‘leisure crisis’.

The other thing that an examination of history shows is that every age thinks theirs is an age of disruption.We like the way Scientific American put it when it noted

“futurology has always bounced around between common sense, nonsense and a healthy dose of wishful thinking”.

But we prefer the point John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge made in a different context, when they said

“even if it’s not all bullshit, enough of it is to disqualify the rest”.

Keep that in mind the next time someone drops the word ‘disruption’ into a presentation or conversation.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.