Predicting a Revolutionary Future


by Lane Wallace

magazine's cover story this week is a predictive look at how "the way Americans work" is going to change over the next 10 years. "Throw away the briefcase: you're not going to the office," it proclaims. "There's no longer a ladder, and you may never get to retire, but there's a world of opportunity if you figure out a new path." One essay within the piece even uses the virtual world online game "World of Warcraft" as a model for how intensely competitive company work teams will operate, 10 years from now.

First. Any time I read or hear anybody saying "this is how future events are going to play out," I instinctively backpeddle. Remember the new economy that wasn't ever going to end? Or the new world order of peace that was in ascendance ... right up until September 11, 2001, when suddenly it wasn't, anymore? Budget surpluses? Housing as a great and booming investment?

A few weeks ago, I found an old, hardcover book in an antique store in Foster, Rhode Island. It's a science book called Astronomy, published as part of the "Whitman World Library" in 1963, and I intend to keep it on my shelf as an entertaining, cautionary tale for anyone who's tempted to be too absolute about how the future will unfold. In a quick flip-read of the book, I found such predictive gems as: "the first man-made objects to explore the Moon will undoubtedly be automated tanks, radio-controlled from Earth or from an intermediate space station," and "rocket experts believe that [space] stations will orbit Earth in great numbers in a few years." The illustrations are a hoot.

By 1963, mind you, NASA had been in business for 5 years, and the Agency's Mercury/Geminii/Apollo program had been underway for at least two. We would actually land a man on the Moon a mere 6 years later. So these predictions weren't made years ahead of the fact, or in an informational vacuum.

And, to be fair, the astronomy book didn't get everything wrong. Eventually, we did send little robot "tanks" to explore another planetary body. It just wasn't the moon, and it wasn't until 1996. But "postal rockets" to provide communication between multiple space stations and Earth?" Yikes.

The point is, enthusiastic futurists and technology evangelists have been predicting revolutionary changes in our lives for the better part of the past century. And without question, our lives have changed. But rarely as quickly, or completely, or exactly in the ways, the predictions envisioned.

At this year's TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, Tim Berners-Lee, who's credited with inventing the World Wide Web, recounted that, when he first sent his boss a memo on his idea (which his boss had reluctantly agreed to let him pursue in his spare time), his boss's comment, in the margin, was a casual, "vague but exciting." And even Berners-Lee admitted, "The things that happened with the web were much more than we originally imagined."

Which is to say, even technology wizards don't always foresee which innovations are going to be the truly disruptive or transformational ones ... or how that technology will actually play out in life and the world.

Predictions are always interesting to read. And useful, in terms of considering general trends or movements that are influencing, or at least pushing against, life as we know it. But reading them, I'm always reminded of a game I used to play as a kid, when I'd try to predict which way a trickle of water from the hose was going to go through the garden dirt. One way or another, the water headed downhill. There's no stopping change or progress. But even when I tried to influence the outcome, by nudging dirt one way or another, or got excitedly sure about which way the stream was going to go ... it often surprised me, by finding some unexpected weak spot in the dirt and jumping sideways along a new course.

Will more people work in independent jobs and from home, over the next 10 years? Quite possibly. Will company benefit structures change? Probably... but also, probably, in some companies more than others. Will health care coverage and insurance systems change? Almost assuredly, now. But will the changes in how we live and work be as sweeping as revolutionary as the Time article predicts? I'm skeptical. There are other forces, and truths, that work against revolutionary and sweeping change in the world. Just ask anyone who's ever tried to change it. And that's true for the business world, as well (more on this later). But in any event ... the future of how we work will almost assuredly evolve in defiance of any firm prediction. And in ways, and in reaction to events, that we don't, or can't, foresee.

Personally, I'm okay with that.

(Image by Flickr user veloopity. More vintage images of the future here.)