Like I Always Say: Nothing’s Harder to Predict than the Future

Here, in case you were wondering, is Clifford Stoll’s explanation in Newsweek, circa 1995, for why the Internet will fail.

“Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”

I love reading stuff like this (and thanks to Jason Bellenger for the pointer).

“Then there are those pushing computers into schools. We’re told that multimedia will make schoolwork easy and fun. Students will happily learn from animated characters while taught by expertly tailored software.Who needs teachers when you’ve got computer-aided education? Bah. These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training. Sure, kids love videogames–but think of your own experience: can you recall even one educational filmstrip of decades past?”

What’s so interesting about this, beyond just the embarrassment that Mr. Stoll must surely feel at reading his own silliness, is that it reflects the truly astonishing need that humans seem to have to accomplish the impossible, i.e. to predict the future. It cannot be done. Not in any meaningful sense. Kierkegaard had it spot on: The problem is life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. Sure, if you gather 1000 people in a room and ask them to predict the closing price of Google stock on June 1, 2011, someone is going to get it right. That’s almost a statistical certainty. But that does not mean that person can predict the future, of course – do it 10 times in a row and I’ll grant you visionary status, but I’m pretty certain you can’t do it 10 times in a row. We all know this. Yet we all seem to love pretending otherwise. I don’t really get it, to be honest – as soon as I hear someone telling me what things will look like next year I stop listening. But there does seem to be an inexhaustible supply of such stuff; I’d venture to say that if you took all false predictive talk out of the talkosphere – magazines, blogs, what have you – you’d reduce the total amount of content by 25%.