Trends & Quick Takes Perspective
Forecasts and Futurism
It’s time again to look at a few of last year’s short-term forecasts and how they’ve panned out and offer some of this year’s forecasts, with a side helping of related commentary. Unlike last year’s review of 2009 forecasts, I’m going to keep the 2010 commentary short—focusing only on a few special cases. You can go back to T&QT Perspective: Trends and Forecasts in the February 2010 Cites & Insights [10:2] and draw your own judgments. I was going to include deathwatches—but there are too many to include in a medium-length roundup. I am including a handful of library forecasts.
I’m omitting some discussions entirely. In the ones I provide, I’m omitting forecasts where I either didn’t understand what was being predicted or haven’t the vaguest idea whether it’s happened. In general, my comments are in italic.
That’s the title for Nuri Djavit and Paul Newnes’ December 3, 2009 post at digital media buzz (www.digitalmediabuzz.com). A few of the forecasts:
Facebook replaces personal email. Entirely? Wrong. Partially? Maybe.
Mobile commerce—The promise that has never delivered, yet. Yes, there was more of this in 2010. No, it’s not conquering everything.
Fewer registrations—one sign-in fits all. I think this is also “this year’s sure thing.” Fewer? Maybe. “One fits all”? Not so much.
Info-art. I don’t believe the state of helpful information visualization has improved, but ways to bias and distort raw data continue to be refined.
More Flash, not less. Unclear. I’m inclined to say this was just wrong.
That’s the title for a December 15, 2009 post at Krafty Librarian. Krafty references another post, Max Anderson’s “Top digital trends for 2010 (and other tech news)” (posted December 10, 2009 at The Cornflower, nnlm.gov/gmr/blog).
Krafty breaks things down into “Hot in 2009,” “Not in 2009,” “Hot in 2010?” and “Not in 2010?” Some of the trends are medicine-specific and I’m omitting those, but the others are in some cases provocative. My 2011 comments in italic:
Hot in 2009: App phones (and two medicine-specific trends). “Say goodbye to ‘smart phones’ and hello app phones.” Damned if I know the difference between smart phones and “app phones,” but most people still call them smart phones—and, by the way, most people still buy feature phones or plain old cell phones.
Not in 2009: Blogs (“everybody is tweeting now”) and medicine-specific items. Here in 2011: Millions of people still blog. “Everybody” only tweets for a very special definition of “everybody.”
Hot in 2010?: Flash, Twitter and Mobile optimization with a followup universal statement, quoted verbatim: “Everybody is using app phones.” To which—that is, the universalism--I can only say, balderdash. Nor do I think Flash has gotten hotter.
Not in 2010?: Google Wave, E-readers in medical libraries. Right about Wave.
ReadWriteWeb, December 11, 2009, Ravit Lichtenberg.
Social media will become a single, cohesive experience embedded in our activities and technologies. Didn’t happen, won’t happen.
Mobile will take center stage. Certainly not for all of us.
Expect an intense battle as people and companies look to own their own content. “Intense battle” overstates the case for 2010.
Enterprises will shape the next generation of what we’ve called “social media.” Translated: Companies will define social media. My take: I no longer think “social media” means anything except to marketers.
Finally: Real, cool and very bizarre online-offline integration. Among other things, “you’ll never need to ask for a business card again”… Bull, except for a narrow, privileged definition of “you.”
Apparently Popular Mechanics feels people “need to know” concepts years before they’re actually significant in the marketplace—if they ever are. Consider last year’s list: Anthropomimetic machines--Robots that mimic human form. Direct carbon fuel cells. Metabolomics. DNA Origami—A suggestion that Caltech and IBM can “strategically position” folded DNA strands as anchor points for tiny computer-chip components. Piezoelectric display—“screens that can change shape or texture”—mobile devices that “can harden protectively when turned off, and soften into a depressible touchscreen when turned on.” Osseointegration--Prosthetics that fuse with living bone. Horizontal drilling—Tapping “trillions of cubic feet of natural gas” in the U.S. by drilling to shale beds and turning the drills 90 degrees. Kinetic hydropower—Underwater turbines gaining power from natural flow. Nanoyarn—Carbon nanotubes woven into yarn for commercial applications. Ultracapacitors—Possible alternatives to batteries for electric cars.
Are there any of those you felt you needed to know about last year? Seen any self-hardening mobile devices lately?
paidContent (paidcontent.org) on December 1, 2009, courtesy of Sarah Rotman Epps and James McQuivey, both of Forrester Research. Last year, I said most of these were likely to be right—and that’s not too surprising, since Forrester is one of the more cautious “market research” firms.
E Ink will lose its claim to near-100% market share for e-reader displays. True, particularly given the increasingly fuzzy definition of e-reader.
Dual-screen mobile phones and netbooks will eat into e-reader demand. Defining “eat into” is difficult, as e-reader sales appear to be rising.
Apps will make non-reading devices more e-book friendly. True.
eReaders will get apps, too. I guess this one’s true?
Amazon will launch a suite of new touchscreen e-readers. The writers expected color and flexible displays as well as touchscreens. They got this one wrong.
B&N will steal market share from Amazon and Sony. Unclear.
E-book content sales will top $500 million in the U.S. True.
E-textbooks will become more accessible, but sales will be modest. Unfortunately true.
Magazine and newspaper publishers will launch their own apps and devices. True.
China, India, Brazil, and the EU will propel global growth, but the U.S. will still be the biggest market. I don’t know enough to comment.
Wired on August 3, 2009 by Brian X. Chen—and interesting because, even though tablets did well in 2010, Chen was almost entirely wrong. He thought Dell would be a big player, claimed it would be free with a suitable contract, have a 5" screen and run Android or Windows 7. He also lectured anybody who criticized his forecast, essentially telling people that it was inappropriate to be skeptical. Which may be Wired in a nutshell. (I do credit the magazine for consistency of a sort. The November 2010 issue’s writeup of the iPad 3G as “mobile product of the year” says “The laptop is at its end. You may have already purchased your last one” and ends “If you don’t have [an iPad] yet, you will soon enough.”)
Most of the deathwatch items I culled last year are so silly there’s no reason to review them again. Go back to the February 2010 issue for your entertainment. The silliest may have been Mike Elgan’s list of “obsolete technologies” that should be “killed” in 2010 because they’re “dumb”—including home entertainment remotes, landline phones and music CDs. Oh, and business cards.
Freedom to Tinker does something almost nobody else in the forecasting game does: It publishes an annual post reviewing the previous year’s forecast and how things worked out. This year’s scorecard (for 2010) appeared on January 25, 2011. As always, the first and most certain prediction is “DRM technology will still fail to prevent widespread infringement. In a related development, pigs will still fail to fly.”
I didn’t include this blog’s predictions in last year’s roundup, and some of them are a little too specialized for me to comment on (e.g. “Federated DRM systems, such as DECE and KeyChest, will not catch on”—where they say they were mostly wrong). Some of those that I should have included, and how they worked out:
(4) Major newspaper content will continue to be available online for free (with ads) despite cheerleading for paywalls by Rupert Murdoch and others. They say “mostly right” and I’d agree. The San Francisco Chronicle (and its very old and enormously popular SFGate website) is doing an interesting thing: Some stories, including some of the best writing and analysis, are embargoed from SFGate for two or three days (and marked as such in the print paper), only available via paid digital subscriptions.
(5) The Supreme Court will strike down pure business model patents in its Bilski opinion. The Court will establish a new test for patentability, rather than accepting the Federal Circuit's test. Unfortunately, although the specific patent was struck down, there’s no new test or general striking down of business-model patents.
(6) Patent reform legislation won't pass in 2010. “Another prediction that works every year. Verdict: Right.”
(8) Fresh evidence will come to light of the extent of law enforcement access to mobile phone location-data, intensifying the debate about the status of mobile location data under the Fourth Amendment and electronic surveillance statutes. Civil libertarians will call for stronger oversight, but nothing will come of it by year's end. “The issue gained significant public attention through a trio of pro-privacy victories in the federal courts and Congress held a hearing on ECPA reform that focused specifically on location-based services. Despite the efforts of the Digital Due Process Coalition, no bills were introduced in Congress to reform and clarify electronic surveillance statutes. Verdict: Mostly right.”
(9) The FTC will continue to threaten to do much more to punish online privacy violations, but it won't do much to make good on the threats. “As a student of the FTC's Chief Technologist, I'm not touching this one with a ten-foot pole.” That Chief Technologist, Ed Felten, used to be Freedom to Tinker.
(10) The new Apple tablet will be gorgeous but expensive. It will be a huge hit only if it offers some kind of advance in the basic human interface, such as a really effective full-sized on-screen keyboard. “Gorgeous? Check. Expensive? Check. Huge hit? Check. Advance in the basic human interface? The Reality Distortion Field forces me to say "yes." Verdict: Mostly right.” Hard to disagree.
(11) The disadvantages of iTunes-style walled garden app stores will become increasingly evident. Apple will consider relaxing its restrictions on iPhone apps, but in the end will offer only rhetoric, not real change. Verdict: Wrong…and, if anything, Apple’s tightening the restrictions.
(12) Internet Explorer's usage share will fall below 50 percent for the first time in a decade, spurred by continued growth of Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. “There's no generally-accepted yardstick for browser usage share, because there are so many different ways to measure it. But Wikipedia has helpfully aggregated browser usage share statistics. All five metrics listed there show the usage share falling by between 5 and 10 percent over the last years, with current values being between 41 to 61 percent. The mean of these statistics is 49.5 percent, and the median is 46.94 percent. Verdict: Right.” Well…maybe.
(13) Amazon and other online retailers will be forced to collect state sales tax in all 50 states. Wrong.
(14) Mobile carriers will continue locking consumers in to long-term service contracts despite the best efforts of Google and the handset manufacturers to sell unlocked phones. Right—although Virgin Mobile and other non-contract operations are increasingly looking attractive, especially for heavy data/texting users.
(15) Palm will die, or be absorbed by Research In Motion or Microsoft. “This prediction was almost right. Palm's Web OS didn't catch on, and in April the company was acquired by a large IT firm. However, that technology firm was HP, not RIM or Microsoft. Verdict: Half right.” Or, rather, wrong but with an asterisk.
(16) In July, when all the iPhone 3G early adopters are coming off their two-year lock-in with AT&T, there will be a frenzy of Android and other smartphone devices competing for AT&T's customers. Apple, no doubt offering yet another version of the iPhone at the time, will be forced to cut its prices, but will hang onto its centralized app store. Android will be the big winner in this battle, in terms of gained market share, but there will be all kinds of fragmentation, with different carriers offering slightly different and incompatible variants on Android. “Almost everything we predicted here happened. The one questionable prediction is the price cut, but we're going to say that this counts. Verdict: Right.”
(18) Twitter will peak and begin its decline as a human-to-human communication medium. “We're not sure how to measure this prediction, but Twitter recently raised another $200 million in venture capital and its users exchanged 250 billion tweets in 2010. That doesn't look like decline to us. Verdict: Wrong.”
(20) Facebook customers will become increasingly disenchanted with the company, but won't leave in large numbers because they'll have too much information locked up in the site. Right.
(21) The fashionable anti-Internet argument of 2010 will be that the Net has passed its prime, supplanting the (equally bogus) 2009 fad argument that the Internet is bad for literacy. “Wired declared the web dead back in August. Is that the same thing as saying the Net has passed its prime? Bogus arguments all sound the same to us. Verdict: Mostly right.”
There are some others not mentioned here. The overall score according to them: seven right, eight mostly wrong, one half-right, two mostly wrong, four wrong. At worst, I might call the “half-right” one mostly wrong—but that’s still a remarkable track record, although it’s less than 50%. It’s also a remarkable display of honesty.
The first set of predictions appears first even though it was the most recent one I encountered, simply because it’s Freedom to Tinker.
Posted on Freedom to Tinker on January 26, 2011 by Timothy B. Lee. The predictions come from discussions among six folks, “but note that we don’t individually agree with every prediction.” It’s a neat set of 25. Where I have a comment, it’s in italic.
1. DRM technology will still fail to prevent widespread infringement. In a related development, pigs will still fail to fly. Always right.
2. Copyright and patent issues will continue to be stalemated in Congress, with no major legislation on either subject. Probably right—and the good news is it’s not getting worse.
3. Momentum will grow for HTTPS by default, with several major websites adding HTTPS support. Work will begin on adding HTTPS-by-default support to Apache.
4. Despite substantial attention by Congress to online privacy, the FTC won't be granted authority to mandate Do Not Track compliance.
5. Some advertising networks and third-party Web services will begin to voluntarily respect the Do Not Track header, which will be supported by all the major browsers…
6. Congress will pass an electronic privacy bill along the lines of the principles set out by the Digital Due Process Coalition. I’d be pleasantly surprised.
7. The seemingly N2 patent lawsuits among all the major smartphone players will be resolved through a grand cross-licensing bargain, cut in a dark, smoky room, whose terms will only be revealed through some congratulatory emails that leak to the press. None of these lawsuits will get anywhere near a courtroom.
8. Android smartphones will continue gaining market share, mostly at the expense of BlackBerry and Windows Mobile phones. However, Android's gains will mostly be at the low end of the market; the iPhone will continue to outsell any single Android smartphone model by a wide margin.
9. 2011 will see the outbreak of the first massive botnet/malware that attacks smartphones, most likely iPhone or Android models running older software than the latest and greatest. If Android is the target, it will lead to aggressive finger-pointing, particularly given how many users are presently running Android software that’s a year or more behind Google’s latest—a trend that will continue in 2011.
10. Mainstream media outlets will continue building custom “apps” to present their content on mobile devices. They’ll fall short of expectations and fail to reverse the decline of any magazines or newspapers.
11. At year's end, the district court will still not have issued a final judgment on the Google Book Search settlement. Sigh. Unfortunately, I suspect this is right.
12. The market for Internet set-top boxes like Google TV and Apple TV will continue to be chaotic throughout 2011, with no single device taking a decisive market share lead. The big winners will be online services like Netflix, Hulu, and Pandora that work with a wide variety of hardware devices. Given built-in services in new TVs and Blu-ray players, I wonder whether “chaotic” is another word for “in decline”?
13. Online sellers with device-specific consumer stores (Amazon for Kindle books, Apple for iPhone/iPad apps, Microsoft for Xbox Live, etc.) will come under antitrust scrutiny, and perhaps even be dragged into court. Nothing will be resolved before the end of 2011.
[14-17 on electronic voting machines omitted as outside C&I’s scope.]
18. Multiple Wikileaks alternatives will pop up, and pundits will start to realize that mass leaks are enabled by technology trends, not just by one freaky Australian dude.
19. The RIAA and/or MPAA will be sued over their role in the government's actions to reassign DNS names owned by allegedly unlawful web sites. Even if the lawsuit manages to get all the way to trial, there won't be a significant ruling against them.
20. Copyright claims will be asserted against players even further removed from underlying infringement than Internet/online Service Providers: domain name system participants, ad and payment networks, and upstream hosts. Some of these claims will win at the district court level, mostly on default judgments, but appeals will still be pending at year's end.
[21-25 on DNS, TLDs, network neutrality and cable stuff omitted as somewhat outside of scope.]
FTT seems to run about half right, and I’d be surprised to see that change. There’s not one of the predictions that I find outrageous. The comments are interesting, including ones about the conflict between universal HTTPS and latency (that is, several more network roundtrips are required for an HTTPS transaction, and that can add up—does Gmail seem more sluggish these days, for example?) I find one comment amusing, as it suggests that DRM really does work but just not perfectly—and unless “work” is defined as “annoy the hell out of honest citizens and not even slow down true criminals,” I’m hard-put to agree.
This is a refreshing counter-forecast by Scott Rosenberg on October 28, 2010 at Wordyard. He’s noting a piece on a New Yorker blog that seems to conclude that the “established players” in media will come out “on top” in newer news media, rather than Gawker Media and its ilk becoming “dominant players.”
“The future” has been lying “therein” over and over for the last 15 years, yet it never seems to turn out that way. This kind of thinking drives me nuts—it’s always a zero-sum battle for dominance. (Can the scrappy little new guys grow so powerful that they’ll replace the big old guys? Or will the lumbering big old guys survive and “ultimately come out on top”?) And it always misses the point.
The point? The new folks (Gawker, Huffington Post before it became part of AOLd Media, etc) won’t “become dominant players” but may be active, important players—while the smarter “established players” will also be active, important players.
In other words, this is a future with no small group of “dominant players,” but maybe a much broader spectrum of modestly successful players. This is because, in a world awash in content, the media business is never going to be as profitable as it was in a world of scarce content. It will be sustainable, but it won’t support the sort of monopoly profits that made it so attractive for seekers after dominance.
I think Rosenberg’s only too right in saying “this outcome is almost entirely inconceivable to New York media insiders…” and that the rest of us should hope for a future of many smaller forces and fewer media megacorps. It’s been clear for a while that the “death of book publishers” translates to “death of a dozen New York publishers as the dominant forces,” and it’s not just books.
Jason Griffey on December 29, 2010 at ALA TechSource blog—but these aren’t library predictions. Griffey believes we’ll see “traditional eInk eReader[s]” like the Kindle drop to the $50 range—but that Kindle may not be the one. He thinks Amazon will release a non-LCD color Kindle for around $239, that Barnes & Noble is losing money on NookColor and will shift to a “more tablet-like interface” this year, and that Apple will release a thinner, faster iPad with a front-facing camera. He also predicts that Apple will get major textbook publishers to turn out iBook versions.
Much as I love to tweak Griffey for his Appleogetics and “digital conquers everything” overstatements, I have no reason to doubt any of these predictions—although I’d be surprised (if pleasantly) to see major textbook publishers turn out reasonably-priced e-textbooks in significant numbers in 2011. I want that to happen, and have been calling for textbooks as the best multibillion-dollar market for ebooks for years; that doesn’t mean it’s likely. (Griffey’s right to grump about Tex Avery’s claim in a comment that this post was a “page long ad for Apple”: Apple plays a very small role in this set of predictions.)
ReadWriteWeb just loves predictions, and maybe making fun of them is also shooting fish in a barrel. But, hey… This December 31, 2010 post offers 37 predictions from several different staff members. Among the more interesting or amusing, setting aside the many inside-biz things that—well, do you care whether Groupon buys Foursquare or Kevin Rose leaves Digg?:
Seamus Condron says QR codes will “finally score big with a mainstream industry: wine”; that by December 2011, “we won’t be talking about the glorious resurrection of Delicious”; that many Facebook users will complain about privacy but never actually visit their privacy settings; and that “Flickr: In Memoriam” will be the title of a late 2011 RWW post.
Abraham Hyatt says a major digital news organization will acquire a “once-major legacy news organization” and much handwringing will occur—but didn’t that happen years ago, when AOL “acquired” Time-Warner? Guess who won in that battle of new vs. old? He also says there will be fewer bloggers but as many blog-readers (probably right) and that an increasing number of people, albeit a small minority, will “go online every day but visit fewer than 10 different sites a week.” He calls it “the Facebook bubble.” I wish I thought he was wrong, but I don’t.
Jared Smith expects Verizon’s network to see “strain it hasn’t yet seen before” thanks to the Verizon iPhone, sees NewsCorp either spinning off or shutting down MySpace and sees IE9 as bringing “a renaissance for Web designers.” IE9? Seriously?
This ReadWriteWeb post is dated December 28, 2010. Melanson offers five predictions: The idea of the ‘real-time Web’ will become “the standard as dynamic, real-time content permeates every corner of the web”; complex Internet TV systems (like Google TV) may not conquer everything; mobile payment systems will make inroads but won’t be as important in the US as in developing nations; “we’re going to see Facebook really do something with its virtual currency”; and Twitter will become a “consumer friendly, consumption-based tool.”
I don’t see the real-time web as ubiquitous, but that’s me. I suspect separate internet TV devices—especially expensive ones like Logitech’s Google TV box—are on the wrong side of a technology tendency toward building limited internet TV functions into TVs and Blu-ray players, so I think I’m with Melanson there. I’m almost certain he’s right about mobile payments. I can’t bring myself to give a damn about the last two predictions, one way or the other.
Another RWW set, this time from December 29, 2010. (I’ve skipped two sets where I couldn’t find anything worth commenting on.) Perez has 13 predictions, among them:
2: Google Music Launches! It's awesome! ...But it's not as good as iTunes because it offers music only—not videos. I'm going with a Q1 2011 launch date on this one. And maybe an Amazon partnership, too.
3: In-app purchases take hold as new way to monetize apps, but the trend almost drives you nuts as even the silliest, most useless free apps try to make an extra buck through in-app purchases and virtual goods. (Want even more fart sounds? Check out the premium sounds here, only 99 cents each!)
6: iPad continues to rule the tablet PC world, beating its Android competitors with ease. However, tablet computing as a trend continues, eating away at desktop/notebook/netbook sales.
10: Foursquare, not as fun as you first thought.
11: Facebook Places. More fun than you first thought.
12: Facebook Messages. Nope, still doesn't kill email. Nice try, though!
13. Chrome OS launches on netbooks to middling sales. People prefer tablets now.
The second half of #6 is one of those odd situations, as netbook sales continue to rise, albeit at a slower rate than previously. Notably, the big drop in that growth percentage came before the iPad was introduced and was an absolute, 100% predictable occurrence: When year-to-year growth is at 600%, that growth rate is going to fall off a cliff in the very near future. (In its inimitable style, a Techcrunch post seems to equate year-to-year unit growth with actual sales, turning a slight decrease in growth rate into “no one is buying netbooks right now.” But then, Wired does exactly the same thing, equating a reduction in growth rate with “shriveling” sales.)
If you don’t already know what “Alt Text” by Lore Sjöberg is—well, think of it as the sensible part of Wired.com. That is to say, deliberate humor. This piece appeared December 30, 2010, and it’s a rather lovely take on how futurists deal with the past when, well, the world goes its own way. If you’re really good at it, you’re always right—for some definition of “right.” There’s no way to excerpt this brief lunacy in a sensible manner; go read it.
I picked this up in a December 29, 2010 item by Darryl K. Taft at LinuxDevices; it’s the fifth iteration of IBM’s “Next Five in Five” list. The five? “You'll beam up your friends in 3-D”; “Batteries will breathe air to power our devices”; “You won’t need to be a scientist to save the planet”; “Your commute will be personalized”; “Computers will help energize your city.”
Expansions? The first has to do with real-time use of 3D holograms; I dunno, but would bet against really widespread live 3-D hologram interaction by 2015. The second, expanded to a prediction that battery advances “will enable devices to run about 10 times longer than they do today,” strikes me as implausible: Battery advances, which are mostly chemistry, just haven’t been that fast. Of course, the expansion also suggests that future cellphones and ereaders would be so energy-efficient that they won’t need batteries, “scavenging” energy either from your movements or from thin air. The third has to do with widespread ambient data contributions and seems reasonably likely. The fourth is, as expanded, already happening; so is the last, at least on a small scale.
One of the other retired librarians in Livermore seems to have built an enormously successful blog on the basis of daily (numbered!) posts and a large cadre of active commenters, only a few of which seem to foam at the mouth. On January 3, 2011, Will Unwound #321 is “Dear Monday—Joe the Soothsayer asks for your Predictions.” It’s a guest post by Joe Schallan—and maybe the most appropriate response is to say “Go read it. Take it exactly as seriously as it asks to be taken.” The same goes for the comments.
Elizabeth Brown on January 13, 2011 at Social Disruption. Brown is a librarian, but these really aren’t library predictions. They’re things Brown thinks might happen this year or next (might? with an attitude like that, Brown is likely to be valuable rather than a true Guru). Excerpts:
1. The backlash against Facebook, and possibly twitter will increase… I think [a lot of people] will just get bored and try something else… What will replace it? I’m not sure, but I do think this tool will be more fully integrated with other services, like an aggregator, and work equally well with apps and web sites…
2. The hype for e-books will die down, especially once a widespread DRM/privacy issue occurs and lots of people lose content they paid for… [And print will continue viable for some time.]
3. The hype about smart phones, ipads, and handheld/lapheld app devices will continue…
4. Semantic web applications will come closer to successfully developing and marketing a killer app…
My extracts don’t do justice to Brown’s expansions. I’m less sanguine about #4; otherwise, I’m not inclined to second-guess her.
Just for fun…
Posted on December 2, 2010 at What’s Next: Top Trends, this is an interesting commentary on why people love predictions—and why some of us have fun with failed predictions.
What I especially love about bad predictions and prophets of doom is that they both highlight the danger of extrapolating from a single trend or from seeing the world with a single lens. In other words they use critically false assumptions. They assume that things will always go on as they are or fail to foresee the impact of new events or innovations. There is also the problem of groupthink. As the writer JG Ballard once said: “If enough people predict something it won’t happen.”
If “seeing the world with a single lens” is another way of describing “OR thinking,” the tendency to require winners and losers, I agree—but, frankly, these days more bad predictions arise from the assumption that everything will change, rapidly. This post organizes a highly selective list of bad predictions chronologically—starting with the committee that advised King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1486 that “So many centuries after the Creation, it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value” and Trithemius’ dismissal of printed books.
It’s an interesting list, and a fairly long one for a blog post. I suggest reading it in the original. I do like a British parliamentary committee’s dismissal of the electric lightbulb (after Edison developed on) as “unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.” On the other hand, the timeline includes Clifford Stoll’s 1995 assertion: “The truth is 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”—and I’m not sure Stoll was wrong on any count, certainly not the second or third.
That’s by John Rennie, in the December 2010 IEEE Spectrum, with this tagline: “His stunning prophecies have earned him a reputation as a tech visionary, but many of them don't look so good on close inspection.” Indeed. Here’s a quote from Kurzweil at the February 2005 TED conference:
By 2010 computers will disappear. They'll be so small, they'll be embedded in our clothing, in our environment. Images will be written directly to our retina, providing full-immersion virtual reality, augmented real reality. We'll be interacting with virtual personalities.
And here’s the kicker—the reason gurus like Kurzweil continue to be taken seriously: “If you have a different impression of the world today, Kurzweil would want you to know that he is technically correct. If the rest of the world fails to think that's enough, the rest of the world is wrong.” Yes, there are chips embedded in the environment (not so much in clothing). Yes, some folks interact with “virtual personalities” in some cases.
Of course, Kurzweil did not mean to say that all computers would actually disappear. Rather, embedded microprocessors would allow many of the functions once uniquely served by computers to disseminate to phones, tablet computers, and even cars, clothes, and key chains. And in that sense, 2010 might indeed be seen as a ringing vindication of Kurzweil's prophecy, because smartphones and iPads are everywhere.
Here we have it: the ultimate out of any overeager guru. “When I said X, I meant Y.” “By 2010 computers will disappear” really means “by 2010 embedded microprocessors will take on some computing functions.” Gotcha. Did I say “black”? I meant “Not entirely white.”
Rennie isn’t buying it: “But a moment's reflection reveals that expansive interpretation of Kurzweil's remarks to be, at bottom, insipid.” If you use the “expansive interpretation” it had already happened in 2005.
Therein lie the frustrations of Kurzweil's brand of tech punditry. On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable. Yet he continues to be taken seriously enough as an oracle of technology to command very impressive speaker fees at pricey conferences, to author best-selling books, and to have cofounded Singularity University, where executives and others are paying quite handsomely to learn how to plan for the not-too-distant day when those disappearing computers will make humans both obsolete and immortal.
Here, though, Kurzweil is no more than one case of many: Once you’re a guru, you’re always a guru, no matter how vapid or wrong you are. When 2029 arrives and researchers have not “reverse engineered the human brain” or built an AI that can truly pass as human, Kurzweil will have an explanation for why he’s nonetheless right. Or, in the manner of many other proper gurus of the future, he’ll simply ignore criticism.
That’s just a taste of a 3,000-word article. It’s well worth reading—both for the perils of prediction and for the ways gurus evade admitting error. The sidebar includes a link to Ray Kurzweil’s response. You may also find the comments interesting. You might want to read “Kurzweil, the Singularity and His Futurism,” posted by the same John Rennie at The Gleaming Retort on December 23, 2010.
Mita Williams wrote “The future of libraries is what we create in the present” on November 17, 2010 at New Jack Librarian. I tend to agree with the title—but I’m not so strong on what she’s saying—or at least not all of it. She begins by quoting a metaspeech: A talk by Dorothea Salo prepared for but, thanks to weather, not given during the 2011 OLA Superconference. Here’s the key paragraph:
Buying books and journals distinguishes libraries less and less, as published information becomes a commodity and open access makes inroads into scholarly communication. Perhaps this will turn collection development inside out! Instead of collecting from the vast information world for our patron base, we will collect unique materials from our patron base to preserve and present to the world.
The second sentence is interesting and quite likely a big part of the future of distinctive academic libraries. But I think Salo (for whom I have the greatest respect) overstates the “commoditization” of publications and the extent to which everything is or will be online tomorrow. And I don’t hold Salo responsible for what Williams says next:
We will come to see one large collection of items as the result of a quaint but ultimately unkind hoarding instinct. The mission is now to associate every item in a library building into a smaller and more meaningful collection of items. Each item in the library will have an explanation of why it was selected for the collection, just like a museum.
For ARL-class libraries and most public libraries, for at least the next few decades, I believe that’s improbable and not a desirable future. “Library as boutique/library as archival collection” may be part of a library’s mission, but we are a very long ways from it being reasonable to abandon the broadly-selected collection.
Williams says “we no longer live in a world of scarcity.” That’s both true and false: True for a small elite and for some categories of materials, false for most people in many situations. It’s a privileged statement, not only a first-world but an elite-of-the-first-world assertion. Most people in the U.S. and, I would venture, Williams’ Australia make real, difficult choices among acquisitions. Buying all the ereaders and either ebooks or physical books that might serve their needs and desires will interfere with other uses for that income. For librarians to say “everything’s free on the internet” and abandon large collections to take on entirely an archival role is, I believe, to create a dystopian future.
I have the same feelings about John Dupuis’ “Reimagining the University Press and the Post-Collection Library,” posted November 24, 2010 at Confessions of a Science Librarian—and, again, Dupuis is somebody I respect but don’t always agree with. For example, “post-collection library” involves a bunch of assumptions I’m unwilling to make except, possibly, for science and some other specialized libraries.
Dupuis seems to believe monographs are doomed:
Even long-form text-based communication will probably evolve, even within the humanities, into more compact, concise forms. A series of shorter, blog-post-like, essays seems like an interesting model for even fairly complex communication online rather than huge "books."
Even for scholarly monographs (and Dupuis goes on to say “Trade book publishing…is a whole other kettle of fish”), that seems improbable as a universal future. That there will be more lengths and forms seems nearly certain. That physical collections will vanish in any medium-term future seems highly improbable. But then, Dupuis also refers to “the media singularity,” and I don’t buy it—the idea that essentially all current media forms will die. Change, yes (as they’ve been changing for years); die, probably not. And, to some extent, Dupuis is relying on the same “end of scarcity” overstatement as Williams:
Our collecting has always been scarcity driven. We collect media for our patrons because they're scarce and expensive and our patrons need us to pay for them. But if those media either no longer exist or are no longer scarce, then what's left?
Again, that depends on the definition of “scarce.” I’m not sure what else to say here; this is a future that strikes me as improbable on a general basis. Dupuis ends the post “Any ideas?” and, as of early February 2011, there are no comments.
Dorothea Salo offers specific possibilities for 2011 in this December 30, 2011 post at Book of Trogool—and starts out with the kind of paragraph that keeps me pointing to Salo’s work and saying “There: You need to pay attention to her” when I have the opportunity:
Before I get to crystal-ball-gazing, I have to point out my track record, because it’s really quite bad. Not only am I on record with a major prediction that didn’t come true (“IRs in the US will fold”), I quite failed to predict a number of things that did, from Harvard’s OA policy to California telling Nature Publishing Group to go suck eggs.
Salo is not a Guru, even as she’s (appropriately) becoming recognized as a national expert on institutional repositories, expanding academic library missions to meet new institutional needs and related issues. She’s offering some things “that wouldn’t surprise me a bit in 2011.” The first three bullets require Salo’s commentary and links to make any sense at all; I am not qualified to comment on them. Here are the others, with Salo’s commentary excerpted or eliminated and my comments in italic:
FRPAA won’t make it this time either. Sorry. Maybe next time. Probably right, unfortunately.
Some chemistry department somewhere will drop ACS accreditation because the institution can’t afford ACS journals. If not in 2011, then sometime soon, I’d bet.
A bare handful of Big Deal renewals will blow up, à la California and NPG. Likely and perhaps salutary, but, as Salo says:
Faculty will start a lot of “why don’t those damn librarians…” grumbling. Nearly certain, based on what we’ve already seen elsewhere.
An IR’s gonna fold. Yes, all right, I was wrong when I said this the first time, and I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong again. But I’ll say it nonetheless. I see too many libraries who opened IRs on a wing and a prayer without adequate planning or even a sensible collection-development policy. Let’s face it, folks: in the absence of mandates, the OA-via-IRs experiment failed...
We’ll see a bare handful more campus or patchwork mandates. I don’t think we’ve quite seen the end of the post-Harvard wave. I do think we’re close to that end—and there won’t be a second wave, not without a lot more work and evangelism than the open-access movement is currently mustering. I’d like to believe Salo’s wrong, but I don’t.
Another major university press will merge with its library or fold. Likely and maybe a good thing.
Crowdsourced data-analysis projects will increase, and pick up more good press. Another case where I don’t know enough to even understand this.
I’d bet Salo will beat Freedom to Tinker’s batting average—that she’ll be right on most of these.
Andy Woodworth posted this on January 4, 2011 at Agnostic, Maybe. There’s a paragraph of discussion for each one, which I’m omitting here:
More public and school libraries will close. Academic libraries will be scaled back.
There will be more paywalls to content.
There will be an ereader company that will work with libraries.
There will be a copyright reckoning.
There will be a philosophical shakeup in the profession.
The libraries that start new construction this year will be based more around spaces and services rather than the collection itself.
Despite everything, it will still be a good year to be a librarian.
I think the fourth (copyright) is highly improbable, at least for 2011, and I’m at odds with the fifth because I don’t think “one big team” thinking serves librarianship very well (but hey, I’m not a librarian). Otherwise? We shall see.
I’m closing with this, posted January 6, 2011 at The Gypsy Librarian by Angel Rivera. He read Brian T. Sullivan’s “Academic Autopsy Report 2050” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, about how academic libraries would be dead by 2050—and feels the piece begs for rebuttal:
I've heard the piece is supposed to be satire, and that would not worry me were it not for the fact that our campus president would likely view it seriously and use it as evidence to close the library down…
Then Rivera takes on the major points in the essay. He calls the post long, but in fact his point-by-point commentary is only about 1,300 words and well worth reading in the original.
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