Why predicting the future can be so dangerous

In 1994 I was working at Apple Computer. We were exploring new online services. This was the time of The Source, Compuserve, America Online and Apple’s own fledgling offering, eWorld. The consumer Internet was just around the corner.

In Boulder, Colorado we had a small research group called the Apple Media Lab. It had been started by a creative engineering rogue named Scott Converse. I would ultimately oversee it. In a stunning set of offices in dramatic view of the Flatirons, the group explored new online communities and envisioned new online experiences that might further expand our understanding of what might come next.

Across the hall from Apple’s Media Lab was a separate research team working for one of the largest and most successful newspaper chains: The Knight Ridder Media Lab. Here sat Roger Fidler, a sweet, eloquent fellow determinedly trying to figure out what the future might bring to this dominant news publishing monopoly. One day I stopped by and Roger showed me his vision: a newspaper in the form of an electronic tablet. Tablets were still far in the future. Apple’s kludgy Newton was on its way to being stillborn. The technical feasibility of Roger’s tablet was a long way off. In fact, his prototype was made of wood. The display was comprised of pasted-on replications of the day’s newspaper. A future so like the past that both derived from the fiber of trees.

Roger Fidler at the Knight Ridder Media Lab

Roger’s presentation made me uncomfortable. It was unrealistic, not simply because it couldn’t yet be built. It made me uncomfortable because it looked at the future through a mirror of the past. It suggested to newspapers that the future would be great because the primary shift would be to transfer the product from paper to pixels. The vision was as wooden as the prototype.

The online revolution was about far more than how a newspaper might look on evolving digital displays. The wooden tablet ignored changes in user behavior. It ignored the fundamental fact that what allowed newspapers to enjoy decades of massive success was their control over distribution. (“A license to print money” according to Lord Thomson of Thomson-Reuters.) And it ignored the most important fact that the open distribution of the Internet would enable a vast new marketplace of information and services. It would change everything — the least of which was how news content would be displayed.

Roger’s pitch was a hit at newspaper conferences. But it gave false solace. It was the mirage that gave momentary hope to the desert traveler. It allowed the industry to ignore how a hyper-competitive Internet would spawn myriad new voices, how it would enable the death of classifieds via online marketplaces, how it would break the hegemony of ad price control.

In 2010 Steve Jobs introduced the iPad on stage with a passel of legacy news publishers. Roger’s vision had become reality. Sort of. I had the same reaction: it was a chimera. Worse, it was a fatal distraction.

I don’t mean to suggest that I and my Apple colleagues were smarter. We weren’t. We weren’t more right as he was more wrong. We came at the question from very different perspectives. Roger and Knight Ridder were attempting to envision the future through the lens of their business, through the bias of their prior experience. We were looking at it through the lens of our technology, through what networked computing devices might do, through the bias that tech could solve anything and everything. We were all making mistakes.

By 1994 I had already busted my pick for fifteen years on the hard ground of new media with explorations in interactive services and computer software. The challenge is one identified by Einstein: we create a vision for ourselves in a fashion that suits us best.

Not long ago I reread Robert Persig’s exquisite Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It surfaced this bit of wisdom: We think of ourselves as looking forward into the future and looking backward into the past. This is wrong. Our present reality and our view of the future is based on the lens of our past. Correctly or not, it creates our perception of the future. But the future comes from behind us. We don’t see it coming. We hope it won’t surprise us. We think we know what will happen. But often we’re wrong. Our perceptions be damned, the future sneaks up and changes the reality of everything.

Richard Gingras has walked the bleeding edge from satellite networks to search engines, from Apple to Google. He’s made more mistakes than you.

Vice President, News, Google

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