:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

The Perils of Prediction


   Predicting the future accurately is extremely difficult. If it weren't,
   many more of us would be millionaires. Whenever I'm asked to try, I
   often say only fools or geniuses predict the future. The problem is we
   don't know who is who until it's too late. We can hardly be blamed for
   wanting early warning about what to expect.


   One's general perspective on life and the future is key. Optimists
   often hype new technologies, ascribing transformational properties to
   them that may not be proven or even likely. This pitfall can be
   difficult to avoid. Having witnessed one of the most technologically
   transformational periods in human history with the advent of personal
   computers and the Internet, it is all too easy to think that the next
   cool thing that comes along will be similarly transformational.

   Before the Segway was unveiled, word leaked out about a new invention
   by Dean Kamen code-named "Ginger." There were widespread predictions
   that it would transform our lives and our urban landscapes. It is very
   easy to get carried away by the excitement of a new idea.

   Pessimists, on the other hand, are likely to focus on the potentially
   damaging or deleterious effects of new technologies. This can be
   especially true of those who wish to defend the status quo.

   The natural tendency of those who track technological trends is to
   focus on the new. It can be problematic when that focus is too narrow
   to include the complete picture. For example, someone who highlights
   the trend of more teens using social networking sites such as
   [145] can easily overlook that most teens ages 12-17
   actually don't use such sites (as recently reported in an L.A.
   Times/Bloomberg poll). People can easily assume that a majority or even
   most of a given population have adopted a technology.

   Optimists tend to predict more rapid technological transformations than
   what happens in reality. History is rife with examples of technology
   pundits predicting the widespread impact of such things as "flying
   cars." We're still waiting. The truth is, even if a new technology will
   have a transformative impact, things typically take longer than we

   Other points of failure

   Perhaps the most difficult pitfall to avoid is when the predictor fails
   to take into account a factor that may not even exist at the time of
   making the prediction. For example, it wasn't all that long ago when
   people were predicting a bright future for "teletext." Who would have
   predicted back then that it would be made completely obsolete by the

   When computers and networks began to take over, the "paperless society"
   became the watchword of the future. Paper would no longer be required,
   as information, business transactions, and even money would be zipped
   around on wires. Computers made it easy to print out virtually anything
   on paper, and so we do, in reams. Those predicting a paperless society
   clearly expected human nature to change in a way that it didn't.

   Those who want to be "cool" are likely to track and adopt trends simply
   because they are trendy. This encourages the suspension of doubt and
   critical thinking. Instead of wondering whether a new technology really
   has what it takes to deliver on the hype of its inventors or marketers,
   technology fans might take such claims at face value.

   "Numeracy" or "numerical literacy" is the numerical version of literacy
   and should be a goal of every adult, as my colleague Walt Crawford has
   correctly advocated. With numeracy, you can quickly see through lies or
   misleading statements that are being propped up with numbers that
   cannot be true or are being misinterpreted.

   Avoid the pitfalls

   Thinking carefully about such pitfalls as I've identified here can help
   you make more clearsighted predictions as well as think critically
   about the predictions of others. Predictions are a part of life, and
   they can be informative, enjoyable, and thought-provoking. Yet whenever
   I make a prediction, I can't seem to avoid feeling that time will show
   me to be a fool. Maybe that's why it's so much fun.

   For more on the wired library, see the [146]netConnect supplement
   mailed with the January, April 15, July, and October 15 issues of LJ

                                       Link List
   Dean Kamen Rocks and Rolls
   0,1282,42420,00.html Teletext
   [148] LITA Top Tech Trends