Critical Mass

Confessions of a Cybershaman

I predict a limited future for technological visionaries.

The dramatic growth of the Internet has people extrapolating wildly. Every day we see something new and amazing. Surely, given what we have seen so far, the future is bright! Don’t believe me? Need more details? Just ask your resident visionary.

Predicting the future of technology has gone from a minor sideline of the scientists and engineers actively building that future to a discipline of its own. No technology company worth its salt lacks a full-time visionary on staff. And every marketer and spinmeister must be a junior visionary. The higher-placed your visionary, the more visionary your company will seem–so, by all means, promote one to vice president. Even so, make sure the CEO does the “vision thing” as well.

“Visionary” has even become a profession. (As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote: When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.) Their business cards don’t have “visionary” on them, but these people are not hard to spot. They may be “fellows” at some impressive-sounding institute you’ve never heard of before. Or they might write a magazine column and have recently published a best-selling book. If you need more vision than that you can subscribe to their newsletters, attend their elite annual conferences of industry big shots, or invite them to speak or consult for astronomical fees.

Being a visionary is a new profession, but it is really just a variant on fortunetelling, which may be the world’s oldest. And its marketing appeal is similar–people will pay for reassurance about the unknown. The fortunetellers of old had many techniques. Yet the crystal balls and tea leaves are just apparatus. All fortunetelling, in fact, rests on three pillars.

First, you must tell people more or less what you think they want to hear. Second, you must spice your predictions with drama. Nobody wants a prediction that the future will be more or less like the present, even if that is, statistically speaking, an excellent prediction. Predictions must involve either acquiring or losing love, wealth, or life itself–ideally a combination of all three.

Third, your predictions must somehow avoid measurement of their accuracy. Many tricks have been invented to serve this end. Predictions can be vague, for example, or couched in complicated gibberish. Either way, there is a loophole. And customers generally don’t mind: Seeking advice about the future is more about relieving insecurity or anxiety than about achieving statistical accuracy.

But being a fortuneteller is harder these days. Chicken entrails aren’t enough–you need to channel the spirit of an 11,000-year-old warrior. Or you become a technological visionary for the Internet. The techniques of being an Internet visionary are just like those of lower-tech fortunetellers through the ages. A technological visionary must tell people what they want to hear, because your company’s stock won’t rise if you spout an unpopular vision to analysts. Big shots won’t speak at your conference if you piss them off. Internet visionaries also use standard soap-opera themes. A popular one: life and death–not of people, but of companies or, even better, entire industries. Tell ‘em that “old media” are going to die. There seems to be an infinite appetite for this, despite precious little evidence. If you hurry, you can tell them that “push” will conquer all, but that one’s got a week left at best. Talk like an action hero so you seem tough and important. And be bold: It is better to predict dramatic things that don’t happen than boring things that do.

Most of all, being a technological visionary is not about predicting what will actually happen. This astounded me when I first realized it, and even now I am not really comfortable with the thought. Technology and engineering are all about testing hypotheses against reality–aren’t they? Yet there is no evidence that the public or the press holds any technological visionaries accountable. In fact, many latter-day Internet fortunetellers don’t even bother with vagueness or complicated loopholes. They just baldly spout predictions, certain that nobody will care if these predictions are true.

Aconfession: I have been accused of being a visionary myself. And, in all candor, I fit the profile. What can I say in my defense? I say this: The problem does not rest with us visionaries. Sure, there are a few bad apples in every crate, and a few legitimate deep thinkers who sometimes get carried away. But most visionaries are smart and honorable people who are sincerely interested in the future. The problem is the need that drives people to visionaries in the first place.

Technology is driving our lives at a torrid pace. That generates many concerns. Will my company come through this richer or poorer? Will my job be safe? What does it all mean? The technology that shapes the modern world is as incomprehensible to most people as the forces of nature were to a society of hunter-gatherers. So we turn to technological visionaries as we once turned to shamans.

T his call to play fortuneteller is not easily refused. A reporter from a major publication cornered me recently, and said: “Nathan, I only have a couple of minutes. Quick, what is your vision?” “Twenty-fifteen,” I riposted, “but only with my glasses on.” Ho ho. But he didn’t want a joke. Nor did he want a carefully constructed set of arguments projecting current trends, or a well-reasoned strategy. He wanted a sound bite–something pithy to take out of context.

What does it matter that you have the whole truth if you can’t understand it? In this context, it is understandable that nobody really cares about a visionary’s track record. If next week’s vision is exactly the opposite of this week’s, don’t hesitate to tell that one, too. Among modern occupations, only cult leaders and TV weathermen rival the technological visionary’s ability to retain credibility despite all evidence to the contrary.

There is an antidote to visionary disease. We as a society have to learn more about the technology that is shaping our lives, and become more comfortable with it. Few people these days believe that evil spirits cause illness, that the rain god causes rain, or that electric-light bulbs are mystical. We do not fear the forces of nature as much as our species once did, because we understand those forces better. Even if most people don’t actually understand, say, where hurricanes come from, there is widespread comfort with the notion that some experts do. At the same time, there is widespread appreciation that even weather experts have their limits, which empowers people to treat experts as mortals rather than as gods.

One day, the technology that today creates a market for visionaries will be as mundane as light bulbs. People who have grown up with that technology will be as comfortable with it as we are with light bulbs today. They will not be as dependent on cybershamans. There is a name for the people who will accomplish this daunting task and put corporate visionaries like me out of business. We call them children. But they’ll have their own fears about the future, and so–my last prediction–the future of the fortunetelling industry is secure.