I’ve just finished belatedly reading An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson. I say “belatedly” as it was written in 2011 which wouldn’t normally be a problem except that this is about accelerating future technologies (and why they are going to be good for us).
It was a very good read, but already there are signs it is getting dated. Take this example. He’s meeting Ray Kurzweil who is telling him about exponential growth in technologies, which he argues can allow us to make pretty accurate forecasts of the future. Noting that some critics believe Kurzweil is either delusional or mad he discusses the forecasts which Kurzweil made in his 1999 book The Age of the Spiritual Machines about the technology which would be available in 2009. Kurzweil himself says, of the 108 predictions, 89 turned out to be correct, 13 are “essentially correct”, three are partially correct and two are 10 years off.
Stevenson makes his own tally. He concludes he got nearly two thirds right. Of the rest he put half in the “sort of right” category (it came true but not quite as Kurzweil anticipated).
The remainder are ‘wrong’ but only in that Ray was optimistic on the time frame. For instance, critics tend to leap on his prediction that ‘translating telephone technology (where you speak English and your Japanese friend hears Japanese, and vice versa) is commonly used,’ which hasn’t happened.”
Except of course that by the time I’m reading this it now has come true.
And this brings me to my point. When you are in the middle of things it is often very hard to accept that advances are happening quite as fast or quite as disruptively (a point Stevenson makes, too). It’s all too easy, if you earning a good wage working for a large, profitable company, for example, to dismiss warnings such as this, also from the book:
“John is speaking with some urgency now. ‘The old-age companies don’t know why they have to run faster in order to lose more slowly,’ he says, laughing. ‘All the practices of those companies are exactly the practices that keep you from being able to engage in the world of fast-paced innovation. They have routines and beliefs built on the assumptions of stability. Almost any company that’s more than twenty years old isn’t built right for this. In fact, I would argue that companies that are five years old aren’t ready either.’”
That fact that ‘John’ is John Seely Brown, formerly director of PARC (the Palo Alto Research Center) which famously invented laser printing and the mouse, should give us pause. The fact that in five years Kurweil’s “wrong” forecast has turned out to be true should also.
As Stevenson himself says: “I have to make peace with the fact that this book is already a historical document. It’s less a posed portrait, more a blurred snapshot”