The Future of Futurology

Posted on Monday, December 31st, 02007 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Futures, Long Bets   chat 0 Comments

The Economist has a nice piece on the future of forcasting. Good reading for the upcoming seminar with Paul Saffo and later with Nassim Taleb. The article does a good job pointing out the value of certain types of short-termism:

The next rule is: think short-term. An American practitioner, Faith Popcorn, showed the way with “The Popcorn Report” in 1991, applying her foresight to consumer trends instead of rocket science. The Popcornised end of the industry thrives as an adjunct of the marketing business, a research arm for its continuous innovation in consumer goods. One firm, Trendwatching of Amsterdam, predicts in its Trend Report for 2008 a list of social fads and niche markets including “eco-embedded brands” (so green they don’t even need to emphasise it) and “the next small thing” (“What happens when consumers want to be anything but the Joneses?”).

It also points out the value in prediction markets which are similar to our project Long Bets, but capitalize on the wisdom of crowds principle where people buy shares in an idea to give it a probability:

The most heeded futurists these days are not individuals, but prediction markets, where the informed guesswork of many is consolidated into hard probability. Will Osama bin Laden be caught in 2008? Only a 15% chance, said Newsfutures in mid-October 2007. Would Iran have nuclear weapons by January 1st 2008? Only a 6.6% chance, said Inkling Markets. Will George Bush pardon Lewis “Scooter” Libby? A better-than-40% chance, said Intrade. There may even be a prediction market somewhere taking bets on immortality. But beware: long- and short-sellers alike will find it hard to collect.

Ironically Long Bets has a bet on living at least 150 years

  • Daniel O’Donnell

    I generally consider most content in The Economist with considerable reservation, which I think is reasonable given their own track record in prediction (e.g. globalization, unrestricted markets, etc.). In this case they’ve made it fairly easy for themselves. They treat Faith Popcorn with alacrity, but she’s not usually considered to be in the same league as Alvin Toffler and others. They insist on sticking with their mantra that the market is omniscient and all-knowing, “The most heeded futurists these days are not individuals, but prediction markets”, even if it stumbles a little from time to time, “But after the market panic of 2007 more humility is to be expected there too.”

    I prefer to go with William Gibson’s assessment of predicting the future, since he was remarkably accurate in Neuromancer (1984). In an interview in in August 2007, in parallel with the publication of his new book, he says:

    –begin quote–
    “…our present has become so unutterably brief and ever-changing that we have no ground upon which we can stand and project a future historical arc as H.G. Wells and Robert Heinlein were able to. The short form of that is, none of us know what the hell is going to happen next.
    If I’d gone into a publisher’s office in 1981 and pitched a novel set in a world with a lethal, sexually transmitted virus that was going to take down huge numbers of human beings, and in that same world, it was determined that we’d completely thrown the climate of the planet out of whack — not only would they not have bothered but they probably would have called security. No one except possibly the late John Brunner, in his brilliant novel “The Sheep Look Up,” has ever described anything in science fiction that is remotely like the reality of 2007 as we know it.”
    –end quote–

    Actually, I think it is the artists like Gibson and Eno who have the best idea of the future, though admittedly I haven’t done an analytical study of the contrasts and comparisons between the classes (markets vs artists). In the end though, I prefer to go with Niels Bohr’s “It is very difficult to predict, especially about the future.”

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