Predicting the future is, as noted here not so long ago, a hazardous business. And nothing demonstrates this more clearly than looking back at past forecasts.
A few days ago I was poking around a junk shop and came across a book published in 1991 in the US and in 1992 in the UK. Title: The Great Reckoning: how the world will change in the depression of the 1990s. The authors were James Dale Davidson and (Lord) William Rees-Mogg.
Davidson is (or was then) a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, and a principal of Strategic Advisors Corporation in Baltimore. Rees-Mogg (still around) is a former editor of the Times, and is therefore as well informed and well connected as any man in England. Between them these two were as well placed as anyone reasonably could be to sniff the wind and decide how things were going.
As you can tell from the title of their book, Davidson and Rees-Mogg took the view that times were going to be hard in the 1990s. And evidently a lot of people were keen to read what they had to say, because the UK edition was reprinted five times.
I bought the book because I wanted to know what these two experts had to say about the impact of home computing in particular. It was in 1991 that I first acquired a primitive word processor, and shortly afterwards I got an office computer with a connection to the internet. But before we get into that, let's see how the two crystal-ball gazers got on with their more general socio-economic and political predictions.
Here are a few predictions which they got right, or mostly right:
- Taxes will skyrocket.
- Islam will replace Marxism as the main challenge in ideology.
- Multinational countries, including the Soviet Union, will break apart.
- The decade will see the first lowered prices since the 1930s.
- There will be a property collapse including a fall in the value of the average American home by two thirds.
- Drug use will be widely decriminalised.
- There will be a major migration away from big cities.
- There will be a repudiation of secular consumerism.
- Unprecedented numbers of government employees will be fired.
- Retirement will be postponed or even revoked for most people.
- Terrorists or small nations will get nuclear weapons.
I was particularly interested to hear what Davidson and Rees-Mogg had to say about this, because of my personal circumstances. I am actually rather proud of my own foresight in this area, although it didn't do me or anyone else the slightest good. I have absolutely no background in science, having undergone the traditional British, highly specialised, form of arts education. But because I worked in a university I began to hear about developments in computing long before the average layman.
I was secretary, for instance, to a university computing committee, which was discussing ethernet connections and IBM clones many, many years ago. And as soon as I began to hear about the internet, and what it could do -- and even more so when I first became able to get on to it, which again was long before the average layman -- I understood instinctively that it was going to change everything. I didn't know how, and I certainly didn't predict lots of the wonders that we have today, but that it constituted a complete revolution I had no doubt whatever. And I was slightly ahead of most in that respect.
So what did Davidson and Rees-Mogg make of it?
Well, for a start, you will search the index of their 1991 book in vain for the word internet. And ditto email. But the authors did take the view that the computer-based information revolution constituted the third great revolution in human life, and they considered that it entailed an entirely new principle of human control over nature.
They were particularly intrigued by the possible development of nanotechnology, and they feared that the human will might be made to conform with the will of those who controlled that technology -- which is interesting, because that was a central concern of John Sundman's novel Acts of the Apostles, reviewed yesterday. But by and large Davidson and Rees-Mogg didn't have a clue about what we all now take for granted, namely broadband connections, email, online buying, and blogs. Not to mention all the ten thousand other uses of computers to enhance the capabilities of machines and services.
In other words, the lesson I draw from the Davidson/Rees Mogg book, which was written only about 16 years ago, is that it is well nigh impossible to make meaningful future forecasts. If, in 1990 or so, when they were gathering together their conclusions, these two could not even imagine the impact of digital developments, the rest of us have little chance.
None of which stops us trying, of course. And for what it's worth, Publishers Lunch carried some reports, as did many other blogs, of what the 'experts' at Book Expo America were thinking.
It was noted, for instance, that Microsoft have started inviting publishers to submit titles for scanning and indexing; this operation goes under the name of Windows Live Search/Windows Live. And it appears to be another version, shall we say, of the Google Print project, which has caused so much discussion and anxiety.
My guess: at the end of the next 15 years or so, we shall see the establishment of at least one online library which will give massive access to knowledge, in book form, on a scale hardly imagined so far -- even in the nightmares of the Authors Guild and similar organisations, which seems to regard the prospect as something similar to the return of the Black Death.
Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, told the assembled troops that the book business remains stuck in an old paradigm. Change will come, and resistance is futile. 'Everything I know about business and technology after 25 years tells me that businesses that resist technology inevitably fail.'
On a personal note, Fiorina referred to her own forthcoming book Tough Choices and commented that the time involved in writing a book and getting it into circulation is 'quite stunning.' And she added that it was 'horrifying' that she had to keep dealing with marked-up 'physical pieces of paper when I did the book electronically.'
Poor old Carly. She was probably dealing with people who've only just got to grips with email. (And yesterday I recommended to a friend that he should approach a leading UK agent, only to find that said agent's web site stated firmly that he does not -- absolutely not -- accept electronic submissions or email enquiries.)
The AP reporter at BEA, Hillel Italie, said that attendees fell into three groups: those anxious for change, those who accept it, and those who resist. John Updike was among the resisters, referring to the 'grisly scenario' of electronic books.
Chris Anderson was at the BEA, talking about the long tail. Perhaps more interesting now, since we already know a lot about the long tail, was his idea that beta testing of material through online drafts, presented for public comment, is essential if you are to polish a (non-fiction) book to the point where it will be a success.
Away from the BEA, Lynne Scanlon has some scathing (as usual) things to say about the present mind-set of publishers and makes some predictions of her own. E.g.
- For the world at large, the digital Universal Library [as envisaged by Google, Microsoft, and others] will rescue long-neglected, long-lost, and long-forgotten books: that's good.
- As a result of the impending business-model implosion, the inflexible, traditional publishing industry will be sidelined: that's their personal problem.
- Authors will now have the opportunity to capitalize on having written a book, rather than being forced to rely exclusively on paltry royalties: that will be reward enough, and those rewards can be enormous.
- As free online publishing spreads and The Universal Library grows, the author who writes a book with the primary goal of selling tens of thousands of copies is going to find a smaller and smaller paying audience. But writing books has its rewards, even if not one copy of the book is sold.
- Perhaps ignoring the traditional publishing companies as they skip merrily along their own well-trod path to who knows where is the best approach.
- Self-publish right now online, and reap some of those rewards that are just out there ready to be discovered.
Well that's bold, and brave. And so here's my own (entirely useless) prediction for today:
- The book business will change, in ways which cannot now be foreseen. And when they do, we shall look back and see that they were obvious, and inevitable. If only we'd been paying attention.