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Why PR firms can't be trusted to predict the future of technology

If you’re at all an investor in or observer of technology, then you have likely read forecasts and press releases issued by respectable firms with titles like “Augmented Reality Market to reach US$1.2 Billion by 2024” or “Drone Market to become mainstream by 2021” or “Google plans to have driverless cars on the road by 2018”.
It’s not as if none of these things are ever going to happen, or that public relations firms are merely pulling figures out of mid-air so as to influence decision-makers and investors in order to drive sales.
And make no mistake, ubiquitous driverless cars in our near future would definitely be helpful to the bottom line of several companies, including Google, BlackBerry or Uber, which is burning money at a fast enough rate that if the current forecasts for the arrival of our driverless future aren’t hurried forward significantly, the company risks becoming the next Powa Technologies or eToys.
In an entertaining talk called “The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Issue a Press Release”, presented at Virginia Commonwealth University earlier this month for a seminar co-sponsored by the Departments of Sociology and English, education writer Audrey Watters unveils the inner workings of the otherwise sober forecasting models employed by public relations firms, frequently enough repeated by journalists, that inform how we think about technology and the effect it will have our day-to-day lives, eventually.
It’s also an eye-opener into how these press releases serve to distort our otherwise realistic takes on the pace of change, not to say that the documents themselves aren’t borderline worthless or delusional.
However, if you’re serious about the future, and the future of technology, and also serious about not losing your shirt by making a bad investment in an innovation that may or may not eventually pan out, Watters provides a helpful dose of context.
“‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it,’ computer scientist Alan Kay once famously said. I’d wager that the easiest way is just to make stuff up and issue a press release,” says Watters. “I mean, really. You don’t even need the pretense of a methodology. Nobody is going to remember what you predicted. Nobody is going to remember if your prediction was right or wrong. Nobody – certainly not the technology press, which is often painfully unaware of any history, near-term or long ago – is going to call you to task. This is particularly true if you make your prediction vague – like ‘within our lifetime’ – or set your target date just far enough in the future – ‘In fifty years, there will be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.'”
That last quote is from 2012, uttered by Google self-driving car pioneer and Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun, espousing the hope that his MOOC start-up will eventually dominate the EdTech space, at the expense of post-secondary education worldwide.

“Let’s be honest, these reports aren’t about forecasting a future. They’re about justifying expenditures.” – Audrey Watters

In her talk, Watters essentially reveals that the forecasting models used by PR firms, global consultancies and spin doctors mostly consist of a Frankenstein combination of statistics, trend analysis and wishful thinking to deploy a form of narrative storytelling bordering on a Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” type fantasy.
“If you repeat this fantasy, these predictions, often enough,” says Watters, “if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized. (Not factual. Not true. But ‘truthy,’ to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s notion of ‘truthiness.’) So you repeat the fantasy in order to direct and to control the future. Because this is key: the fantasy then becomes the basis for decision-making.”
Focusing on the EdTech-oriented Horizon Reports, issued by the New Media Consortium over the past 12 years, Watters examines “the technologies it has identified that are between one and five years from mainstream adoption”, adding, “It’s pretty easy, as with the Gartner Hype Cycle, to look at these predictions and note that they are almost all wrong in some way or another.”
The main service that Watters renders in analyzing these press releases, and the PR industry that thrums along in the background producing them, is to demonstrate that their main purpose is not to predict the future in a hopeful sort of “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could establish a base on Mars someday?” kind of way. No, the explicit purpose of this type of writing is so that somebody somewhere down the line spends some money.

“Nobody is going to remember what you predicted. Nobody is going to remember if your prediction was right or wrong. Nobody – certainly not the technology press, which is often painfully unaware of any history, near-term or long ago – is going to call you to task.” – Audrey Watters

“I understand why these sorts of reports exist, I do,” says Watters. “I recognize that they are rhetorically useful to certain people in certain positions making certain claims about ‘what to do’ in the future. You can write in a proposal that, ‘According to Gartner… blah blah blah.’ Or ‘The Horizon Reports indicates that this is one of the most important trends in coming years, and that is why we need to commit significant resources – money and staff – to this initiative.’ But then, let’s be honest, these reports aren’t about forecasting a future. They’re about justifying expenditures.”
It’s worth it at this point to take a breather to remember what the purpose of technology actually is: to somehow improve people’s lives. Think eyeglasses, or textiles, or the snowmobile, or GPS, or drinking vessels.
Is the product or service somehow indispensable to you? Does it make you happy? Or does it mainly exist to draw you in to a web of indeterminate spending? With the speed of technological change, it’s difficult to assess whether a phone upgrade is triggered by Moore’s Law or simply about maintaining social status.
“But we can’t claim that the pace of technological change is speeding up just because we personally go out and buy a new iPhone every time Apple tells us the old model is obsolete,” says Watters. “Removing the headphone jack from the latest iPhone does not mean ‘technology changing faster than ever,’ nor does showing how headphones have changed since the 1970s. None of this is really a reflection of the pace of change; it’s a reflection of our disposable income and an ideology of obsolescence.”
In the end, though, writers and readers don’t have to reinvent the wheel. George Orwell did that for us decades ago, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, in which he reminds us that the main purpose of ideological writing, or writing with an agenda in mind, is “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself,” writes Orwell. “One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase … into the dustbin where it belongs.”

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