Back to the Future II: 5 Reasons it is Hard to Predict the Future
Many posts today are focusing on what the Back to the Future II team got right and wrong about the future. I don’t think as a percentage of speculation, they were any more than average, despite the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster. Very little film making budget, though, goes into serious research into the future of technology.
The future isn’t just hard to predict, it is impossible. Getting something right, like hands free video games or big screen televisions with video conferencing looks impressive, but balance that against the plethora of Fax machines, and the Back to the Future II world looks pretty muddled its predictive wins and losses.
Too Many Variables. Social, technological, environmental, economic and political factors, known in the scenario planning discipline as STEEP, aren’t independent. They are interwoven, cross pollinating and constraint ambiguous. When I say, “constraint ambiguous” it is unclear when looking at uncertainties about the future, if something is going to fuel the growth of a market, concept or technology, or constrain its growth. The bottom line is that we don’t have models of the world that can account for everything going on and predict where it will lead. Some big data analysis researchers offer a future vision where this may be possible, but these five issues apply as much to their vision as it does to the one posited in Back to the Future II.
No Data. All the future-casters pretend that their trend analysis is meaningful, but it really comes down to educated guesses, and the further out one goes, the less educated the guess gets, because there is no data from the future (in fact, even “realtime” data is historical, even if only milliseconds so).
As a society, we are trying to move toward an evidence-driven, data-informed model, for business, for education, even for society — but when it comes to the future, there is no data. No comic book exists that foretells tomorrow’s sports scores, any more than which product will be big, or what fashion idea will take off — or which will face demise. Most people who look at the future concentrate on new opportunities or emergent technologies and behaviors, they interested less often in what will stop working in the future. Automation and robotics sound great until you ask the question of how a capitalist society functions when people can’t make a living wage to buy things. Yes, we do create a lot of dystopian futures, but most of those are driven by a single future vector, such as artificial life in Blade Runner, where tube TVs and small screens dominate, yet they can build replicants to colonize the solar system.
If you believe in multiverses, then none of these futures are wrong and the lack of data doesn’t matter. Any future extrapolation from today is not only plausible, but inevitable. But given that an infinite number of possibilities exist, the lack of data is still an issue because someone predicting the future must know which configuration of the future their reality will arrive at in a certain time, and that is an even more daunting task than predicting a future for just one universe.
Bias. When people predict the future, they predict it from where they are. Individual futures most often reflect what people want it to be, or what they fear it might be. Bias makes it difficult to have open conversations about what might be. That is one of the reasons that scenarios are so useful. People are given permission, and a platform, for exploring alternative futures in a way that presents them as outside of their control. A conclusion is set. The task becomes how to navigate best to success in that future, or how to avoid the risks leading to irrelevance. Visioning exercises that discount the variables, and the lack of data, paint a future people want to live in, one that may not be plausible, or one where the people who envision it don’t control enough of the variables to influence the world toward that future. Those exercises are naive and dishonest at minimum, and useless to dangerous when used to guide the strategy of an organization.
When people predict the future, they predict it from where they are. Individual futures most often reflect what people want it to be, or what they fear it might be.
Grey isn’t a good color. Most people want an answer. Entertainment and other forms of storytelling require it. Back to the Future II, of all of the movies, could have explored multiple futures, but they didn’t go into the multiverse, though they eluded to futures not being predetermined and showed single alternatives based on a set of choices (see films like Coherence or Primer for mind bending multiverse plots). Spielberg and Zemeckis had a budget and a story to tell, so they created a consistent view of the future to support their narrative. People don’t want to see the future as a blur or a set of probabilities, though that is the world that scenario planners live in. Scenario planners don’t offer pat answers, and the best don’t offer probabilities — strategic bets placed as a result of scenario planning are just that, bets. And it is the organizations who place those bets. Scenarios provide an analysis of many, not all, of the variables and interactions — coming up with multiple stories of the future — a strategic bet driven by scenarios is a just a somewhat informed gamble.
Unwillingness to be perceived as a pawn. Businesses and individuals alike want to believe they have some control of their futures, but the reality is we are one of the variables. The global economic direction, the technologies that emerge and the disruptions they engender, the people we meet and the ideas that come from those meetings, on the micro and macro level, and many other factors influence how the future turns out. Most of us have little slivers of influence. Even people with great marketing and a lot of money are really just pawns with a little more ability to steer, but not that much. If you look at the upcoming presidential election, almost every candidate believes he or she has the ability to win. People give them money to help them win. They dedicate hours of volunteer effort.
If people will just get to know the candidate like I know them, if they will just hear the message, they will realize this is the man or woman to lead the country.
But only one person wins and even on election night predicting who that person will be, with a large number of groups gathering data, proves difficult. Who those ultimate candidates will be, early on, is nearly impossible in a race with more than one person in it. So we create our own localized futures and then those of healthy mind rationalize the outcome when it doesn’t meet our expectations—those who face mental illness may act out on themselves or others when the future doesn’t align with their vision of tomorrow. Those who live for the moment, and those who teach themselves to see the factors involved in the moment, may be the happiest and the most successful because they don’t either don’t care about what happens in the future, or they know that they exist and the whim of the universe and their job is to do the best with what is given, rather than to be frustrated by overreaching.
Living Toward the Future
We have no data, too many variables exist for us to calculate outcomes, we don’t like ambiguity and we are victims of our own bias and often reject that we can’t influence the world enough to create the future we want. So what do we do?
We do what we have always done. We continue to create the futures and apply ourselves to making the best futures we can imagine, but we do so recognizing that when things don’t work they way we think they should, that it probably isn’t money, or effort, conspiracy or vendetta, that caused the future to unfold one way or another — no, it is just the messiness of the universe we live in. Team Zemeckis did the best they could extrapolating into the future, and since the movie is now historical and not speculative, what they got right or not doesn’t really matter. It did its job of entertaining and generating revenue.
when things don’t work they way we think they should, that it probably isn’t money, or effort, conspiracy or vendetta, that caused the future to unfold one way or another — no, it is just the messiness of the universe we live in.
So I suggest that people use their knowledge about what they don’t know, the uncertainties, to heighten their awareness of the world around them, to pay attention to the interactions and the outcomes, and to choose near-term paths that best align with where they want themselves or their businesses to arrive, given the paths that are revealing themselves.
Of course, some will say that the best way to create a future is to carve your own path, and that may be true, but success at doing so is exceedingly rare. But even then, succeeding isn’t really about cutting through the jungle for the first time, but being the first to perceive a new path when it opens, and that is all about paying attention.