Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Future Claptrap

It cannot be that long ago that I found myself at an event where John Battelle was flogging his Google book and promoting his vision of a future blog-based society, realized by his Federated Media Society. During the general chatter that emerged while waiting for the elevator, I let my sense of polemic get the better of me and interjected, "The great thing about being a futurist is that no one will be around to prove you wrong!" I suppose this is why I enjoy Andrew Keen's skills at polemic, particularly since the community of Internet futurists never seems to run out of a supply of targets for him.

Every now and then, though, it is nice to let a cooler head prevail; and it is even nicer when that cooler head comes from a past that we can view with a better sense of perspective. It is for this reason that I decided to take a look at "The Nature and Design of Post-Industrial Organizations," a paper by George Huber that was published in Management Science back in 1984 (such an appropriate year). I guess Daniel Bell was responsible for introducing the adjective "post-industrial" in his 1973 "venture in social forecasting," The Coming of Post-Industrial Society; but, as a reputable Harvard professor, he was very up-front about the limitations of what he was called "social forecasting." The intellectual honesty of his work probably had a lot to do with the publication of an "anniversary edition" in 1999. I have not yet given his 1999 foreword a detailed reading; but it looks like Bell realized that the best way to deal with the claptrap of the "post-industrial futurists," such as Toffler, Ferguson, Masuda, Marin, and Naisbitt, was to ignore as noise that had finally been filtered out of the signal. However, since he was writing in 1984, Huber felt is was more important to take these guys to task without agonizing over which of them (if any) would sustain the selective processes of time. In this paper he homed in to the key element of fallacious reasoning that could be found among all the post-Bell futurists:

Assuming transition-based trends to be indicators of the future conditions is certain to result in accepting a large number of false hypotheses.

Unfortunately, the way of the world seems to have led to either forgetting or ignoring this little gem of professorial wisdom. These days we are virtually drowning in false hypotheses, most of which even lack the honesty of calling themselves hypotheses; and (wouldn't you know it?) just about all of them are grounded in ("inspired by" would probably be more accurate) wishful thinking emerging from the myopic examination of "transition-based trends!" The only difference is that in 1984 the channel of publication served as both filter and buffer limiting the number of players in the game. Today any damned fool can get into the blogosphere and play; and it is rather impressive to see just how many of them do, which is why epithets such as "the web's endless cacophony" are so appropriate! Besides, why should it matter that your hypotheses get refuted if neither you nor your audiences are around to witness the refutation?

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