I just got off the phone with an interviewer from a firm that is trying to advise libraries on how to manage and leverage social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook.
The interviewer asked me to predict what social networking would be like in five years. I declined to answer. I don’t do predictions, I explained.
“If we were having this conversation 18 months ago, I doubt we would even mention MySpace or YouTube,” I said. “I doubt the phrase ‘social networking’ would even come up, despite the fact that millions of people have been electronically networking since the rise of e-mail and instant messaging.”
This is the time of year when journalists and others love looking back and looking forward, as if nothing interesting ever happens in December and January. Newspapers and magazines are filled with “the best of 2006” and “what’s coming in 2007” stories. And technology seems to play a big part in both conversations.
I get calls like asking for technological predictions almost every week. Reporters ask me stuff like, ‘What’s next for the music industry?’ Foundations ask me to participate in ‘expert focus groups’ to predict the next big thing in communication policy and technology.
If I had a clue what some industry should or will do about something I would be a very rich man. I don’t. I’m not.
They ask me because I have written a couple of books about technology and society.
I have a cool job as a professor of media studies at a hip urban university. I run a neat blog and I write for publications such as MSNBC.com.
Some esteemed and best-selling authors make a living making predictions about the revolutionary prospects of changing technology: John Naisbitt, Kevin Kelly, Seth Godin, Ray Kurzweil, and George Gilder come to mind. Often, these folks get big bucks giving speeches and seminars to corporate clients. And they write books that are easy to read on airplanes and seem to offer precise prescriptions to fortune and mastery.
Across the board, these are very smart people. They are way smarter than I am. They are certainly much richer than I am.
But their work lacks one essential virtue: doubt. They never seem to doubt that technologies will succeed in bringing about revolutionary (and positive) changes to our lives and that those fortunate enough to read their books or listen to their lectures will be able to leverage technological changes into brilliant success.
I am full of doubt. It comes from growing up a Buffalo Bills fan, I guess. I boldly predicted four straight Superbowl victories for my team.
But I like to think that my doubts come from a sense of intellectual modesty, if not integrity. No one pays me to be right. No one punishes me for being wrong. But I am uncomfortable making predictions about phenomena that have so many variables.
Predictions themselves are intellectually specious. As David Hume explained three centuries ago, we can’t actually know that the sun will rise tomorrow. We can say that it will. And it might. But just because it always has does not mean it always will. Things can change. And we can’t know everything — or much of anything, for that matter.
The question of the sun rising (or, more accurately, the Earth turning) is a much simpler one than that of the influence of social networking sites or the potential for the commercial music industry to make a comeback. The sun and Earth relate to each other through simple mechanics and forces of gravity. The social and market effects of technology depend on the inventors, the marketers, the promoters (like bloggers and reviewers), and the needs and desires of millions of individual users and consumers.
In recent days I have read a couple of refreshing accounts of the over-predictive nature of technological coverage. Clay Shirky, a brilliant technologist and critic, wrote an article in the online publications Valleywag that there have been dozens of poorly thought-out media buzz stories about the rush to live in Second Life.
"I have been watching the press reaction to Second Life with increasing confusion," Shirky writes. Reporters and technopundits seem wedded to the idea that Second Life is some sort of massively popular new way of being.
It turns out that Second Life is not the all-consuming, irresistible phenomenon that most media accounts claim it is. It’s still cool. It’s still popular. It’s still interesting. But it ain’t coming close to First Life in importance.
And a few weeks back blogger Scott McLemee of Crooked Timber ripped apart a BBC story predicting that “blogging has peaked” and will decline in importance in 2007. Maybe it has and maybe it will. But no one could possibly know.
So let’s celebrate those of us bold enough to say 'We don’t know.' 'We can’t tell.' And 'We won’t predict.' That would be a refreshing development for 2007. But I doubt it will happen.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is an associate professor of Culture and Communication at New York University. His latest book is The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System (Basic Books, 2004). He blogs at Sivacracy.net.
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