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By J. Daniel Beckham

Future Scanning

Making predictions is easy.  Making correct predictions is exceedingly hard.

The predictions below are a sampling of what Joel Barker (author of Future Edge) found when he checked some infamous predictions. Perhaps more interesting, were their sources. Arguably, there were few individuals better equipped by virtue of experience and credibility to make predictions. Yet they were miles from the mark.

"The phonograph . . . is not of any commercial value."

 - Thomas Edison remarking on his own invention to his assistant Sam Insull, 1880

"Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible."

 - Simon Newcomb, an astronomer of some note, 1902

"It is an idle dream to imagine that . . . automobiles will take the place of railways in the long distance movement of . . . passengers."

 - American Road Congress, 1913

"There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom."

 - Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize winner in physics, 1920

"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"

 - Harry Warner, Warner Brothers Pictures, 1927

"I think there is a world market for about five computers."

 - Thomas J. Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Making predictions is easy. As Barker's examples demonstrate, making correct predictions is exceedingly hard. And spinning out their implications can be even more difficult.

The extraordinary growth of the Internet, video and other electronic media was correctly predicted by many, who also comfortably concluded that books and bookstores would, as a result, meet their demise. A reasonable inference. But also wrong. Demand for traditional printed books grew.

Given the poor track record for predicting, organizations might be forgiven if they simply focused on responding in the short term. Unfortunately, a focus on the short term may only put them at the front of a foot race that is heading off a cliff. If an organization can more effectively imagine the future, then it obviously has an enormous advantage.

The future may be uncertain, but it is not a complete crap shoot. Armed with knowledge of the past and consideration of possible futures, the odds ought to be good that you can beat the house. It's worth remembering Einstein's observation: "God does not play dice."

Today, even more so than when Einstein made that pronouncement, a growing body of scientific theory and evidence supports his position. It's becoming clear that what we once regarded as random occurrences in our physical environment are really the result of systematic and potentially predictable forces.

Copyright © The Beckham Company             Future Scanning – Mar. 1997 (Prediction)


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