How to fail at predicting the future

In twenty years, teenagers won’t be reading books anymore. They won’t have time for anything longer than a text or a tweet. It’ll all be interactive, and novels will be as extinct as the stegosaurus.

Or at least, that’s what commentators and article-writers keep saying.

The logic apparently goes something like this: (1) Books used to be very popular. (2) Now they are less popular, and social media is growing exponentially. (3) This trend will continue, and soon books (and attention spans) will disappear.

What the would-be clairvoyants seem to miss, with astounding regularity, is this: Trends never continue unopposed. For every trend that goes mainstream, there’s a countertrend. For every new movement, there’s a backlash. That’s just what humans do.

The trend of more and more processed food, sprayed with chemicals, mass produced, cruel to animals, has spawned a countertrend of organic food, all natural, humanely raised.

Growing acceptance of science and rational thinking has fed a countermovement of anti-vaccine parents who think we never went to the moon.

The rise of pollution led to the rise of recycling.

The ubiquity of digital music has pushed younger generations back toward vinyl records.

Globalization has made us put up “Buy Local” signs.

Now, obviously some of these countertrends gather enough momentum to halt or reverse the initial trend, and some don’t. Some countertrends live on only as niches. Some wither away entirely.

But regardless, the blindness of so many trend-watchers to this simple, universal phenomenon – that growing momentum sparks growing resistance – is baffling.

In particular, if you ever catch yourself saying things like “Nobody does X anymore,” or “Everyone but me is obsessed with Y,” ask yourself – are you really that unique? Or maybe, just maybe, does your own opinion suggest that a whole lot of other people might feel the same way – maybe even enough to fuel a countermovement?

I’m not saying that trends never “stick” or that old institutions never die out. I’m just saying, you can only hear so many people complain that everyone else has stopped appreciating literature, before you start to think that this everyone else might not be as universal and unstoppable a force as we’re led to believe.

Don’t judge the young’uns too quick. They might surprise you, after all.

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4 responses to “How to fail at predicting the future

  1. I’ve been reading articles about the young possibly surprising us 20 years and it hasn’t happened yet.

  2. Counter-trends are definitely a factor, but another is that things seldom completely replace other things. Movies didn’t do away with theater, television didn’t kill movies (or radio), records didn’t end live performances of music.

    Books aren’t going to be going anywhere.

    Things adapt — radio had to adapt to television, but it simply shifted to things that TV couldn’t do as well (I’m still sad that I was born after the days of radio drama, but that’s the way it goes).

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