As a former management consultant at a firm that specialized in scenario planning, I love reading the sweeping statements and predictions people have made that have turned out to be wildly wrong.
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
— Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
— Ken Olson, head of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
When you look closely, though, you find it is rare that the speaker was explicitly attempting to predict the future. The statements are instructive precisely because the speakers were not attempting to predict the future, just to describe the world as they saw it at that time.
This is why the statements are so fascinating to me — they show us our old mental maps of how we thought the world worked, and reveal to us how wrong we were. This can be jarring, because we don’t often realize the subtle calibrations we constantly make to our mental maps in response to an ever-changing present.
When the gap between where someone thought the world was going and where it actually went is big enough, we see start to see that as a failed prediction – albeit an inadvertent one. Here are a couple infamous “statements about the present” from the tech field:
Slashdot on the release of the iPod:
“No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.”
Techcrunch on the launch of Twitter:
“I imagine most users are not going to want to have all of their Twttr messages published on a public website.”
“How do [Odeo] shareholders feel about side projects like Twttr when their primary product line is, besides the excellent design, a total snoozer?”
You can’t blame these guys for “getting it wrong.” Like Jim Cramer, their job is making near-instant judgement calls on highly speculative things. In fact, that’s basically what we’re all doing here in the present.
But once you have that future-historical view in mind, it starts coloring how you read things, like…
Crunchgear commenters on today’s launch of the Apple iPad:
“Epic fail. No multitask. No flash. Wifi only (WTF!).”
“A large iPhone without a camera. I’m not all that impressed.”
Now I’m not saying they’re not right. I’m just saying take a moment to think of Thomas Watson, Ken Olson, Commander Taco, and Mike Arrington before you start typing.