It’s prediction season. With the end of the year—and start of a new decade— fast approaching, the urge to prognosticate about 2020 and beyond is sure to bring all sorts of forecasters out the woodwork. They’ll come in many forms: economists and soothsayers, political consultants and technologists, fashionistas and futurists.
Some of these predictions will astonish us, and some will bore us. Some will be way off and others spot on. In New York magazine’s “The Future” issue, ten chefs speculate on new directions in dining, resulting in zucchini mains with meat-as-side dish and frogs legs usurping fried chicken. Over at Fortune, visions of 2020 anticipate Facebook pulling the plug on Libra, its blockchain currency, and the resurgence of 1920s culture like flappers and jazz.
As entertaining as these outlooks might be, mostly the predictions feel out of our direct control. They may shape our lives, but they do not ask our permission to do so. Instead, those who peddle predictions tend to speak with certainty, telling us how things are going to be.
The inevitability of the future doesn’t just take shape at the year’s end, however—the future is a bully any time of year. Technological developments from CRISPR to facial recognition, from cryptocurrencies to artificial intelligence, promise to accelerate in their sophistication and utility. Along the way, they’ll upend social life and make business as usual impossible. Companies, meanwhile, fall over each other to prove that they will get to the future first.
But what work do these future forecasts do? Contrary to popular belief, they don’t tell us much about the future—at least not directly.
Instead, such predictions have one goal: to persuade us of their credibility. They are rhetoric intended to compel action. On the one hand, they can set the wheels in motion so that the futures they prescribe are more likely to come to pass. A world where influential people widely believe in things like space colonies is one in which those same people are more likely to take action, such as investment in government space programs, that can bring that far-off outlook to fruition.
Alternatively, a persuasive vision of an undesirable future may motivate us to act to avert disaster. When environmentalists share predictions about climate crisis, they do so in part to communicate how urgent it is that we change course.
Predictions are not inevitable. The future requires our complicity to come to pass.
Ideas about the future need to gain traction, and forecasts often have different goals. Some, like those that come from pundits and CEOs, are as much assertions of power as they are meant to predict in any real sense. Others, such as those from Phil Tetlock’s Good Judgement project at the University of Pennsylvania, are probabilistic, meaning they make wagers on future events and are later evaluated for accuracy. Still others, like the kind that emerge from trend forecasting agencies such as London’s The Future Laboratory, blend evidence and interpretation to make bets on early signals of change.
Regardless of format, though, future predictions too often make the average person feel helpless. That is because the future is a zone where powerful actors work hard to maintain control.
Future prediction is also a business. As Fortune 500 companies strive to innovate, they consult with professional futurists and forecasters that work behind the scenes to advise them on the future’s directions. Taken together, the result is often visions of the future where everything seems to be changing except the status quo. The arrival of driverless cars won’t fix inadequate public transit or shoddy roads. Virtual assistants that anticipate our every need won’t prevent the companies that make them from encroaching on our privacy.
That’s why it’s crucial to remember that predictions are not inevitable. The future requires our complicity to come to pass. When we read forecasts, we need to do so with a skeptical eye. They are not prophecy, but instead strategic communication. And we need to feel empowered to dispute them, question them, and act to bring about the futures we want.
Devon Powers, PhD, is Associate Professor of Advertising at Temple University and author of On Trend: The Business of Forecasting the Future.