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Predictions gone wrong

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Ignoring the bits about romance, moral choices and singing, ‘Yesterday,’ the latest film from Richard Curtis, is a story about foreknowledge*. In it, a struggling musician wakes up to find he is the only person to know about the Beatles or to be able to play their songs. He has acquired the equivalent of next week’s winning lottery numbers. With absolute certainty, he knows that the path to future fame and fortune awaits, in the shape of a lifetime’s worth of nailed-on hits. And thus, the story is set up – because we know it too.  

Spare a thought then, for the real-life Decca Records executive who turned down The Beatles in 1962. He didn’t – obviously couldn’t – have known then what we, and ‘Yesterday’ audiences every-where, now know. But that doesn’t stop us collectively chuckling to ourselves and thinking ‘what a moron.’ Or perhaps, don’t spare a thought. History might have been kinder, and his humiliation remained more private, if he’d chosen to respond with a polite ‘no’. Instead he went with this: ‘we don’t like your boys’ sound… they have no future in show business’. And for good measure, threw in this prediction: ‘groups are out; four-piece groups with guitars, particularly, are finished.’

Why do we predict outcomes?

It’s easy to be wise after the event. It may become apparent in the coming months that a film about a musician with sole access to the Beatles’ back catalogue was an idea best left on a Post-It note. But right now, who knows? Stranger things have happened. And as American baseball player and all round sage, Peter ‘Yogi’ Berra once said, ‘it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.’ So why do we do it?  Psychologists say it’s our response to the fear of the  unknown. We make predictions, they maintain, because they give us a reassuring feeling of control over how things will turn out. Another way to look at it is that some of us are smart-arses who can’t resist an opportunity to look clever.

This interpretation seems to be borne out by the collective glee we feel about predictions that go wrong. The smarter the arse, the more spectacularly wide of the mark their prediction proved and, importantly, the more catastrophic the consequences, the more intense our pleasure becomes. The man who turned down the Beatles is a prime example but there is a long history of what we might call the ‘so- called-expert-epic-fail-effect.’

Staying with the world of entertainment, film producer Daryl Zanuck predicted in 1946 that television was no more than a fad and that ‘people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night’. Wind back to 1916, and no less a genius than Charlie Chaplin was saying the same thing about cinema. ‘What audiences really want,’ he stated, ‘is flesh and blood on the stage.’ Both are predictions as defence against an emerging threat – with Chaplin’s subsequent conversion to film acting a brilliant example of holding your hands up when it becomes clear that if you can’t beat them, you should join them.

Is technology predictable?

New technologies provide a rich seam for failed forecasts. Take William Preece, Chief Engineer of the General Post Office, who in 1878 explained there would be little use for telephones in Great Britain because of its ‘superabundance of messengers, errand boys and things of that kind.’ Staying with telephones, but coming more up to date, how about Steve Ballmer’s prediction in 2007 that ‘there’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.’

The Microsoft boss was as wrong on this as the President of the Michigan Savings Bank was on the future of cars. ‘Horses are here to stay,’ he said in 1903, ‘but the automobile is only a novelty.’ To make matters worse, this was advice given to a prospective investor in the newly formed Ford Motor Company. Happily, for him, and even more happily for his client, his judgement was ignored, and an initial investment of $5,000 quickly grew to be worth $12.5m.

It’s not just sceptics and nay-sayers that get it wrong. Over-optimism can deliver equally daft pronouncements. In 1955 Alex Lewyt of the Lewyt Vacuum Cleaner Company made the bold claim that ‘nuclear powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within ten years.’ While four years later, Arthur Summerfield, US Postmaster General confidently predicted that ‘before man reaches the Moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles.’

Ridiculous. But any more ridiculous than Isaac Asimov saying that ‘connected libraries’ would act as a ‘teacher in the form of access to the gathered knowledge of the human species’? Or Nikola Tesla suggesting in 1909 that it would soon be possible to ‘transmit wireless messages all over the world so simply that any individual can own and operate his own apparatus’?

Why are we bad at predicting the future?

At the time, we can only suppose these pronouncements, essentially predicting the emergence of the internet and smartphones, must have seemed fanciful. Except, that having been proved correct, it’s now almost impossible for us to think of them as sounding anything other than entirely plausible. And, compared to the predictions that went wrong, a bit dull. All of which should come as some comfort to those prepared to stick their necks out and tell us what the future holds: the more wrong you are, the happier we’ll be. 

* In that respect ‘Tomorrow’ would have been a better title, except that Paul McCartney hasn’t written a song called that, as far as we know. Note to Sir Paul: could work nicely in a valedictory, career book-ending kind of way.


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