A Futurist Looks Back to the Present

On the perils of predicting the present

Illustration: Dan Page

Right now, things are happening out there. I know, because I can hear the buzz of terabytes in the ether. If I listen closely, I can hear the singing of flying tweets, and if I squint I can see the haze of raging blogs. There is a melody and a dance there that I might discern, and if I could, I would know what is happening right now.

I confess that I used to be a futurist. I would predict things, and people would sometimes pay attention as if I really knew something about what would happen in technology. I was seldom right. But in the futurism business you’re rarely found out, because by the time the future arrives, people have forgotten your misguided predictions. Still, I gave up on futurism. Talking about the past, when you’ve lived there as a kind of technological Forrest Gump, is a lot more legitimate and easier.

However, through the years I have gradually come to appreciate that the really important predictions are about the present. What is happening right now, and what is its significance? The Internet’s progression from static to streaming—and solitary to social—has not only made predicting the present possible, it has redefined the whole concept of what we mean by ”right now.”

A century ago, ”now” lasted about a week. There was a lot of lag in the system. More recently, but before the Internet, we were content with one or two daily updates from the morning newspaper or the evening news. Paradoxically, our world of technology was even slower—our leading magazines and journals were often a year behind, and even word of mouth from meetings and conferences lagged by months.

How the world has changed! In the few moments since you began reading this, terabytes have flowed across the global grid. If we listen we can hear the cries from the void, the tears and laughter, the sorrows and the joys. All that noise can be processed and distilled, and we can search for keywords and phrases and apply tools such as automated sentiment and social-network analysis. We can analyze query data and track locations in real time. We can study patterns and look for correlations. It’s an immense trash pile, but there’s a pony in there somewhere—lots of them, in fact.

What subjects are being discussed most frequently? How is Twitter feeling today? What Web links are particularly busy? What videos are going viral? What are the instant polls telling us? What trends are appearing? Which individuals seem to be the opinion leaders at this moment?

Governments can look for signs of impending revolution and social unrest. Companies can track the real-time popularity of their products and learn where their brands are weakest. Analysts can use query behavior as a leading indicator of home sales. Social experiments can be conducted by changing a few HTML codes.

As the evanescent ”now” slides by and becomes the recent past, all this distillation is available for instant retrieval and response. The feedback loop gets tighter and tighter and the delay in the system gets ever shorter. As engineers, we should be leery, perhaps, knowing what can happen to systems with feedback as the gain is increased. But here we are dealing with an immensely complicated system. Some even believe that a ”global brain” is evolving, in which we individuals serve merely as neurons with no comprehension of what the brain itself is thinking. Some praise this amassed heterogeneous input as the ”wisdom of crowds,” while others warn of a dangerous, ever-growing herd mentality.

More than half of all U.S. Web users are on Facebook, for example, and they spend an average of 7 hours a month on the site. The connectivity of the global network, its speed, and its instantaneous nature continue to increase.

I’ve just been checking on some of the Web sites that monitor what’s happening out there. So I know exactly what is happening right now. Oops! That knowledge just slipped into the past. I no longer know what is happening now. Just give me a minute here.

This article originally appeared in print as "The Ephemeral Now."

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