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Predictions, Lists And Violence

'Tis the season for predictions and lists. In fact, we're all thoroughly sick of them already. Frankly, given a choice between having yet another glass of mayonnaise-thick eggnog and hearing another set of predictions, I'd go for the eggnog. And that's saying a lot.

I have no problem with our fascination with lists. It started as a fad in the 1970s with The Book of Lists, was enshrined as a post-modern comic technique by David Letterman, and now is a staple form of understanding. In fact, as syllogisms were to the Greeks, lists are to us moderns. Although lists look like a way to give ordinal evaluations to phenomena that often don't lend themselves to this -- is there a moose hair of sense in an argument over who was the greatest composer of the century, Stravinksy or John Lennon? -- in fact, these lists are about remembering, not ranking. And there's nothing wrong with that. They bring back to mind events, ideas, people that swept past our attention and would otherwise not have been recalled.

Predictions are a different matter.

As we all know, predictions look at the present to try to anticipate the future. (This leaves out predictions based on ancient mistakes about the position of the stars and the reading of the entrails of recently dismissed CFOs.) And usually that's a useful guide; the old factoid is that you can beat the prediction rates of the weather forecasters just by predicting that tomorrow will be much like today.

But suppose the climate's changed dramatically so that one day isn't like another. Snow is followed by hail is followed by a tropical heat wave is followed by a rain of frogs. At that point, predictions based on the present are worse than useless. They can serve the purpose of tranquilizing us against the fact of change.

And that, of course, is how matters stand at the turn of the Millennium. We have never experienced a period of such rapid change. And the Web has introduced a fundamental discontinuity. Or maybe it hasn't. But we don't know, and living in a time of change and not knowing if you're living in a time of change work out to be the same thing when it comes to predictions.

Making predictions about the future of the Web in particular is a way of telling ourselves that the changes are still within the realm of the predictable. But they're not. Predictions are a type of denial: tomorrow will be at least pretty much like today. Yeah, you wish!

Worse, predicting the future can be a way of trying to control it. Since the future is what we make, limiting our openness to change, setting our expectations on the level horizon ahead of us, effects the future we are trying to make together.

How will the Web and TV converge? What type of computers will the Web show up on? Where will computers be embedded? How will we be reading in 10 years? The truth is that we don't know and we can't know the answers to this question. Proposing answers in the form of predictions is a destructive action, an act of violence against the essential openness of the future.

Here's one simple illustration. Let's predict how the issues around intellectual property on the Web will be resolved. The fact is that the concept of ideas being property is foundering now. Maybe it will survive, maybe it won't. If it does survive, it will be transformed because the concept of property doesn't map real cleanly to a world where property can be duplicated for free at will, where access to property is assumed to be open, and where new forms of collaborative "manufacturing" of intellectual property are rapidly emerging. Predictions based on today's notion of intellectual property get in the way of the radicalization of thinking the Web provokes. In other words, the right prediction about the future of intellectual property on the Web is: We have no freakin' idea and to assume that IP will be a persistent topic (rather than a concept that atrophies or gets exploded) is to cast your vote for the status quo.

Stop predicting the future. Instead, build it.

David Weinberger is publisher of the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization (JOHO) newsletter and a frequent contributor to KMWorld Magazine

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