Where’s that Black Swan when we need one?

This was supposed to be my 2014 predictions column but the volume of correspondence following a call for predictions on my blog last week was such that I suspect it will be the first of three prediction columns with my actual predictions occupying columns two and three. This column is about the broader subject of how to predict.

I’ve written at least once before on How to Predict the Future. Do a search on that string and an old PBS column will float to the surface. All of that still applies but in this column I want to look somewhat deeper at the motivations and methods of predictors whether they actually know what they are doing or not.

Last week on my blog I asked for reader predictions, offering the options of putting those predictions in the comments below that column or sending them to me privately by email. There were a total of 167 comments when last I looked and just over 70 prediction email messages for a total of about 240 ideas! That volume of interest alone justifies this closer look at the prediction process. People are really interested in predicting.

Having never made such a call to readers before I didn’t know quite what to expect. I was gratified by the enthusiastic response, but what surprised me was the qualitative difference between the public and private predictions. To put it simply, the private predictions were, with a few notable exceptions (yours of course), crap.

If I had an expectation (my Mom was dying and I wasn’t at all thinking straight) it would be that the private predictions would be better considered and somehow more important. Nope. They were for the most part banal, some of them even smart-ass, and showed less effort overall than the public predictions.

Maybe I should have expected this. Readers have always tended to feel comfortable with me. After all I’ve always been here. So why not blurt out some joke or halfway thought-out piece of nonsense? I just didn’t expect it.

What this shows, I think, is the culture and influence of the social network. This column isn’t frigging LinkedIn, but the same names and nicknames tend to appear week after week, so to say something in public many of you have a considerable investment in being perceived one way or another by what is a very stable -- and knowledgeable -- audience.

Now to the nature of your predictions. My favorite of all -- favorite to the point of awe -- was the person who predicted there would be a Black Swan in 2014. That could be true of any or all years, of course, but in the couple of decades I’ve been writing these prediction columns I’ve never thought to try it, so my hat is off to that writer.

A Black Swan, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a totally unexpected and unpredicted event -- the entry of not just a new player or product in the market, but a whole new product class or service type. Black Swans create new industries and doom old ones, but beyond saying that they’ll come along every once in awhile they are very difficult to predict. But 2014 not only could have a Black Swan, I think there’s a better-then-average chance that it will have one. We’re due.

Most other predictions have to do with starts, stops, and changes of direction. BlackBerry will turn around or BlackBerry will fall into an abyss in 2014 (or fall further into the abyss, I suppose). These predictions are easy to make but if you are going to do them I’d like some supporting logic, please. Why do you feel this will happen? And, even more important, what resulting changes will happen should your prediction be correct? Give us some context and make it interesting.

Amateur prognosticators have the greatest problem with timing. It’s pretty easy to see that something is inevitable, like the impact of 3D printing on traditional manufacturing, but it is hard to say with certainty that 2014 is the year everything will change.

Progress always takes longer than we expect.

So 2014 will be a very interesting year for additive manufacturing technologies like 3D printing, but I seriously doubt that this is the year when the mass market game is changed or even mildly affected. The same can be said for Virtual Reality goggles, which seem poised for a comeback, but not this year. Even Google Glass, which is in beta use by tens of thousands, won’t mean much in 2014.

If you really think some technical advance like these is going to have significant market impact in 2014, the best advice I can give you is to change that date to 2016 and see me in two years.

I’ll be filing two columns of predictions today and tomorrow which I know you will criticize soundly and for good reason. There’s nothing that makes my predictions any better than yours, after all, unless mine are accompanied by better explanations. We’ll see.

If I really knew what I was doing here -- if I really had a vision for the future that wasn’t for the most part derivative -- I’d be proposing a short list of Black Swans. God I wish I could do that. I wish you had done it.

You only need to be right about one Black Swan to change everything.

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