Monday, June 24, 2019

EPIC 2014: The Best/Worst Forecast Ever Made?

The eight minute film, EPIC 2014, made a huge impact on me when it was released in 2004.  If you have seen it before, it's worth watching it again.  If you haven't, let me set it up for you before you click the play button below.   

Put together by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson way back in 2004, EPIC 2014 talked about the media landscape in 2014 as if it had already happened.  In other words, they invented a "Museum of Media History", and then pretended, in 2004, to look backward from 2014 as a way of exploring how they thought the media landscape would change from 2004 to 2014.  Watch it now; it will all make sense when you do:

In some ways, this is the worst set of predictions ever made.  Almost none of the point predictions are correct.  Google never merged with Amazon, Microsoft did not buy Friendster, The New York Times did not become a print-only publication for the elderly, and Sony's e-paper is not cheaper than real paper (It costs 700 bucks and gets an average of just 3 stars (on Sony's site!)).

Sloan and Thompson did foresee Google's suite of online software services but did not really anticipate competition from the likes of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube or any of a host of other social media services that have come to dominate the last 15 years.

None of that seemed particularly important to me, however.  It felt like just a clever way to get my attention (and it worked!).  The important part of the piece was summed up near the end instead.  EPIC, Sloan and Thompson's name for the monopolized media landscape they saw by 2014, is: 
" its best and edited for the savviest readers, a summary of the world—deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything ever available before ... but at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational.  But EPIC is what we wanted, it is what we chose, and its commercial success preempted any discussions of media and democracy or journalistic ethics."
Switch out the word "EPIC" with the word "internet" and that still seems to me to be one of the best long-range forecasts I've ever seen.   You could throw that paragraph up on almost any slide describing the state of the media landscape today, and most of the audience would likely agree.  The fact that Sloan and Thompson were able to see it coming way back in 2004 deserves mad props.

It also causes me to wonder about the generalizability of the lessons learned from forecasting studies based on resolvable questions.  Resolvable questions (like "Will Google and Amazon merge by December 31, 2014?") are fairly easy to study (easier, anyway).  Questions which don't resolve to binary, yes/no, answers (like "What will the media landscape look like in 2014?") are much harder to study but also seem to be more important.  

We have learned a lot about forecasting and forecasting ability over the last 15 years by studying how people answer resolvable questions.  That's good.  We haven't done that before and we should have.  

Sloan and Thompson seemed to be doing something else, however.  They weren't just adding up the results of a bunch of resolvable questions to see deeper into the future.  There seems to me to be a different process involved.  I'm not sure how to define it.  I am not even sure how to study it.  I do think, that, until we can, we should be hesitant to over-apply the results of any study to real world analysis and analytic processes.