We have prognostication all wrong. Our impossibly high standards for predicting the future have led us to conclude that looking toward the future is a waste of time.
The meterologist said there was a 70% chance of rain, but we didn’t get a drop. IDIOT!
The NFL analyst predicted my team would win by a touchdown, but they only won by 3. FAIL!
Science fiction magazines and movies said there would be jet packs and flying cars by now. WHERE’S MY JET PACK!
We expect predictions to get the details exactly right, and we mock them mercilessly when they don’t meet that impossible standard (TIME’s 10 Failed Futuristic Predictions starts with universal jumpsuits).
In her book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Danielle Allen writes about our shared ability for prognostication. She contends that we all have the ability to detect the “course of human events,” and to see where that course is leading.
When the colonists referred to the course of human events, they were taking responsibility for observing the currents within human action that pull us toward destinations, as identifiable— once we arrive, that is— as the Gulf of Mexico. It is our job as citizens to understand those currents— and to debate them and their direction— in the public square, so that we can see, as early as we can, as best we can, and despite the fogs of doubt and misdirection, the destinations that politicians and leaders are steering toward.
The very course of human events depends on it.
I think the ability and responsibility Allen describes applies not only to our political future, but also to our social, cultural and economic futures.
The same “current of human action” can be observed in how we interact with each other, how we represent and share our experiences, and how we create and exchange things of value.
Unfortunately we often miss the “current of human action” because we are focused on the individual actions. Almost 6 years ago, I started encouraging my organization to take social media seriously as a communication and learning tool. Some of the reaction I received (and sometimes still receive today) included “It’s just a fad,” “Who cares what someone had for lunch?” and “My audience doesn’t use social media.”
If we just focus on individual actions, it’s easy to come to these conclusions. At the time, social media tools were new, fast-growing and largely used by young people. They definitely looked like a fad. Even today, many social media channels are mostly used for sharing content that may seem frivolous to many. In 2008, Facebook has about 200 million users. Today, they have 1.32 billion. Twitter did not even come close to the top 20 social media sites in 2008 with 4 – 5 million users. Today they report 271 monthly active users. In 2008, Instagram and Pinterest were still years away from launching. Most people were not social media users 6 years ago.
If we had focused on the “current of human action” however, we might have been able to see the destination of wide social media adoption that lay ahead. We know humans are social creatures. Our building and expanding of social networks is largely responsible for our survival. We share resources and communicate ideas. When technologies were developed, we leveraged them to grow our social network and communicate ideas. From written language to the printing press to the telephone, we have used new technology to do the things that set us apart from other primates; expanding our networks to include other humans, including those we have never met face-to-face. Why wouldn’t we take the same advantage of social media?
We might not have been able to predict that Twitter would outlast Friendster or that there would be such a thing as Tinder, but those are the details. What really matters is to see the “current,” to see where we are headed and to prepare for (or adjust course to avoid) the destination.