Presentists rule the future; Amazon omniview; fair use or ripoff? — Newsletter 20 Dec 2023


Newsletter week 23: How to see around corners, Publisher’s Weekly editor looks back, how to see all your Amazon purchases at once, plus three people to follow, three books to read, and a chance to see your favorite ghosts in New York City in January.

Be a presentist, not a futurist

When I was an analyst, I once spoke to a group of several dozen senior marketing executives. Just before me, a futurist named Watts Wacker gave a mind-boggling presentation. Highlighting the first glimmerings of surprising trends, he shared a vision of various amazing and in some cases contradictory views of the future. At the end of his presentation, there was mild applause and a fair degree of shell-shock, as if the audience had just observed a loud and startling fireworks display.

How was I supposed to follow that?

I gathered my wits, took my place behind the podium, and said this:

That was a stimulating and prescient view from a futurist. The world needs futurists, but I am not one of them. I am a presentist. I will tell you what is happening now, what’s going to happen in the next few years, and what you should do about it.

People relaxed a bit, and several took out notebooks and prepared to take notes. And I’d like to believe they acted on what I told them.

I’m still skeptical of futurism, which is not actually a predictive discipline. Futurism is the stock in trade of visionaries. Futurism is about what is possible, with an emphasis on the most extreme and radical perspectives. A futurist knows that computing power will improve 1000-fold at some point, so they can dazzle you with pictures of the metaverse or sentient robots. But futurism is mostly about entertainment, not strategy. Since the futurist rarely puts dates on their predictions, they can never be proved wrong — instead, it’s just “not yet, you’ll see.”

As analysts, we didn’t have that luxury. Our clients wanted to know what was going to happen in the next three to five years. They wanted to make investments based on those shifts. If you got it wrong, you had to admit it and make a new prediction (and I got it wrong plenty of times). If you got it right, you had to refine your predictions and go further.

My advice to you as you prepare for shifts in your market is to be more like an analyst and less like a futurist.

Look at the big trends. Right now, that might include streaming, AI, remote and hybrid work, low-code application development, the rise of right-wing nationalist movements, the polarization of media, and global warming. There are also likely trends in your specific area of work or study.

The sweet spot is not in today’s news. What Trump did yesterday, or the windstorm that just flooded half of New England, or the impending bankruptcy of regional sports networks — events like those are not the point. By the time you read them, the world has already moved on.

Instead, observe the trends. What big shifts — especially technology shifts — are people and companies actually acting on? What financial moves — mergers, acquisitions, spinoffs, layoffs — are happening, and what is driving them? What small experiments are proving to be successful, and why? What dots can you connect to develop a vision of the future? And if you are right, what should you do to position yourself differently to take advantage of those big shifts?

For the presentist, it is crucially important to always be course-correcting. Every observation changes your perspective. Were you wrong? Did things happen more slowly or more quickly than you expected? What unexpected consequences will these changes cause?

Corporate strategists aren’t the only presentists. Everyone should think this way. Understanding these trends allows you to position your career to best advantage.

And if you’re planning to write a book, the presentist attitude will keep you far enough ahead of the trends to peak at just the right moment.

The future makes for good fiction. But the presentists are the ones who actually profit from the clearest vision.

News for authors and other people who think

After 30 years at Publisher’s Weekly, editorial director Jim Milliot shared his reflections on the industry (free link). Worth a look, from somehow who had a ringside seat at the consolidation and technology shifts now transforming the publishing world.

Amazon created a “your books” hub feature to allow you to sort through and filter all the books you bought from them. I found out that I’ve bought 393 books from Amazon, of which 86 were on Kindle. You can review your favorite categories and even see the highlights you made in Kindle books. I’m a little unsettled to see all this information in one place; could Amazon make an AI clone of me from all this content?

The Internet Archive says lending digital books that it has copies of is fair use. It lost this case to publishers, but it’s now appealing. The thorny question of what actions with regard to digital content are fair use will determine not just the future of the archive, but how the upcoming AI lawsuits will be resolved.

Three people to follow

Joe Pulizzi, content marketing O.G. and wizard of the creator economy.

Bob Frankston, co-inventor of the spreadsheet and still a tech industry gadfly.

Scott Stratten, creator of “unmarketing” and curator of a thousand fascinating stories, told in captivating fashion in his countless speeches.

Three books to read

Fiercely You: Be Fabulous and Confident by Thinking Like a Drag Queen by Jackie Huba with Shelly Stewart Kronbergs (Berrett-Kohler, 2016). What drag queens can teach all of us about bravery, playfulness, and ignoring barriers.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez (Harry N. Abrams, 2021). Treating male as the default deeply corrupts data analysis and influences the conclusions we draw as a result.

Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker (Crown, 2011). A terrifying look at how antidepressants may be doing more harm than good.

See ghosts in New York!

Join me for the Gathering of the Ghosts in New York City, January 22. If you’re a ghostwriter or hope to be one, this is the best crash course you’ll ever experience.

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  1. I can think of two futurists who put dates on their predictions: Raymond Kurzweil and Bill Gates. Well, not down to the year but “by 2030,” “by 2035.”