The value of predictions (hint: it’s not accuracy)

Photo: Pottermore

Thinkers Stowe Boyd and John Battelle published predictions for 2017. They’re going to be wrong about most of them. Their predictions make you think hard, though, and that’s the value of what they’ve created.

If you want to make predictions and be right, that’s easy. For example, I predict that Donald Trump will become president this year, and that he’ll challenge our traditional ideas of what a president does. That’s two statements: one that’s obvious, and the other that’s too vague to be useful.

How to make a good prediction

The key in making interesting predictions is not to maximize the chances of being right — because that means predicting things that everybody already knows, which is useless. The key is to identify pivot points — discontinuous changes that will transform a piece of the world.

That’s hard, and it’s hard to get right. Its especially hard to get the timing right — often, you can see that a change will happen, but can’t tell when. But making hard and far-reaching predictions like that is useful to readers, because it shakes up their thinking and tells them what to keep an eye on.

Here’s how to do this well:

  • Start with years of watching an industry and its players.
  • Figure out what we are on the verge of . . . what might change that matters.
  • Figure out what it would take for that change to happen.
  • Factor in the personalities and behaviors of the disruptive companies and their leaders.
  • Don’t stop there. Determine what counterintuitive impacts that change would have.

With this in mind, let’s look at Battelle’s and Boyd’s predictions for this year.

John Battelle makes ten calls that matter

This is Batelle’s 14th predictions piece — he’s gotten good at it. Here are a few of his best predictions, along with my commentary:

  • The bloom comes off the tech industry rose. . . . As of this writing, the technology industry is now the undisputed leader of the business world. Its power has concentrated into demonstrable oligarchy — beyond the Big 5 [Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook], Uber and Airbnb are now being called to question because of their potential monopolistic, rent extracting behavior. . . .2017 will be the year the industry is cast as a villain — for its ravenous and largely opaque data collection practices, its closed and self-serving approach to its own platforms, and its refusal to acknowledge or address the very real externalities, particularly in employment, created by its products and services.

Commentary: Good predictions tend to cut against the grain. Most of us perceive tech as a force for good, since it brings us convenient things like Netflix, iPhones, and Amazon Prime. But it brings problems as well — credit card breaches and loss of factory jobs. Battelle projects a flip, in which the problems begin to outweigh the benefits in people’s minds, and a backlash, driven by the unquestionable arrogance of tech CEOs. I agree, but I wish he’d gone further. Will we get boycotts? Legislation? President Trump demonizing the industry? Will people call for taxes on tech to make up for the way it behaves and its impact on society?

  • Apple releases a truly bad hardware product. . . . Apple’s poised to not just have a boring year (as I predicted it would last year,) but to really lay an egg for the first time in a very long time. It may be their answer to Amazon Echo/Alexa, or Google Home/Assistant, or it may be a follow on to the watch, or perhaps something the company has had up its sleeve for a few years that it feels obliged to roll out given its essentially uninspiring last few years of product releases.

Commentary: Predicting company behavior is harder than predicting industries. In this case, Battelle is projecting from the slowdown of Apple innovation in the last few years and, although he doesn’t mention it, the perception that Tim Cook is not as creative or effective as Steve Jobs was. Microsoft is now innovating more than Apple in laptops, while Apple is pissing off users by removing ports like the iPhone’s headphone jack in the name of “courage.” This is a tricky thing to predict, because no one really knows what’s going on in Apple R&D. If Robert Scoble’s prediction of a transparent, augmented-reality iPhone comes true, it could either confound this prediction — or confirm it.

  • President Trump leaves Twitter. . . . Perhaps Trump will come to his senses and stop trying to run the country through a series of tweets. OK, that’s not very plausible. More likely is Trump will end up in some kind of a feud with Twitter over something utterly ridiculous, claim he’s the only reason the service is viable anymore . . .

Commentary: A great prediction is counterintuitive and entertaining. Any prediction about President Trump is risky — he defies prediction. But any prediction that he’ll get mad and vindictive is likely true. So, sure, this might happen.

Stowe Boyd challenges your thinking

Boyd calls his 20 provocative predictions a “riff on some ideas inspired by recent events.” For example:

  • The hottest business trend of 2017 will be AI-based ‘driverless management’, displacing Holocracy and other management ‘business operating systems’ fads. AI will play a significantly larger role in areas that human cognitive biases are most problematic, like hiring and promotion, decision support, and ensuring diversity, equality, and well-being in the workplace.

Commentary: This is clearly an extrapolation of the news about Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund, attempting to replace management with artificially intelligent decision-making. It’s a fascinating idea, but way ahead of its time. 2017 will not be the year this takes off. But it will the year we start talking about it.

  • North Korea will fire a rocket that hits Kodiak Island in Alaska, although it carries only a conventional warhead. Kim Jong-un says the rocket was supposed to have crashed in the ocean before landfall, but many believe it was on track to hit Anchorage.

Commentary: This is a reasonable extrapolation of North Korea’s provocative nuclear and ballistic missile activities. It’s unthinkable — which is exactly why Boyd is thinking it. Could this happen? Sure. But what would happen next? Trump dropping a nuclear warhead on Pyongyang? US cyberwarfare disrupting all of North Korea’s computers? The consequences of this prediction are more terrifying than the prediction itself.

  • Hillary Clinton files for divorce from Bill Clinton in March 2017, and assumes the role of president of Harvard University, two weeks later.

Commentary: Just plausible enough to be fascinating.

  • Apple acquires Tesla for $75 billion. Tim Cook announces retirement, Elon Musk becomes CEO.

Commentary: Apple has the cash to do this. And Elon Musk might agree to it if he got to be CEO. It has a nice symmetry with the NeXT acquisition that brought Jobs back to Apple two decades ago. Like Battelle, Boyd riffs off the idea that Cook has now lost his mojo. But what would Apple be like as a car company? Would it destroy the rest of the business, leading to a GM-Chrysler merger? For those who like predictions, mergers and acquisitions always lead to fertile lines of thinking.

Do some predictions. It’ll do you good.

There is no better workout for your mind than predicting what will happen in the next year or two, and then what might happen after that. Battelle and Boyd are going to be wrong about a lot of these, but that’s not the point. The point is to stretch your thinking. You ought to try it.


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  1. And it’s classically bullshit when your predictions just happen to support your investments, which you see fit to flag with an * (ref. Battelle’s seeing 2017 as a bullish year for ad-tech, when said Battelle just happens to be on the board of two ad-tech companies)

    1. That’s also called putting your money where your mouth is. Why should you trust advisors who invests their _*own*_ money somewhere else than they tell you to put _*your*_ money?

      Of course, there must also be transparency. Not being open about your vested financial interests is dishonest.

      1. No. That’s what is called putting your mouth in the service of your money. Battelle can make predictions all he likes on other topics; why make an entirely unsubstantiated prediction in support of his own investments? Classic bullshit. And I have less respect for him because of it. Further, I think that prediction’s a dog. Adtech isn’t going to die, but there’s zero evidence that 2017’s going to be a ripper for that space.

  2. I predict that this blog will continue to be interesting and worth reading until the sad day when Josh collapses in a fit of apoplexy induced by some (probably Trumpian) outrage.

  3. Insightful, as always. I predict this is the year that someone figures out what to do with movie theaters besides the current broken business model. Not sure what this is.