The Plague-Ground – Most Seers See Wrong

That doesn’t stop us from believing them, and acting on their pronouncements as if they were wrapped in a bodyguard of truth.

I’m not talking about fake newshounds and grifters.

I’m speaking of experts – economists, heads of think tanks, powerful people with many postnominals. And scientists, especially scientists.

In fact, credentialed authorities are comically bad at predicting the future. This clerisy isn’t occasionally wrong. They’re wrong most of the time.

They get away with it because our memories are short and their escape routes are long. Also, because the number of experts is on the rise, you can always find one of them who’s going to be right, for this hour’s news cycle at least.

As Louis Menand wrote in the New Yorker 16 years ago: “When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons. They have the same repertoire of self-justifications that everyone has, and are no more inclined than anyone else to revise their beliefs about the way the world works, or ought to work, just because they made a mistake.”

The reason for experts’ failing grade isn’t their lack of expertise, but their lack of perspective. As the psychologist Philip Tetlock said in Expert Political Judgement: “Being deeply knowledgeable on one subject narrows one’s focus and increases confidence, but it also blurs dissenting views until they are no longer visible, thereby transforming data collection into bias confirmation and morphing self-deception into self-assurance.”

Given all this, it’s not just interesting to come across a seer who gets so much right, it’s very odd.  Even better, a seer who’s still alive, who has more predictions to come and who blithely defies the Law of Renown that says high performance is a function of high profile.

“Michael Goldhaber is the internet prophet you’ve never heard of.”

Those are the opening words of Charlie Warzel’s stunning column last week in the New York Times that we all need to read with our full attention. Because Michael Goldhaber’s biggest right idea is that the most valuable commodity humans have in the internet age isn’t money, it’s attention. It was he who popularized the term “attention economy.”

As he told the Times: “I kept thinking that attention is highly desirable and that those who want it tend to want as much as they can possibly get…. When you have attention, you have power, and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.”

Charlie Warzel lists just a few of the things Goldhaber got right and saw coming: “The complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essays, fandoms and online influencer culture – along with the near destruction of our ability to focus.”

In one way, Goldhaber mimics two other seers with staying power, Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan. Both were media professors, long before those two words began dating. Postman taught at NYU while McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto. Both wrote big books that changed how we see the world. Postman’s was Amusing Ourselves to Death, while McLuhan’s was Understanding Media. Yet McLuhan’s book was published in 1964 and Postman’s in 1985, both long before the internet landed and changed our relationship with just about everything.

The same with Michael Goldhaber. Most of his big predictions about the power of new technologies came to him in the mid-80s, when he was still a theoretical physicist. It took him until 1997 to write his now-famous essay in Wired on “the attention economy”.

Michael Goldhaber is 78 and lives in Berkeley, California where he used to teach. But for a man who’s got so many things right about our future, he’s awfully hard to find. He has no Wikipedia listing. No books. No speeches. A few old interviews. A tiny online footprint.

In this way, he’s also different from today’s pundits.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to prophets like him who aren’t seeking it.


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