The Future Of Publishing Blog by Thad McIlroy

Forecasting & Futurism

Last updated: July 15, 2013

Copyright Hideyuki Nakayama


If this Web site is called “The Future of Publishing,” then I must at some level be posing as a futurist. I can’t deny that in context, but the subject of forecasting and futurism is so much more complex that such a simple declaration.

Yes, I’m trying to deduce where publishing is heading. As you’ll have seen elsewhere on this site, my base method is really quite simple: collect as many facts as possible, digest them, balance them against my experience and issue declarative statements.

It’s a reasonable approach, and workable.

However it now fascinates me to delve further into the more formal practice of forecasting and futurism. I don’t mean numerology and astrology (although I don’t completely doubt that these “sciences” might have some bearing). I’m studying and increasingly applying several of the more formal approaches to forecasting and futurism that have blossomed over the last few decades. There are numerous approaches. Some appear to me to have limited value, while others are fascinating and provocative. It’s clear to me that a structured approach to forecasting can offer great value, and that it has produced remarkable results for many companies, governments and other organizations. It’s a nascent science, full of discovery and surprises.

What appeals to me most is that the process offers its own rewards. The techniques I’ll outline and the references in this section will not necessarily lead you to absolute and final answers. But in my experience you’ll never fail to gain by the act of attempting to find answers via these processes. At a minimum a part of the picture will suddenly become more clear, and certain actions will suddenly emerge as “required” to reach your goals, or to ward off other unwelcome outcomes.

The challenge is bringing accessible information to the surface where it becomes actionable knowledge. That is to me the essential practice of forecasting and futurism.

Why Forecasting and Futurism is Important to the Future of Publishing

  1. If you are reading on this site, I’m sure you already have your own answer to this question of why we all want to know where things are headed. The big difference from a decade or more ago is that it has never been more difficult to get a solid handle on the answer(s).
  2. Understanding where publishing is headed has never been more complex to divine, nor more important to comprehend. We are not dealing with minor shifts in the publishing industry, but tectonic shifts. Outcomes are not likely to be a 2% drop or increase in your business; it’s more likely to be a question of the survival of your business.
  3. Not since the Middle Ages has publishing faced a more complex set of issues impacting its future. It’s not just the economy, it’s not just competition, and it’s not just shifting media outlets. As this site demonstrates, the forces are numerous, complex and constantly shifting. Trying to get good, clear answers have never been this challenging.

The “Science” of Forecasting

This section of the Website will soon occupy many pages. That’s because there are so many varied approaches to approaching the future. The different techniques that I’ll explore (while ignoring others in which I have less faith) will provide you with a range of “do it yourself” tools to be your own “future of publishing” expert.

At this point I’m continuing to read widely and get a handle on the range of available approaches.

The broad range I’d classify as from the sober to the fantastic. Most approaches begin by collecting all available data about a current segment of the industry and determining which sources are most credible or reliable. We always need a base point.

Now the divergence.

The sober approach is to move from this base point using what are widely-accepted (in most media) as reasonable one- to three-year trends, and extrapolating from those.

The “fantastic” approach is to move way out on a limb and try to detect one of the “tipping points” (to use Malcolm Gladwell’s well-worn phrase) or to understand where the chasm might be crossed (to use Geoffrey Moore’s well-known metaphor), and attempt to predict where major shifts might occur.

In between these two extremes are a range of approaches, some practical, some problematic, but each fascinating in their own respect.

I’m currently reading a book called “Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers is the New Way to be Smart.” (New York: Bantam Books, 2007.) The author is Ian Ayres, an “econometrician and lawyer” with superb credentials and eight other books to his credit. The best external link to Ayres’ work that I could find offers a great deal of information and excellent links. His prediction tools are lots of fun and a good illustration of his work (once you’ve got a handle on his work).


A fun site for futurists is Long Bets. “Long Bets was started in 2003 as a project of The Long Now Foundation which was founded in 1996 as a 501(c)(3) public education nonprofit foundation, based in California….The originators of Long Bets are Stewart Brand, Douglas Carlston, Kevin Kelly & Stafford Matthews.” One bet already concluded was posited by Dave Winer and the $2,000 challenge was taken by Martin Nisenholtz (former vice president, digital operations at the NYT). Dave predicted that “In a Google search of five keywords or phrases representing the top five news stories of 2007, weblogs will rank higher than the New York Times’ Web site.” Dave won.

As we now know, many, many factors are influencing the future of publishing: your challenge is to look at the bets and predictions on the site and figure out what the impact of each might be upon publishing.