Perils of forecasting: disbelief and anger

The art of forecasting the future is often fun. But it is fraught with peril. Perils of forecasting that I have often encountered are: disbelief and anger. Here is an example.

It was in the mid- to late-1980s. Selma Holo, the director of the Fisher Gallery at the University of Southern California, asked me to give a talk. The subject was possible future trends in art galleries. The occasion was an art museum curators’ conference held at the Fisher. That sounds innocuous doesn’t it?

Art ap(de)preciation

I picked for my topic the impact of information technologies on art appreciation. Specifically, I talked about the possible future of the neighborhood art museum. This would be a place where neighborhood residents could go to see art that otherwise would be unavailable to them. I imagined a kind of digitized encyclopedia of artworks. This would be made possible by the high-density information stored on compact disks, DVDs and/or computer drives. The idea was that a simple storefront facility could contain a trove of relevant digital media. It would have image projection facilities so that local visitors could explore artworks to at least the level of detail that would be allowed by museum guards. A realistic Mona Lisa up close in Pacoima or Peoria. The neighborhood museum staff would comprise an art librarian.

I was surprised — even shocked — by what came next. One museum director after another came up to me during the break to say that either it would never happen or to express their rage — or both. Disbelief and anger aplenty. I was branded as an iconoclast, a nutcase, or worse, except by a few who appreciated an outsider’s view of the potential for museum outreach. Clearly, my forecast was seen as a threat to some livelihoods, an opportunity for others.

The outcome

In any case I went back to my efforts on telecommuting and on the impacts of computers and digital networks on the world. A few months after my presentation at the museum conference I got a call from the Getty Museum. The Getty wanted to know if I would be interested in coming there to set up their digital activities. Their terms were enticing: the museum was closer to my home than USC was; I could work from home much of the time; I could visit art museums worldwide as part of the job. Yet I finally decided not to move in order to persist in my telework research.

Jump ahead about three decades,

Just this month, I saw the following item on the internet: Paris museums are putting a large number of their artworks online. My late 1980s forecast was a little off; the neighborhood art museum might now be morphing into a global art museum, accessible by anyone with internet access. But the point of my speech, that technology could bring fine art to everyone, still holds. After all, I wasn’t predicting the future, just exploring some possible futures.

Anyway, forecasting technology applications 30 years in advance of their appearance isn’t too bad.

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