What’s there to think about?

2013 is the year of the Water Snake in the Chinese zodiac. Water is considered to have the colour black, which conjures up the high levels of river pollution in China, so 2013 is also said to be the Year of the Black Snake. Searching the Internet for enlightenment gives results as penetrating as this one: “Snake contains mainly Fire. It also contains some Metal and Earth. Snake is in the Fire group. Water of 2013 and Fire of Snake are opposite elements. Therefore most of people will experience mix of good and bad fortune.” Well we might have guessed that most people will experience mixed fortunes, but ancient wisdom, or snake-oil geomancy, offers reassurance that our guesswork is credible.

So how about some other predictions or forecasts or sooth-saying for the ICT sector? How about “Apple will continue to innovate but not all its products will seem amazingly new”? Or “more and more people will adopt 4G broadband wireless, but most people won’t”? Facebook “will generate more revenues from advertising, but will run into some privacy concerns”? The only time these prognostications become interesting is when they are proved utterly wrong. But most times they are not wrong because they are too vacuous to be wrong. Being wrong is usually far more helpful, but for the lazy of thought it is far less satisfying, than being right. Not always of course. “Being wrong and being right can be equally beneficial.” Sometimes it really becomes quite difficult to say anything that actually has meaning. Maybe that is why careers in the advertising industry are so popular.

Economists often use the term ceteris paribus (“other things being equal”). It is a useful technique in rational thinking because it isolates out the key variables in the argument when in the real world they are rarely isolated. But economists strive, mostly far less successfully than they like to imagine, to be “scientific” and “rigorous” in their thinking. Actually, most are simply “technical” which is rather different. Compare this with “investment advisers” who would like to promote themselves in the media. “If quantitative easing eases, then the bears will come into the bond market and the bulls will go to the equities market.” Zoological metaphors are helpful shorthand. At least they are preferable to “market adjustments” and “technical corrections” which are shorthand for “your guess is as good as mine.” But the word “rigorous” is an appealing one. “Scientific” is also appealing but open to many interpretations. Rigour on the other hand is the one universal that genuinely can be applied to thinking and writing.

A recent article in the Financial Times (“Net Wisdom” by Robert Cottrell, 16/17 February 2013) made some interesting observations about writing and reading on the Internet. His point was that good writing (think rigorous thinking) lasts. If it is worth reading (and thinking about) today, then it should be worth reading (and thinking about) in 20 years’ time. Bill Gates cites early on in his 1996 book The Road Ahead the predictions in the 1940s that eventually every city would have a computer. It’s a great prediction. It tells us genuinely how thinking was in those years. Not how advertisers saw the world but how serious technologists saw the road ahead. Modern understanding is built upon an understanding of what was wrong about those predictions, and without them we would be so much worse off in our understanding about how the world works. So let’s think how we can be wrong and celebrate it and be comfortable with it. And like the snake, learn how to change our skin from time to time.

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