Predictions are a frustrating business. Mic Wright explains what Stanley Kubrick, Nostradamus and The Pet Shop Boys can tell you about Facebook’s future.
Predicting the future is difficult. Nostradamus gets a lot of latitude, credited by fans as foreseeing the French Revolution, the rise of Hitler, the Apollo moon landings, the death of Princess Diana and the destruction of the World Trade Centre, among other things. Perhaps we can put his continuing popularity down to first-mover advantage. After all, the French mystic began monetising his prophecies in 1550.
Things have been a little harder for whack-jobs and fantasists since the Enlightenment but there are still plenty of credulous folk out there to be prayed upon. The best advice for a wannabe prophet is to head to America, where cults can still pick up big followings. Anyone want this collection of magic tablets I found in the woods? Or perhaps this brilliant start-up idea I’ve written on a napkin?
Making accurate predictions about business and technology is even tougher than the traditional arenas tackled by prophets. Wild-eyed cult leaders and shaggy-haired mystics herald little more than coming floods or war, then demand praise when something roughly approximating their predictions comes to pass.
If your claims about the coming apocalypse are not confirmed, you can, like Harold Camping, who promised the Rapture would descend upon the globe in 2011, simply say you messed up your calculations and hunker down for the next deadline. (Jehovah’s Witnesses have been waiting for the end of the world since 1799.) Thankfully, the world of business tends to offer more cut-and-dried conclusions. Corporations are not eternal.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey offers a lesson in big business and managing expectations. Kubrick used a very forward-thinking form of product placement. Rather than simply putting current products from brands in shot, he asked fifty companies to present designs they believed could be in general usage in that far-off future (2001). Implicit in Kubrick’s choices was a belief that the firms he turned to would survive long beyond the 35-year leap his movie was making.
The two biggest failures featured as future successes in 2001: A Space Odyssey are Pan Am and Bell. Recently resurrected in fictional form for a Christina Ricci TV vehicle, Pan Am World Airways collapsed in 1991, a full 10 years before Kubrick had it acting as the space carrier of choice. Perhaps Virgin Galactic could pick up the branding and make that docking sequence a reality.
In Bell’s case, the phone call made by Dr Heywood Floyd to his daughter while onboard the space station is very retro. The Bell System was long defunct by 2001 after the 1984 breakup of AT&T’s regional interests. What Kubrick had been unable to predict was the awesome power of a US Department of Justice antitrust case. In space, no one can hear you subpoena.
Another brand featured in the film was retired before it even premiered. The space shuttle’s stewardess retrieves meals from an RCA/Whirlpool zero gravity food preparation unit – but Whirlpool dropped that branding in 1966, two years before 2001: A Space Odyssey hit movie theatres.
Another brand featured in 2001 has survived but is far from the dominant player pictured in the movie. In 1968, IBM was computing so it makes sense that its displays dominate the space shuttle and its branding is on the tablets Dave uses to watch the news and the controls of his spacesuit.
IBM even gets a nod in the name of the errant supercomputer HAL 9000 (the initials are IBM, displaced by one character). The producers and 2001’s author, Arthur C Clarke, claimed HAL’s name was a coincidence but IBM was still reportedly furious.
Though it’s true that IBM is still a major entity, especially in the area of super-computers with the Jeopardy!-defeating Watson, Big Blue just isn’t as big as it once was, not least in terms of profile. It’s more likely today that a future space station would show Facebook pages on its screens and feature computers designed by Apple or Sony, depending on the studio fronting the cash for the production.
There’s a common argument that Facebook will survive in the long term because it learned the lessons of the social networks that came before it. That’s true in part. Certainly Mark Zuckerberg studied the decisions made by MySpace, Friendster and others, but those networks were operating at a different time, when consumers were less sure of what they wanted. MySpace users were content to plaster their pages with animated GIFs and flirt with girls wearing too much eyeliner.
Facebook is not a indestructible monolith and the shakes around its IPO are a result of the market realising that. In the US, the doctrine of corporate personhood means companies actually have a first amendment right to free speech, and, just like humans, all corporations have a natural lifespan. It’s understandable that entrepreneurs and business leaders don’t want to recognise that. It’s not in their interests or the interests of shareholders to admit that it’s not really possible to accurately predict what lies over the horizon.
Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys wrote for Smash Hits before he actually plied his trade as a pop star. That gave him a fairly unique perspective on his trade and led to his theory of “the imperial phase”. The notion is that some bands hit, for a limited time, such a groove that they can do no wrong in the eyes of the public. Facebook has had its imperial phase. Despite numerous privacy stumbles and the legal issues documented in The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg was the sun king of social… for a while.
Now Peter Thiel, the most significant sotto capo in Mark’s money mafia, has shown his cards. Thiel, who became Facebook’s first outside investor in 2005, when he put $500,000 into the company, sold 20 million shares last week. The move nets Thiel around $400 million on top of the $640 million he cashed out during the IPO in May. While he’s still on the board, cutting his holding to 5.6 million shares suggests his confidence in the social network’s future is as solid as it once was.
Zuckerberg reportedly told a company-wide meeting earlier this month that the retreat of investors from Facebook’s stock was “painful” to watch. But he’s also said to have told employees that we would all have more faith in the social network if we knew about its future plans and that investments made over the past year will soon start to pay off.
Given that many soothsayers have predicted Facebook will be superseded every time it’s hit a bump in the road and Zuckerberg has repeatedly proven them wrong, it’s a hard one to call. What’s certain is that companies, like empires, cannot survive without evolving and that, even then, death is inevitable. One day, The Social Network will be seen as a quaint period drama, as historically irrelevant as 2001: A Space Odyssey is today.
Whether Facebook survives in a mutated form like IBM, no longer the dominant actor in its market, or crashes like Pan Am, the monolith we study today is not built to be with us for decades – no matter what Mark Zuckerberg says. That’s one prediction of which you really can be sure.