More Internet Users than People

More Internet Users than People: Why businesses extrapolate when we need breakthroughs instead, by Mark Chussil

Carl Bialik (“The Numbers Guy” at the Wall Street Journal) published an article in the Journal on August 15, 2008, that echoes a numeracy theme we’ve long advocated at ACS: Extrapolating the past into the future is dicey. (See Precision In, Garbage Out and With All This Intelligence, Why Don’t We Have Better Strategies?) Extrapolations, says Mr. Bialik, would lead us to conclude that there will soon be more internet users than people. He writes also that straight-faced “studies” would project 100% of the American population will be obese by 2048.

So why do we extrapolate the past when it so clearly can be misleading to the point of absurdity? One possibility, of course, is simply that it’s easy, quick, and convenient; more-thoughtful approaches take more time and skill. Another is that it works well in typical spreadsheets (which spotlights one of many vulnerabilities in typical spreadsheets) and the social acceptance of everyone does it. Perhaps most of all it’s because it’s defensible. Defensible not because there can be more internet users than people. Defensible in the sense that the extrapolation will probably fit tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, even though we know that it won’t fit in the future (where “the future” is defined as “beyond the time I care about”).

We think extrapolation is self-evidently defensible, and it is merely on-the-surface defensible. It falls apart when things get interesting, which is precisely when we need help the most… and precisely when we are most vulnerable to bad advice.

Let’s extrapolate negatively — that is, look back in time — and recall the Y2K problem. That was the widespread computer problem caused by programmers who (for good, defensible reasons) coded years using two digits instead of four. When we rolled into the 21st century, their programs would think that we had gone -99 years ahead. It was a serious problem with potentially dire effects (lights-out was a mild possibility), and it took serious resources to forestall. Contrast Y2K and climate change. Y2K had a hard, specific, credible, non-negotiable deadline: December 31, 1999, 11:59:59 pm. Climate change does not. The thoughtful among us, notably former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore, urge us to create a deadline for ourselves.

We are lulled into passivity, on climate change and business thinking, by our constant observations that successive days look similar. We expect, from decades of daily reinforcement (shared by everyone else, who therefore don’t question us any more than we question them), that tomorrow will look like today, and the day after tomorrow will look like tomorrow. Tomorrow looks like today, and the day after tomorrow looks like tomorrow, but the day after tomorrow doesn’t look as much like today. The problem (stay with me here) is that tomorrow, not today, is when we will judge the day after tomorrow, and so it doesn’t look as different from today (when we started down the path) as it really is.

We rightly value breakthrough thinking. We value creativity, insight, and out-of-the-box thinking. Extrapolation does not lead to those goals.

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