I love this quote from Paul Morley about dubstep: “At last I’ve heard a form of music I really don’t understand. I don’t understand who makes it, why they’re doing it, and who’s listening to it. That’s what I’ve been waiting for.”

It comes from a brief article by Brian Eno in Prospect about the unpredictably of the future (online edition here).  Specifically, it’s on how we cannot imagine right now what shape the future will take. The forces that will fashion the paradigm shift that inevitably awaits are incredibly difficult to predict – or even identify – until they’ve wrought their changes.

To make matters more head-spinning, that change seems to be accelerating. YouTube is only five years old. Hard to imagine a world without it now…  The rise of Facebook has been so rapid, that anyone who claims to have recognised Mark Zuckerberg’s dogged aspirations to be part of the in-crowd as the harbinger of a network encompassing nearly 10% of the world’s population being on facebook is probably lying.

Technological change that might have unfolded over a decade during the 19th century can now make its impact felt within a year. But the fact that we can so viscerally feel the change happening around us doesn’t make us any more able to understand and re-evaluate those forces of change, let alone predict their implications.

If anything, it makes idiots of us all. Like the music industry desperately trying to precision-market the soundtrack to our lives with accelerating freqency, lining up a succession of Next Big Things, the point is being missed.

There’s two pretty big reasons those trying to bring about the future will never get it right

  1. We’ll decide, thanks. The idea of a top-down revolution is an oxymoron – this model of change never existed because it makes no sense. Everything comes from ground level.
  2. Alchemy is accidental. We simply cannot account for the right conditions for change. That we persistently re-visit moments of change to explain them leaves us all with the impression that we could have predicted them, though. This is the Black Swan theory – check Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book for more on this.

But, the chance to be the one who ‘saw what was going to happen’ is an intoxicating idea. I think it’s a factor in everything from dotcom investment bubbles to the way colleagues constantly try and appear ahead of the game by sending you links to plugged-in sites like Mashable and Digital Buzz Blog. (I afraid I’m also one of those people.)

Because you never know, anything happening right now, whether in the margins, or in the mainstream, could be the one that profoundly affects our lives for the next 50 years. And it could be you who’s the one to go on and make a mint from it; you who your colleagues will forever remember as the one who first brought it their attention.

But this need to be (or rather, appear) a step ahead remains a foolish one. We merely pretend that we understand the narrative, that we somehow have special access to something, that we have the capability to appreciate the dialectic of change.

And we don’t.

Far better, not to say easier, to take Paul Morley’s approach. And empowering, too, since it divests us of the responsibility to know everything, all the time.

It’s amazing how liberating it can feel to say ‘I don’t know’.