Back to the future: Why it's so hard to make predictions for 2015

Jon Davie is UK CEO at Zone, the digital marketing agency which counts Coca-Cola GB, Tesco, Barratt Homes and Prostate Cancer UK among its clients. Jon writes a monthly content marketing column for The Drum.

As the year draws to a close, it’s traditional for columns like this to gaze into a crystal ball and make some predictions about the 12 months to come. Things move pretty quickly in the digital world, so what does 2015 have in store?

I could spend the next 500 words or so waffling on about wearable tech, the importance of mobile, the rise of content or the end of advertising. But there’s plenty of that stuff already out there, so instead of doing proper research, I decided to watch a film.

Not just any film though. Because it turns out that 2015 – October 21, 2015, to be precise – is the day when the future finally arrives: it’s the date Doc Brown and Marty McFly travel to in the 1989 classic Back to the Future Part II.

In many ways, the film’s writers did a pretty amazing job predicting the future 26 years ago. We’re still waiting for flying cars and hoverboards, but voice-controlled computers, video conferencing, flat screen TVs and 3D films are all so commonplace that we barely give them a second thought.

But all these things are based on things that already existed in the 1980s – they are just bigger, better or smarter versions. Now we’re actually living in the future, the amazing thing is how many of the innovations around us would be literally inconceivable back in 1989.

1989 was also the year that Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, Nintendo launched the GameBoy, and for a bargain price of £1,765, you could purchase a Motorola MicroTAC 9800X – arguably the first ‘modern’ mobile handset.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that the web, games consoles and mobile phones would all become staples of modern life. But the future always looks obvious when you look back on it; and as we look into 2015, I’m convinced that reality will exceed even the most outlandish predictions.

Why? Because Moore’s Law – the theory that computer processing power doubles every two years – means that we are now reaching the really scary bit of an exponential growth curve. Back in 1989, the GameBoy was powered by a 4.19MHz processor, and boasted 8kB of RAM. My new iPhone 6 has a 1.4GHz CPU and 1GB of RAM.

Or to put it another way, my iPhone is approximately 3,000 times faster than my GameBoy; and has 125 thousand times more memory.

The analogy of a chessboard is often used to illustrate the power of exponential growth. Put one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, and then double it on every subsequent square – two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, and so on. By the time you reach the 32nd square, you’ll need 4,294,967,295 grains of rice – about 100,000 one kilogram bags.

But it’s in the second half of the chessboard when things start to get really interesting. The 33rd square already contains more rice than the whole first half of the board. To fill the 64th and final square, you’ll need to find 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 grains of rice. And all the rice on board would amount to a pile the size of Mount Everest – approximately 1,000 times more than the entire global production of rice in 2010.

Why is making predictions about 2015 so challenging? Because now we’re moving into the second half of the chessboard, and the pace of change is becoming truly extraordinary.

Jon Davie is managing director at Zone. You can follow him on Twitter @JonDavie

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