The “nobody could have predicted it” meme has to die!
November 12th, 2009 by ravi

When no WMD were found in Iraq the neocons who had been promoting the war on that premise offered as an excuse the claim that nobody knew or predicted that outcome at the time of going to war. When the economy fell apart last year because of the real estate bubble, Chicago school and classical economists employed a similar defence, that this result could not have been, and was not, anticipated. I am not trying to turn political here on this blog, but this excuse is trotted out all too often despite its being entirely unjustified and ill-reasoned.

Here is an example. In a recent blog post, TechCrunch glowingly interviews Don Dodge formerly of Microsoft, and includes various clichés as wisdom, including:

“It’s easy to criticize startups” he says, “but it’s much harder to create one.” He also uses a quote that I once grabbed off of a sticker – “Those who say it cannot be done shouldn’t interrupt the people doing it”.

Dodge then goes on to say:

“When Google was three months old, you would have laughed at them too, you would not have been impressed,” he says.

But he is as thoroughly wrong as the neocons were about Iraq and classical economists are about the real estate crisis (for the real estate situation, I suggest reading Paul Krugman and Dean Baker, both of whom had argued, inter alia, about the unsustainable mortgage/wages ratio). Long before Google was three months old, back when they were still running at Stanford University, the potential of Google was well known both to industry insiders and Internet users. Here is some of that history:

Google’s potential also attracted several notable investors, including Ram Shriram (past president of Junglee and VP of Business Development at and Andy Bechtolsheim (co-founder of Sun Microsystems and current VP at Cisco Systems).

Bechtolsheim actually catalyzed Google’s incorporation. Meeting at the home of a common friend, David Cheriton (a professor of Computer System Design at Stanford and co-founder of Granite Systems), Page, Brin, and Bechtolsheim discussed Google. After meeting for less than thirty minute, Bechtolsheim had heard enough and wrote out a check for $100,000, to “Google, Inc.”

That’s a far cry from “laugh[ing] at them”.

There is a danger to this meme as made obvious by the first quote from the Dodge interview above, and that is this process of generalising from one’s own weaknesses: I didn’t think something was possible, I was wrong, so all other critics of all things are wrong. Not so. All you can conclude is that, akin to Dvorak, you may just not be good at making predictions or critiquing something. Which is okay. Many of us are not, but some are and their “interruption”s are crucial to progress.

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