Today I’m Going to Predict Your Future

Five important things that will happen to you before your 20-year college reunion

Amy Webb @ Medium
Published in
11 min readMay 10, 2014


Thank you, Dr. Martinelli. It’s an honor to be here giving the commencement speech at the P.I. Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University on such an important day.

In the great tradition of President Gee, I think we should start by taking an epic selfie!

So I’m going to tweet this right now to Ellen DeGeneres: “Some brilliant @WVUJournalism grads are looking for jobs @TheEllenShow. Hire them! #mountaineerforlife”

WVU’s own International Man of Mystery….. Bryan Bumgardner…..did you retweet that? Andrea Oliver? Wait a minute…what am I saying? Andrea is about to graduate Magna Cum Laude. She’s taking notes, not tweeting.

OK. We can get started in earnest.

I’d like to start by congratulating the Class of 2014. You’ve been on a tremendous journey these past few years, one that has led you to this moment. This incredible day. You might be nervous about starting grad school or a new job, or you might be uncertain about your next steps. You’ve just achieved a significant milestone. So take a few minutes today and really celebrate that — and allow others to celebrate you for the degree you’ve just earned.

I remember my own graduation from Columbia University. I was sitting in a cap and gown, thinking about my future career as a journalist. I had the amazing opportunity to live and work as a reporter in Asia when all of the personal technology we see as commonplace today was just starting to launch. About fifteen years ago, I had a camera that doubled as an mp3 player. Not too long after that, I could use my tiny Japanese cell phone to order tickets for the Shinkansen train. This was about the same time that your parents were buying their first flip phones here in the United States. I knew then how radically different the world would be today. I became so fascinated with the Internet as it was evolving and the promise of data and mobile technologies that I wanted to immerse myself in it full time.

I’m now a digital media futurist. Which means that most days, I’m talking to experts, looking at patents, experimenting with prototypes, researching trends and observing human behavior in order to anticipate emerging technologies. I advise Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and others on the trends that I see coming, and how to take advantage of them. My job is to anticipate what our next new reality will be. And ultimately, to help create it.

Today, I’m going to predict your future.

I’m going to share five important things that I think will happen to you and to our media landscape before your 20-year college reunion.

One. Most of the news that you create and consume will be personalized.

There will no longer be national stories intended for everyone and maybe just localized for Morgantown. Instead your own personal data streams — your tastes and preferences, your beliefs, your reading and listening habits, your social circle, your age, your gender — all of that and more will be used to determine the news, marketing and advertising you receive. Your behavior will be monitored by artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms. That system — not an editor or producer — will determine which stories you’re seeing and when.

A scene from The Social Network, when Facebook’s founders are building their first site together. A few weeks before this commencement speech, Facebook launched FB Newswire, which is meant to be a publishing partner for journalists.

The news will find you, and it will be delivered on any number of screens: electronic billboards that use facial recognition to target you; contact lenses with cameras and screens; the windshield of your car. Accelerometers will determine if you’re sitting at a desk and sensors will detect your level of busyness. They’ll know if you’re jogging in the park. Depending on your activity at that moment, you’ll get a different version of the news. Maybe it’s a two-minute audio story of just important headlines, or maybe it’s a longer analytical piece with layers of information about key players.

As a result, newsrooms and ad agencies in 20 years will look very different than they do today. You won’t be working alone at your desk or in an office. Instead, you’ll collaborate — with a data scientist and an interactive designer, a technologist and a product person, as well as an editor.

Two. You will experience, rather than simply read, listen to or watch stories.

In 20 years, or perhaps even sooner, journalism, marketing and advertising will be experiential. You’ve probably heard about the launch of the Oculus Rift, which is an immersive, virtual reality headset. Essentially, your brain is tricked into thinking that you’re actually in whatever scene the Rift is showing you in the headset. For those of you who watch Game of Thrones and are familiar with The Wall — the Rift offers you the experience of being up there on it. You look down, and your perspective is exactly as it would be if your toes were peeping out, just over the edge. It’s terrifying.

You can’t buy the Rift or any of its competitors just yet, but think about how this technology will forever change storytelling. Think about the devastating mudslides in Seattle, or Hurricane Katrina. Some news organizations do absolutely fantastic work with stories like these — MSNBC’s Rising From Ruin package online was among the very best. We learned the stories of people who survived, but we were still ultimately looking at a two-dimensional screen. We were passive news consumers. Now, think about how different our perspective might be if we had the ability put on a virtual reality headset and actually step into the scene. We’d experience the story with our senses, and it would become tactile.

Google applied for a patent on contact lenses embedded with a microscopic camera and other sensors. You already know about Google Glass. Can you imagine a contact lens that does what Glass can — but overlays information throughout your entire field of vision whenever you wanted? Experiential content changes our relationship to advertising and marketing. For those of you going into those fields, your future clients will include algorithms — which means you’ll be marketing to artificially intelligent systems, not just big brands. Biometric sensors in your car will detect that you’re sleepy and you’ll receive an alert in your heads-up display that there’s a coffee shop near by. You’ll just look at a restaurant to see its Yelp reviews. Or look at someone’s face for a few seconds to determine who they are and what they’re thinking. Suddenly, everything we can see is a possible brand impression and call to action.

In the future, you will use these devices for reporting, too, and you’ll be able to transmit that information in real-time to anyone you want. So the next time you’re at Coachella and Leonardo DiCaprio busts a move, you won’t need to fumble through your bag to find your phone. You can just stare at him as you would anyway — because who wouldn’t — and share him with your friends.

Three. You will face complicated ethics and privacy challenges.

As technology evolves, it is also eroding your expectations of privacy. If you’d have asked me when I was in college to share my address at all times with strangers, along with what I think about current events, where I like to eat and what music I’m listening to, I’ve have laughed in your face. And yet it took me less than two minutes while I was sitting in traffic outside of Washington DC to learn that our International Man of Mystery’s favorite meal is broccoli, kale and sliced steak done medium rare. That’s ok — you could spend less time than that to learn that I’m married, I drive a black Audi and I’ve been failing in my many attempts to make French macarons.

Within 20 years, your comfort level will continue to change, and this has implications on journalism, marketing, advertising and PR. And on our society as a whole. Most of you will be walking around with a very good camera at all times, and it’s likely to be one that you’re inconspicuously wearing. You will need to start making decisions about when you can use the ambient data and footage you’re collecting, and when it crosses an ethical boundary. You’ll have to determine how much personal data is reasonable to collect in the pursuit of adverting and marketing — and you, as a consumer, will need to decide how much data you’re willing to share in order to receive free services.

The conversations you’ve had as university students can’t be the last ones you have about media and ethics. They’ll need to be ongoing. And you’ll need to keep an open, sharp mind as you figure out the answers.

Four. You will continue learning.

Sorry…I know this is the last thing you want to hear on your graduation day, but it’s true. I’m not saying that you need to immediately enroll in grad school or get some kind of certification in Ruby on Rails this summer. But you must continue educating yourself, in part for the sheer exhilaration of learning something new, and in part because the best way to serve your future self is to commit to expanding your worldview.

The easiest and most reliable pathway is simple: stay aggressively curious.

Believe it or not, that’s exactly the state you’ve been in these past four years as a college student. You’ve already been exploring big ideas. You’ve been exploring subjects that are entirely new to you, like microeconomic theory or anthropology. Hell, you’ve been exploring the beer selection over at the Sports Page on game nights.

The best way to prepare for the future is to nurture your sense of curiosity. Observe the world around you. Don’t stare at your mobile phones all the time. Instead, while you’re walking, take a look around at the signs, the billboards, even the garbage bins. When you’re at an airport, notice how people move through security lines. Where are they getting stuck? And why? When you hear a rumor that kids are making videos showing what they just bought at the mall, and that those videos are getting millions and millions of views on YouTube, don’t just roll your eyes. Watch a few. Ask yourself why they’re so popular.

This is something I do all the time, and I ask a lot of questions. I ask more questions than my four-year-old daughter, which by any measure is obscene. If someone mentions an acronym I haven’t heard before, I ask her what it means. When I’m sitting next to someone on a plane or train and I see her using her phone, I ask her to show me her favorite apps. Ask, ask, ask.

Usually, the best innovations aren’t really brand new ideas — they’re little hacks. Ideas that solve a simple problem. Twitter started out as a way to help attendees at SXSW find all the best parties, since back then it was hard to text a whole bunch of people at one time. OpenTable started out as a solution to calling restaurant after restaurant to get a Friday night dinner reservation…and it also provided restaurants with a reliable reservation management system. In the context of journalism, advertising, marketing and PR, your insatiable curiosity will lead you to those very best ideas. And to the very best stories. You’ll find the gems that other people miss, and you’ll tell those stories in fantastic new ways. You’ll discover efficiencies and ways to make the media world better.

You don’t need to predict tech trends like I do, but you do need to participate in them early on. Spend a half hour at an electronics store and have the salesperson walk you through his favorite gadget. Take an online class every now and then. Allow yourself to read books outside your field — and allow yourself to read more fiction. Commit to lifelong learning.

Five. Things will probably not go as you’ve planned.

All this technology I’ve been talking about will inevitably change your career. For some of you, your first job as a journalist will include reporting and producing factual stories for a newspaper or a TV news show. But before you all turn 30, I suspect the job description for a journalist will have changed somewhat. The same is true for those of you going into marketing, advertising and PR. That is not a bad thing. It’s exciting. It means that you’ll get the opportunity to exercise more of your creativity, and to work in harmony with powerful tools that ultimately make your work more impactful.

A lot of people think Windows 8 was an epic failure.

The successes for which you’ve worked hard and for which you and your parents have planned won’t always materialize. Sometime in the next 20 years, you’ll make a terrible mistake. A really bad one. Maybe you’ll get fired for it. Or maybe, you’ll do something terrific — you’ll break ground on an important story, or you’ll bring your client loads of recognition in the press. And, inexplicably, you’ll get demoted or fired for that. It’s ok. If you’re smart and you’re strong, you’ll make time for contemplation. Failure builds confidence. I’ve certainly failed more than once.

I’ve been lucky to have a close circle of friends and colleagues, who, when I’ve failed, offer congratulations rather than condolences. I’ve learned that sometimes, doing great work — the kind of work that moves the needle and makes our society a better place — can often mean making a lot of people angry. All of my heroes, the people who were true innovators, were also provocateurs — and they failed. Ben Franklin was fired from his job as deputy postmaster because he kept leaving to do “diplomatic work” in London. Steve Jobs nearly destroyed his own company because he demanded that his team work harder and because he wanted to produce better products than everyone else. Thomas Edison went through 10,000 prototypes for the light bulb before he got it right. And you know what he said? “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work.”

At some point, you will fail. And later, you’ll realize that it was the best thing that happened to you. Failures often pave the way for your biggest successes. If you’re not failing, you’re not innovating. You’re not exercising your creativity. You’re not taking risks. You’re not trying hard enough. You’re not living.

This is your future as I see it today.

My prediction is that you already have the tools to succeed — so the next step in your journey is to confront a series of decisions.

Make a decision to embrace technology.

Make a decision to set your own bar high, higher than anyone else would set for you.

Make a decision to unleash your enthusiasm, your creativity and your drive.

Make a decision to always work harder and smarter than whoever’s sitting next to you.

And right now, make a decision to look back on this day in 20 years, and to be proud of the future that you anticipated — and created — for yourselves.

Congratulations to you all. Thank you.



Amy Webb @ Medium

CEO of @FTI . Future scenarios + planning + foresight + tech trends. Prof @NYUStern. 4x best-selling author. Cofounder @SparkCamp.