Case Study 2: Steampunk is flat

The contents of Steampunk tile tell a story. The first tile introduces the term. And then through the next six tiles, we show IBM’s noble effort to study Steampunk and then declare it the big trend for 2013.

As it turned out, IBM was wrong. The trend had in fact peaked. And that’s what makes Steampunk such a precious case study for futurists. It shows us a trend that appears to scale up beautifully. Here surely is a trend that’s taking the world by storm. And there are futurists who talk as if every “next big thing” must be triumphant. They make no allowance for trends that look for destined for greatness only to flatten out.

Here is the trend beginning it’s decline around 2013, a year before the IBM declaration.

And the peaks? The peaks come every October. Guess why? You got it in one. Halloween. Steampunk went from being a trend that looked like it would dominate the center of our culture only to be reduced finally to fancy dress, to a costume.

I know I sound like a know-it-all. Don’t forgive me. I’m being an idiot. Trevor Davis, the man in charge at IBM, was wrong and this makes him a hero. Because almost no one in the futurist community actually makes a public declaration and lives with it. Most everyone walks away from their errors…silently.

And this means we don’t learn from our errors.

I sometimes wonder whether this problem, not exposing our bets to contradiction and ourselves to ridicule, happens because cool hunting is infected by the same rules as cool. To made an error when it comes to fashion is to risk ridicule. But we cannot let that rule apply here…and we’re idiots if we let it.

Published by Grant McCracken

I am an anthropologist who studies American culture. Some of my books: Dark Value, Culturematic, Chief Culture Officer and Transformations: identity construction in contemporary culture. I've taught at Harvard Business School and MIT. I am a self funding anthropologist. I spent half the year writing and half the year consulting.

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