Rifkin’s Erroneous Riffing, or Why Basing Plans on Techno-Prophecy is Such a Bad Idea

In the last few weeks, friends at Virginia Tech have been asking me worried questions about the futurist and writer Jeremy Rifkin, who has apparently become a guru or “thought leader” in some quarters on campus. My friends asked, Is Rifkin really a respected thinker about economics and technology? And are his visions of the future so reliable and accurate that they should form the basis of planning? The first question will depend on who you ask, of course, but there’s a straightforward answer to the second question:

No.

Should we trust this man’s predictions? Uh . . . No!

Rifkin’s promoters and defenders will tell you that he’s advised leaders in the European Commission and China, that he’s lectured at the Wharton School’s Executive Education program since the mid-1990s, and that he has won many plaudits, especially from the business press. Some of these honors and achievements aren't so clear or are hard to verify, however. For instance, a Google search for "Jeremy Rifkin Wharton" produced only one link to the actual Wharton school in the first two pages of results, and that Wharton page does not list Rifkin as a lecturer there. The rest of the hits on the first two pages were examples where Rifkin or others, including Virginia Tech, were promoting his connection to the Wharton. (I had two friends run the Google search I make sure it wasn't my browser - they found the same thing.) For some strange reason, the Wharton school is more central to Rifkin's promoted image than Rifkin is to Wharton's. And oddly, searching for Rifkin on the Wharton School’s webpage produces only two hits — neither of which has to do with him being a lecturer there. (I paste a screenshot below by way of evidence.) Other “accomplishments” are equally unclear and hard to substantiate.

When we peer behind such promotional imagery, however, things become even murkier. And when we review Rifkin’s writing career, it’s not clear why anyone would want to use his ideas to inform their plans.

Rifkin began writing in the early-1970s as an activist and environmentalist, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he took extreme stances against DNA research and genetic engineering, especially around genetically-modified organisms. In a 2002 Time magazine article titled “The Most Hated Man of Science,” science journalist Dick Thompson wrote, “The problem is that Rifkin frequently presents his case in such a shrill and occasionally unscrupulous manner that in the debates he hopes to encourage, fear and anger frequently replace information and reasoned judgment.”

Rifkin ideas often took him to the edge of credibility, sometimes beyond it. In a review of Rifkin’s 1983 book, Algeny: A New Word — A New World, in which Rifkin opposed Darwinian science, the Harvard biologist and historian Stephen Jay Gould wrote that it was “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship . . . I don’t think I have ever read a shoddier work.” Similarly, a review of Rifkin’s 1981 book, Entropy: A New World View, noted, “Any scientist with even rudimentary training in thermodynamics will throw this book down in disgust. One can gauge the depth of Rifkin’s understanding of entropy by turning to page 33 and discovering that the popular maxims ‘You can’t beat the system’ and ‘It does no good to cry over spilt milk’ cap­ture the essence of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Rifkin’s treatment is so amateurish that he cannot even keep straight the distinction between matter and energy.”

Over time, Rifkin’s writings came increasingly to focus on predicting future technological trends, which, he claimed again and again, would be drastic and lead to the overturning of existing society. Rifkin became a techno-prophet. There’s no cutting-edge social science behind Rifkin’s prognostications: each book involves him looking at current trends, often cherry-picking evidence to make looming change look the most dramatic, and then projecting forward to some imagined future, typically taking potential changes to their logical extreme. In other words, Rifkin riffs — often erroneously.

Many of his futurist riffs have missed their marks badly. Here are a few examples:

  • In 1992, Rifkin published Beyond Beef, a screed on the environmental costs of beef consumption. Beyond Beef was subtitled The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture, and Rifkin pushed for a 50% decrease in beef consumption. While Rifkin’s activism was laudable — beef really is bad for the environment — cattle culture has not fallen. On a global level, beef consumption has actually increased, particularly in China.

So, a lot of what Rifkin says is untrue. This webpage, which rounds up criticisms of Rifkin, lays out at least seven more examples where his forecasts badly missed their mark. Rifkin’s predictions about economics and technology regularly fail.

(It doesn't help that journalists who cover and promote Rifkin's ideas are themselves not trained in thinking about the social dimensions of technology. In the 2017 Strategy + Business piece titled “The Thought Leader Interview: Jeremy Rifkin,” the authors write, “Even those who do not agree with Rifkin’s theory that capitalism is in the midst of a fundamental transformation must respect the exponential power of the forces he is tracking." But what exponential power are they talking about? And what evidence do they have that such a thing exists? As David Edgerton has pointed out, beyond a few typically brief exceptions, like most famously Moore's law, there's never been evidence that technology in general changes exponentially or that change is accelerating. Indeed, there is now evidence that research productivity has been decreasing by as much as 5% a year since the 1930s.)

If we step back, we see that Rifkin fits the long Western tradition of millenial, or apocalyptic, thinking that ultimately stems from the Judeo-Christian tradition. There have been plenty of millenial techno-prophets over the last few hundred years. Ray Kurzweil, for instance, sermonizes about the singularity, the moment when computers will become hyper-intelligent surpassing their human masters, and the universe will enter a forever of technological bliss. Kurzweil’s predictions haven’t held up very well either.

As I have written about in a forthcoming piece, humans are truly terrible at predicting future technological trends, as studies have shown again and again. For instance, the technology consultant Jeffrey Funk published an article demonstrating that the famed MIT Technology Review typically fails when it comes to technology prediction. Among other things, Funk found that only four of the forty technologies chosen by Technology Review as “breakthrough technologies” between 2001 and 2005 have sales greater than $10 billion, while eight technologies not predicted by the magazine have sales of that volume.

Moreover, M. Granger Morgan, the Hamerschlag University Professor of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and David Keith, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard University, have argued that the kinds of rich, narrative-based projections of the future that Rifkin creates are one of the worst tools for decision-making because they lead decision-makers to underestimate uncertainty. The future is hugely uncertain. As Morgan and Keith write, “The more detail that one adds to the storyline of a scenario, the more probable it will appear to most people, and the greater the difficulty they likely will have in imagining other, equally or more likely, ways in which the same outcome could be reached.”

The dangers of, say, basing university plans on the kinds of techno-prophecies Rifkin pushes should be clear. Imagine that you headed a department of meat science, bought into the predictions in Beyond Beef in 1992 and stopped teaching your students about cows. Imagine you headed a college of engineering and decided to go all in on the hydrogen economy at the expense of other energy types. Making choices on the bases of such prophecy is folly.

Furthermore, individuals who dig in their heels and say, "No! This time Rifkin is right!" about the “zero marginal cost society” or whatever need to face the fact that they believe so not because they have any great insights into the future but because they share Rifkin’s prejudices — probably because they've been reading the same pieces of hype-filled journalism he has.

Most problematically, Rifkin's assertions — that the future will be radically different technologically in ways he can foresee — play into the hands of higher education reformers who push "21st century skills," Design Thinking, the idea that scientists and engineers need training in "creativity" (any evidence that they weren't creative before?), and other academic fashions that are, by and large, unsubstantiated hogswallop. University curricula have always evolved to deal with changing social, economic and technological realities, and there's no reason to believe curricula and programs need some major systematic overhaul, certainly not in the name of some fad or some vision of the future that is probably wrong.

There’s nothing to suggest that Rifkin’s ideas are a sturdy foundation on which to build plans. And if people are buying into Rifkin at an institution of higher education, something has gone very wrong. When I have told friends who study the social dimensions of technology that Rifkin has gained purchase in some units here, they have responded, “Well . . . that’s embarrassing!!” Or as the science journalist John Horgan put it to me, “It’s hard to imagine Rifkin advising a school like yours.”

At the risk of offending my elders, it seems to me that the embrace of Rifkin at Virginia Tech points to a deeper, more depressing, and sadder reality: While many quarters of our society push for increasing public understanding of science and engineering, it is just as true that we need to increase public understanding of society, including economics and the social dimensions of technology. Individuals not trained to to think about the economics, sociology, and history of technology and society are being asked to make decisions related to these topics— and in a nice little demonstration of the Dunning-Kruger effect, they overestimate their own capabilities and do not realize how much they don’t know. If university leaders don’t approach the relationship between education and social, technological, and economic change with more intellectual seriousness, rigor, and sobriety, they could set us on a very bad path indeed.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Lee Vinsel

I do technology studies, co-organize @The_Maintainers, and profess Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.