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Explaining the Past

June 21, 2011

They say “hindsight is 20/20.”

But I’d like to see more explanations of past events (for instance, “Why did Youtube (or Twitter, or Facebook) become so successful, when similar services failed before?”) that have the following property:

If presented with the explanation prior to the event, it would have convinced me that the event would indeed occur.

E.g., presented with an argument why Twitter would succeed, prior to Twitter becoming so popular, would I have been convinced (by that argument) that Twitter would indeed eventually become popular, even when mixed in with all the other contradictory opinions and analyses of that time?

Most explanations of past events I see, across the spectrum of interesting topics, don’t have this property. In general, “hindsight is 20/20” seems more apropos of the way we tend to be more accepting of arguments and explanations when we already know the underlying premise is true. It’s easy to nod along when reading an article describing why Google or Amazon or Facebook became so successful, after the fact. It’s much harder to accept as truth those same arguments when we don’t already know the final outcome. And that’s what I think they really mean by “hindsight is 20/20.”

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