False Prognostication

I recently read how when the Twitter guys were first starting out many people told them, “That’ll never catch on.”

Many people were wrong.

When it comes to misreading the future of tech,¬†this piece takes the cake. Written in 1995 for Newsweek, the author made some predictions about how the Internet wouldn’t be all that important:

“Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”

The interesting thing is that this guy was actually quite involved with the nascent Internet back then. It was his knowledge with the platform at the time which allowed him to reign in any lofty sci-fi ideas. To him, the Internet was a messy and impractical free-for-all of random info. Plus, he was reacting to some pretty lofty ideas that many have been predicting about the Internet then and through today.

I think the reason people are so off when it comes to these types of predictions, though, is because they misread (or neglect) the human aspect. This author didn’t account for the human tendency which leads to order out of chaos: ideas spread, platforms universalized, and the Internet became an organized and extraordinarily efficient universe. In the case of those who thought work commutes would dwindle underestimate the importance humans have for face-to-face contact. Then again, sometimes naysayers overestimated this aspect. Many said online shopping would never take off.

Sometimes people miss the boat with technology because they forget that new tech will come along that doesn’t yet exist. To assume that some undiscovered idea will revolutionize an industry or even the world can be a hard thing to lean on, but that’s been the case over and over. It’s hard to include the unseen and not-yet-imagined in our perspective of how things are. Yet that’s what’s needed for accurate forecasts. That’s what guys from IBM, Western Union, Microsoft, and Apple missed when saying these things¬†about the future. So don’t feel bad if your predictions fail. The smartest guys in the room are wrong a lot, too.

Vacuum Tube Computer

It’s fun to feature the piece from Newsweek, though, because it predicted online journalism would never take off yet here we are on this blog. Oh, and Newsweek recently went to an all-online format.

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One Response to “False Prognostication”

  1. Matt says:

    I was 14 in 1995. I just got my first computer near the end of the year. Heaven’s Gate wouldn’t be around until early 1997 (Seemed to me the first real heavy news coverage about something on the internet). I knew computers and internet was going to be big…that was my big way of convincing my parents I needed a computer. I figured someday I would be involved in the troubleshooting and repair of computers. I figured that someday people would watch all kinds of videos and see pictures on them (I first saw a digital camera in 1996, bought one in 1998, and actually had a “space age computer portrait” back in 1985…which was a print out of me with a dot matrix printer).

    Were my predictions right? Yes;) and I’ve become rather successful because of it…I think the biggest part I was off is that I envisioned working for someone else rather than myself.

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