The trouble with predictions: we know where we want to go but futurists don’t know how to get there

teletext_bookFrom the Pew Research Center:

More than 30 years ago, the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank, produced a book-length report on the development and potential impacts of electronic information technologies. What’s impressive is how much the report’s authors got right even though their fundamental assumption — that teletext and videotex, two nearly-forgotten platforms, would be in general use by the turn of the century – didn’t pan out.

Back in 1982, when the report was published, not only was the internet nonexistent but its ancestor, ARPANET, had fewer than 300 host computers, mostly at universities, government agencies and the military. At the time, many observers believed that teletext (one-way communication) and videotex (two-way), delivered to televisions or special-purpose terminals via telephone lines or coaxial cable, would be the main vehicles for bringing electronic information services to the masses. 

The report’s authors predicted that by 1998, teletext/videotex services would have “relatively widespread penetration. It may not be in every home, but it is probably in a neighbor’s home, and you might be considering getting the service yourself.” People would use the services for messaging, finding information, shopping and remote monitoring, as well as basic computing. Despite the differences in technology, that’s not a bad description of how people use the internet. (And for the record, about a quarter of the U.S. population was online in 1998).

Even though videotex and teletext never took off the way the report’s authors thought they would (slow speeds and lack of common standards being the biggest obstacles), many of their projections will sound familiar:

  • Blurring of lines separating work and home. “[M]uch more work is being done in the home than today. This work is primarily related to information production — and in particular to ‘creative knowledge’ activities — programmers, software writers, data analysts, information brokers, database managers, forecasters, planners…The person who works at home via an electronic system is not bound by the eight-to-five schedule that binds the person who must work with people or machines at a common site.”
  • Fragmenting of traditional media. “[I]t is possible to custom design news bulletins limited to only those topics the average householder reads or is interested in. No longer is there any need to report news on a variety of subjects or to present information in an objective fashion.”
  • Privacy concerns. “[A]t the same time that these systems will bring a greatly increased flow of information and services into the home, they will also carry a stream of information out of the home about the preferences and behavior of its occupants.”
  • Data-based professions. “New skills and career paths associated with the management of information will emerge. These will range from information brokers who provide the ‘best’ deal on a used car to gatekeepers who monitor politicians and corporate activities and selectively release this information to interested parties.”
  • Electronic banking. “The widespread availability of home banking on videotex could dramatically reduce the significance of branch locations….Economies of scale would suggest the emergence of national ‘super banks’ that are able to offer more services and lower changes to their customers.”
  • On-demand media. “Digital sound recording has not only upgraded the quality of sound reproduction but has also created an on-demand music delivery service…Video technology is comparable.”
  • New kinds of relationships. “Electronic home information systems…create classes of people based on interests, skills, and even specialized languages. As it becomes easier to link with various others of these classes, to establish relationships with members of these classes, to identify with them, ties with traditional peer group members may break down.”

Other predictions didn’t quite hit the mark, or at least haven’t yet become common:

  • Electronic voting. “Where there is near universal penetration of videotex terminals…electronic referenda are regularly used for deciding routine problems….Electronic voting provides profiles of candidates in terms of their platform and record and allows voters to cast their ballots remotely.”
  • Diversified politics. Citizens can “write their own electronic slates and find their own candidates. Videotex might mean the end of the two-party system as networks of voters band together to support a variety of slates — maybe hundreds of them.”
  • Automated grocery shopping. “The in-home computer automatically orders two rolls of paper towels every week, a 25-pound bag of potatoes every other week, and vacuum cleaner bags every three months…[W]ith a little more intelligence, the same computer might also remember that the family [prefers brand-name towels], then makes itself a little rule about criteria for paper towels or any other product and ‘shops around’ to get the best deal.”

In Fumbling the Future, Inventing the Present, Understanding the Past I wrote:

The [1989] IBM report [envisioning a “global, multi-media, videotext-like utility"]  and the [1993] AT&T video look prescient today but they actually repeat many predictions that were made years before 1989 and 1993. The predictions eventually became a reality but it is how we got there that these descriptions of the future missed. To re-phrase Lewis Carroll, if you know where you are going, it matters a lot which road you are taking.

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History of Typography (Video)

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Mobile Phones in 1959 (Video)

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Original Sony Walkman, 1980

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The Evolution of Programming

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The Web at 20 and at 25

Tim Berners-Lee, 2009 Photo Credit: Webb Chappell http://www.webbchappell.com

Tim Berners-Lee, 2009 Photo Credit: Webb Chappell http://www.webbchappell.com

25 years ago today (March 12, 1989), Tim Berners-Lee circulated a proposal for “Mesh” (later to be known as the World Wide Web) to his management at CERN. 45 years ago this year (October 29, 1969), the first ARPANET (later to be known as the Internet) link was established between UCLA and SRI.

The Internet started as a network for linking research centers. The World Wide Web started as a way to share information among researchers at CERN. Both have expanded to touch today a third of the world’s population because they have been based on open standards.

Creating a closed and proprietary system has been the business model of choice for many great inventors and some of the greatest inventions of the computer age. That’s where we were headed towards in the early 1990s: The establishment of global proprietary networks owned by a few computer and telecommunications companies, whether old (IBM, AT&T) or new (AOL). Tim Berners-Lee’s invention and CERN’s decision to offer it to the world for free in 1993 changed the course of this proprietary march, giving a new—and much expanded—life to the Internet (itself a response to proprietary systems that did not inter-communicate) and establishing a new, open platform, for a seemingly infinite number of applications and services.

As Bob Metcalfe told me in 2009: “Tim Berners-Lee invented the URL, HTTP, and HTML standards… three adequate standards that, when used together, ignited the explosive growth of the Web… What this has demonstrated is the efficacy of the layered architecture of the Internet. The Web demonstrates how powerful that is, both by being layered on top of things that were invented 17 years before, and by giving rise to amazing new functions in the following decades.”

Metcalfe also touched on the power and potential of an open platform: “Tim Berners-Lee tells this joke, which I hasten to retell because it’s so good. He was introduced at a conference as the inventor of the World Wide Web. As often happens when someone is introduced that way, there are at least three people in the audience who want to fight about that, because they invented it or a friend of theirs invented it. Someone said, ‘You didn’t. You can’t have invented it. There’s just not enough time in the day for you to have typed in all that information.’ That poor schlemiel completely missed the point that Tim didn’t create the World Wide Web. He created the mechanism by which many, many people could create the World Wide Web.”

“All that information” was what the Web gave us (and what was also on the mind of one of the Internet’s many parents, J.C.R. Licklider, who envisioned it as a giant library). But this information comes in the form of ones and zeros, it is digital information. In 2007, 94% of storage capacity in the world was digital, a complete reversal from 1986, when 99.2% of all storage capacity was analog. The Web was the glue and the catalyst that would speed up the spread of digitization to all analog devices and channels for the creation, communications, and consumption of information.  It has been breaking down, one by one, proprietary and closed systems with the force of its ones and zeros.

Metcalfe’s comments were first published in ON magazine which I created and published for my employer at the time, EMC Corporation. For a special issue (PDF) commemorating the 20th anniversary of the invention of the Web, we interviewed Berners-Lee and we asked some 20 members of the Inforati how the Web has changed their and our lives and what it will look like in the future. Here’s a sample of their answers:

Guy Kawasaki: “With the Web, I’ve become a lot more digital… I have gone from three or four meetings a day to zero meetings per day… Truly the best will be when there is a 3-D hologram of Guy giving a speech. You can pass your hand through him. That’s ultimate.”

Chris Brogan: “We look at the Web as this set of tools that allow people to try any idea without a whole lot of expense… Anyone can start anything with very little money, and then it’s just a meritocracy in terms of winning the attention wars.”

Tim O’Reilly: “This next stage of the Web is being driven by devices other than computers. Our phones have six or seven sensors. The applications that are coming will take data from our devices and the data that is being built up in these big user-contributed databases and mash them together in new kinds of services.”

John Seely Brown: “When I ran Xerox PARC, I had access to one of the world’s best intellectual infrastructures: 250 researchers, probably another 50 craftspeople, and six reference librarians all in the same building. Then one day to go cold turkey—when I did my first retirement—was a complete shock. But with the Web, in a year or two, I had managed to hone a new kind of intellectual infrastructure that in many ways matched what I already had. That’s obviously the power of the Web, the power to connect and interact at a distance.”

Jimmy Wales: “One of the things I would like to see in the future is large-scale, collaborative video projects. Imagine what the expense would be with traditional methods if you wanted to do a documentary film where you go to 90 different countries… with the Web, a large community online could easily make that happen.”

Paul Saffo: “I love that story of when Tim Berners-Lee took his proposal to his boss, who scribbled on it, ‘Sounds exciting, though a little vague.’ But Tim was allowed to do it. I’m alarmed because at this moment in time, I don’t think there are any institutions our there where people are still allowed to think so big.”

Dany Levy (founder of DailyCandy): “With the Web, everything comes so easily. I wonder about the future and the human ability to research and to seek and to find, which is really an important skill. I wonder, will human beings lose their ability to navigate?”

Howard Rheingold: “The Web allows people to do things together that they weren’t allowed to do before. But… I think we are in danger of drowning in a sea of misinformation, disinformation, spam, porn, urban legends, and hoaxes.”

Paul Graham: “[With the Web] you don’t just have to use whatever information is local. You can ship information to anyone anywhere. The key is to have the right filter. This is often what startups make.”

How many startups have flourished on the basis of the truly great products Apple has brought to the world? And how many startups and grown-up companies today are entirely based on an idea first flashed out in a modest proposal 25 years ago? And there is no end in sight for the expanding membership in the latter camp, now also increasingly including the analogs of the world. All businesses, all governments, all non-profits, all activities are being eaten by ones and zeros. Tim Berners-Lee has unleashed an open, ever-expanding system for the digitization of everything.

We also interviewed Berners-Lee in 2009. He said that the Web has “changed in the last few years faster than it changed before, and it is crazy to for us to imagine this acceleration will suddenly stop.” He pointed out the ongoing tendency to lock what we do with computers in a proprietary jail: “…there are aspects of the online world that are still fairly ‘pre-Web.’ Social networking sites, for example, are still siloed; you can’t share your information from one site with a contact on another site.” But he remained both realistic and optimistic, the hallmarks of an entrepreneur: “The Web, after all, is just a tool…. What you see on it reflects humanity—or at least the 20 percent of humanity that currently has access to the Web… No one owns the World Wide Web, no one has a copyright for it, and no one collects royalties from it. It belongs to humanity, and when it comes to humanity, I’m tremendously optimistic.”

The Pew Research Center is marking the 25th anniversary of the Web in a series of reports. Berners-Lee says in a press release issued today by the World Wide Web Consortium: “I hope this anniversary will spark a global conversation about our need to defend principles that have made the Web successful, and to unlock the Web’s untapped potential. I believe we can build a Web that truly is for everyone: one that is accessible to all, from any device, and one that empowers all of us to achieve our dignity, rights and potential as humans.”

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Acquisitions by Apple, Amazon, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, 1999-2014 (Infographic)

Hungry Tech Giants

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