The Future is Not What it Used to Be

Many predictions are what the forecasters want the future to be or simply an extension of what they are familiar and comfortable with. It is particularly illuminating to look at predictions of our past that we can assess with the benefit of hindsight. Yesterday’s futures reveal a lot about what did not happen and why it didn’t. I have in my files a great example of the genre, a report published in 1976 by the Long Range Planning Service of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), titled “Office of the Future.”

The author of the report was a Senior Industrial Economist at SRI’s Electronics Industries Research Group, and a “recognized authority on the subject of business automation.” His bio blurb indicates that he “also worked closely with two of the Institute’s engineering laboratories in developing his thinking for this study. The Augmentation Research Center has been putting the office of the future to practical test for almost ten years… Several Information Science Laboratory personnel have been working with state-of-the-art equipment and systems that are the forerunners of tomorrow’s products. The author was able to tap this expertise to gain a balanced picture of the problems and opportunities facing office automation.”

And what was the result of all this research and analysis? The manager of 1985, the report predicted, will not have a personal secretary. Instead he (decidedly not she) will be assisted, along with other managers, by a centralized pool of assistants (decidedly and exclusively, according to the report, of the female persuasion). He will contact the “administrative support center” whenever he needs to dictate a memo to a “word processing specialist,” find a document (helped by an “information storage/retrieval specialist”), or rely on an “administrative support specialist” to help him make decisions.

Of particular interest is the report’s discussion of the sociological factors driving the transition to the “office of the future.” Forecasters often leave out of their analysis the annoying and uncooperative (with their forecast) motivations and aspirations of the humans involved. But this report does consider sociological factors, in addition to organizational, economic, and technological trends. And it’s worth quoting at length what it says on the subject:

“The major sociological factor contributing to change in the business office is ‘women’s liberation.’ Working women are demanding and receiving increased responsibility, fulfillment, and opportunities for advancement. The secretarial position as it exists today is under fire because it usually lacks responsibility and advancement potential. The normal (and intellectually unchallenging) requirements of taking dictation, typing, filing, photocopying, and telephone handling leave little time for the secretary to take on new and more demanding tasks. The responsibility level of many secretaries remains fixed throughout their working careers. These factors can negatively affect the secretary’s motivation and hence productivity. In the automated office of the future, repetitious and dull work is expected to be handled by personnel with minimal education and training. Secretaries will, in effect, become administrative specialists, relieving the manager they support of a considerable volume of work.”

Regardless of the women’s liberation movement of his day, the author could not see beyond the creation of a 2-tier system in which some women would continue to perform dull and unchallenging tasks, while other women would be “liberated” into a fulfilling new job category of “administrative support specialist.”  In this 1976 forecast, there are no women managers.

But this is not the only sociological factor the report missed. The most interesting sociological revolution of the office in the 1980s – and one missing from most (all?) accounts of the PC revolution – is what managers (male and female) did with their new word processing, communicating, calculating machine. They took over some of the “dull” secretarial tasks that no self-respecting manager would deign to perform before the 1980s.

This was the real revolution: The typing of memos (later emails), the filing of documents, the recording, tabulating, and calculating. In short, a large part of the management of office information, previously exclusively in the hands of secretaries, became in the 1980s (and progressively more so in the 1990s and beyond) an integral part of managerial work.

This was very difficult, maybe impossible, to predict. It was a question of status. No manager would type before the 1980s because it was perceived as work that was not commensurate with his status. Many managers started to type in the 1980s because now they could do it with a new “cool” tool, the PC, which conferred on them the leading-edge, high-status image of this new technology. What mattered was that you were important enough to have one of these cool things, not that you performed with it tasks that were considered beneath you just a few years before.

What was easier to predict was the advent of the PC itself. And the SRI report missed this one, too, even though it was aware of the technological trajectory: “Computer technology that in 1955 cost $1 million, was only marginally reliable, and filled a room, is now available for under $25,000 and the size of a desk. By 1985, the same computer capability will cost less than $1000 and fit into a briefcase.”

But the author of the report could only see a continuation of the centralized computing of his day. The report’s 1985 fictional manager views documents on his “video display terminal” and the centralized (and specialized) word processing system of 1976 continues to rule the office ten years later.

This was a failure to predict how the computer that will “fit into a briefcase” will become personal, i.e., will take the place of the “video display terminal” and then augment it as a personal information management tool. And the report also failed to predict the ensuing organizational development in which distributed computing replaced or was added to centralized computing.

Yes, predicting is hard to do. But compare forecasters and “analysts” with another human subspecies: Entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs don’t predict the future; they make it happen.

A year before the SRI report was published, in January 1975, Popular Electronics published a cover story on the “first minicomputer kit,” the Altair 8800. Paul Allen and Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founded their companies around the time the SRI report was published not because they read reports about the office of the future. They simply imagined it.

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About GilPress

I launched the Big Data conversation; writing, research, marketing services; http://whatsthebigdata.com/ & https://infostory.com/
This entry was posted in Predictions, Social Impact, Yesterday's Futures. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Future is Not What it Used to Be

  1. Pingback: Yesterday’s Futures: The Limits of Our Vision | The Story of Information

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