COMMENT: THE LAST WORD
Sunday 28 November 1999
Oddly, the industry that is the primary engine of this incredible pace of change - the computer industry - turns out to be rather bad at predicting the future itself. There are two things in particular that it failed to foresee: one was the coming of the internet which, in an astonishingly short time, has become what the computer industry is now all about; the other was the fact that the century would end.
So as we stand on the brink of a new millennium, peering up at the shiny cliff face of change that confronts us, like Kubrick's apes gibbering in front of the great black monolith, how can we possibly hope to guess what's to come? Molecular computers, quantum computers - what can we dare to say about them? We were wrong about trains, we were wrong about planes, we were wrong about radio, we were wrong about phones, we were wrong about... well, for a voluminous list of the things we have been wrong about you could do worse than dig out a copy of a book called The Experts Speak by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky.
It's a compendium of authoritative predictions made in the past that turned out to be wonderfully wrong, usually almost immediately. You know the kind of thing. Irving Fisher, professor of economics at Yale University, said on October 17, 1929 that "stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau". Then there was the Decca record executive who said of the Beatles in 1962: "We don't like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out," and so on. Ah, here's another one: "Bill Clinton will lose to any Republican who doesn't drool on stage," said the Wall Street Journal, in 1995. It's a very fat book; you can read happily in the loo for hours.
The odd thing is that we don't get any better at it. We smile indulgently when we hear that Lord Kelvin said in 1897 that "radio has no future". But it's more surprising to discover that Ken Olsen, the president of the Digital Equipment Corporation, said in 1977 that "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home". Even Bill Gates, who specifically set out to prove him completely and utterly wrong, famously said that he couldn't conceive of anybody needing more that 640kb of memory in their computers. Try running Word in even 20 times that.
It would be interesting to keep a running log of predictions and see if we can spot the absolute corkers when they are still just pert little buds. One that I spotted recently was a statement made in February by a Mr Wayne Leuck, vice-president of engineering at USWest, the American phone company. Arguing against the deployment of high-speed wireless data connections, he said: "Granted, you could use it in your car going 60 miles an hour, but I don't think too many people are going to be doing that." Just watch. That's a statement that will come back to haunt him. Satellite navigation. Wireless internet. As soon as we start mapping physical location back into shared information space we will trigger yet another explosive growth in internet applications.
At least that's what I predict. I could, of course, be wildly wrong. Stewart Brand, in his excellent book The Clock of the Long Now (only published in the US at present), proposes keeping a record of society's predictions and arguments in a 10,000 year library, but it would also be interesting to see how things work out in the short term. At the beginning of each year the media tend to be full of predictions of what is going to happen over the course of the next 12 months. Two days later, of course, they're forgotten and we never get to test them. So I'd like to invite readers to submit their own predictions - or any others they come across in print - of what is going to happen in the next five years, and when. Will we set off to Mars? Will we get peace in Ireland or the Middle East? Will the e-commerce bubble burst?
We'll put them on the web where they will stay for that whole period so we can track them against what actually happens. Predicting the future is a mug's game, but any game is improved when you can keep the score. Submissions, please, to www.h2g2.com
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