Cautious public learns the limits of technology

IF THE GREAT British public had got it right in 1983, newspapers would by now be museum pieces, this year's Christmas presents would have been selected at the flick of a television switch and the majority of British homes would have their own computer.

A survey of more than 2,000 people carried out a decade ago by the Henley Centre's Planning for Social Change Unit betrays an

exaggerated expectation of technological advance. Television has not made reading obsolete - 60 per cent of people read a daily paper - teleshopping has not taken off and less than a quarter of households have a computer. Cable television has also failed to make the impact predicted.

Bob Tyrell, Henley's chief executive, believes that the public is now wiser than many experts to limits on technology like human inertia, fear, conservatism and ritual. 'The experts are more inclined to get things out of perspective. In the 1960s they predicted holidays in space. Today some say the world is going to be changed by virtual reality with everything from virtual games of football to virtual sex. But the public has become more cautious.'

In the Henley survey, people predicted that nuclear armament would be the most pressing problem facing Britain today. Recent data shows only 1 per cent of the population now considers this a major issue.

But other public forecasts have proved more reliable. As predicted, trade union power has diminished, fewer people live in cities, people participate in more out-of-home leisure activities, short-break holidays are more popular, there are far fewer smokers and the incomes of the poorest have not increased.

The Henley Centre forecast the fourth Tory term based on the centre-right political attitudes and fundamental self interest it tracked in 1990 and 1991. Those features still dominate recent Henley surveys. Recent data also shows that the public is less attached to institutions such as the monarchy.

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