Douglas Adams,: The Salmon of Doubt, - Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time)
Predicting the Future
Trying to predict the future is a mug's game. But increasingly it's a game we all have to play because the world is changing so fast and we need to have some sort of idea of what the future's actually going to be like because we are going to have to live there, probably next week.
Oddly, thc 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, "Radio has no future." But it's more surprising to discover that Ken Olsen, the president of the Digital Equipment Corporation, said in 1977, "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 than 640k of memory in their computers. Try running Word in even twenty 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 such 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 sixty 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.
I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part
of the way the world works.
2. Anything that is invented between when you're fifteen and thirty is new and exciting and
revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're thirty five is against the natural order of things.