How to suss out bad tech predictions.

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March 2 2010 5:26 PM

That Whole Internet Thing's Not Going To Work Out

How to suss out bad tech predictions.

Silicon Snake Oil by Clifford Stoll.

In 1995, Clifford Stoll, an astronomer, author, and mad-scientist type, published a column in Newsweek with a doozy of a headline: "The Internet? Bah!" The piece was based on Stoll's book, Silicon Snake Oil, in which he argued that we were all being taken for a ride by tech pundits who offered dreamy visions of a coming "information superhighway." "Baloney," Stoll wrote. "The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works."

Stoll wasn't a Luddite; indeed, he'd been working on the Internet for decades (he was one of the network's first hacker hunters), and his skepticism was born of experience. The Internet that Stoll knew was "a wasteland of unfiltered data" where it was impossible to find anything useful. "Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar," he wrote. "Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them—one's a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn't work and the third is an image of a London monument."

Stoll also dismissed the notion that anyone would ever shop online. For one thing, engineers hadn't invented a secure way to send money through computers. Even if security were no object, most of us would still choose to buy airline tickets and make restaurant reservations in real life. Why? Because the Internet was "missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople." For Stoll, this was the Internet's biggest failing—it lacked any capacity for "human contact." The Internet would never take off because "computers and networks isolate us from one another."

Stoll's column was unearthed by a blogger last week, and it quickly became the talk of Twitter. Stoll himself is humbled; in a comment on Boing Boing, he called his piece a "howler" and said he thinks back to it often as a reminder that he can be very, very wrong. But Stoll's article is good for more than just a laugh. Terrible predictions can be instructive—in their wrongness, we can see the flaws of our own visions for the future.

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Stoll's prognostication fails in predictable ways. He doesn't give enough credit to the possibilities of innovation, he doesn't believe people can adapt, and he seems to disregard the long-term trends that were pushing the digital boom. Of course, Stoll is not alone in predicting a future that never came. Part of the fun of watching and reading old sci-fi is in seeing how old visions of today match up with the dreary reality. We don't have flying cars or jetpacks, but only a few prescient visionaries—Vannevar Bush, William Gibson, and the makers of these educational videos from the 1960s—predicted anything like the Internet.

Given how wrong they tend to be, it's generally a good idea to ignore all predictions. The future is unknowable—especially in the digital age, when we're constantly barraged with new technologies. Still, we'll never stop being obsessed with the future. With that in mind, it would be nice to have some idea of which predictions to trust and which to dismiss. Here are a few rules for separating the good from the bad.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Good predictions are based on current trends. In his Newsweek piece, Stoll argued that e-books would never take off because reading on a screen was a chore, and—unlike a hardcover—you couldn't take your computer to the beach. He was right, based on the computers of 1995, which were bulky and fragile. Stoll's mistake was to believe that computers would stay the same, despite the fact that the PCs of 1995 were far more powerful than machines circa 1990.

In the same way, visions of flying cars and jetpacks were attractive but completely divorced from reality. During the 1950s and '60s, automotive development was clearly not heading toward flight. Sure, people had built some prototypes—but mass-produced flying cars would have had to be easy to fly, extremely safe, affordable, and somehow integrated into an urban infrastructure built for ground-based vehicles. Expecting engineers to solve all these problems in a few decades' time was a dream, not a prediction.

Don't underestimate people's capacity for change. Stoll's belief that we needed salespeople to help us shop was firmly rooted in his time. But wasn't it possible that we'd learn new ways to shop? After all, we'd done that before—general stores had given way to supermarkets and malls, which had themselves been usurped by strip malls and big-box stores. Nothing in commerce had ever remained fixed, so why couldn't we abandon salespeople, too?