How to suss out bad tech predictions.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
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?

People are very amenable to changing their habits, sometimes astonishingly quickly. One day not long ago, nobody you knew had a cell phone; a couple years later, everyone did. At the beginning of this millennium, few of us would have considered posting our family pictures online. Now we do it routinely. Sure, there are limits to the pace of technical change, but they usually involve price and infrastructure, not obstinate people.

New stuff sometimes comes out of the blue. You can't fault Stoll for thinking that the Internet would always remain a chore to navigate. How would we ever find the good nuggets amidst all the useless documents flooding the Web? Lots of search companies were investing lots of money in addressing that problem, but it wasn't clear they could come up with anything that worked. It also wasn't obvious that we'd find a way to create good content online. How would ever we know if some document we found provided an accurate account of the Battle of Trafalgar?

And then a few magical things came and changed everything. The date of the Battle of Trafalgar? It took me a second and a half to find out that it took place on Oct. 21, 1805. Thank you, Google and Wikipedia.

What Stoll missed here was the potential for collective intelligence to arise out of the online cacophony. Google's founders saw that they could suss out good content from bad by looking at linking patterns; Wikipedia's founders saw that by letting people edit each other's content, they could create a reference that was both comprehensive and uncannily accurate.

But Google and Wikipedia weren't predictable. Before they were invented, no one would've believed such technologies could work so fantastically well. And that's the thing about the prediction business. Some of the most important developments of our lifetimes couldn't have been anticipated. Rather, they came about because a few innovators had brilliant ideas that no one else had foreseen.

These days it's best to err on the side of optimism. The bad predictions we remember most often are those that were too optimistic—the space-bound future of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 or George Jetson's mile-high suburb. Stoll's forecast is unusual for being too conservative; he thought the future would most likely resemble his present. Perhaps there's a lesson in that. In the digital age, the future is approaching faster than we think. As a result, the tech that comes tomorrow will probably be far more awesome than you can imagine today.

Recent history supports this theory. Many of the technologies that we now take for granted—online social networks, Web video, and photo libraries—weren't invented a decade ago and were only in their infancy five years ago. (YouTube celebrated its fifth birthday this month.) In a decade from now, I predict, we'll be using gadgets and tech tools that nobody has conjured as of 2010.

In the realm of outlandish predictions, I feel more comfortable with the extreme optimists. Ray Kurzweil—the acclaimed technologist who in 1990 correctly predicted that a computer would beat the best human chess player by the end of the decade—believes that humans will soon "transcend biology." He says we're on the cusp of "the singularity"—a point when technology will have advanced so far that human beings will essentially become immortal. It's hard to believe. But Kurzweil's predictions are based on current trends, and nothing about them seems really impossible. I doubt the singularity is just around the corner. But, hey, maybe he's right.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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