Predictions gone wrong

There are lots of famous examples of failed predictions about the future of computer technology. Think of Bill Gates predicting, in 2004, “Two years from now, spam will be solved,” or the claim (possibly apocryphal) that Gates said in 1981 about computer memory: “640K should be enough for anyone.”

Even these choice examples are no match for this gloriously, promiscuously wrong prediction by Clifford Stoll about the future of the internet. Among the best parts:

“…Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure.”

“We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obselete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.”

“No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert. And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing?”

“Who needs teachers when you’ve got computer-aided education? Bah. These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training. Sure, kids love videogames–but think of your own experience: can you recall even one educational filmstrip of decades past?”

It brings a chuckle to see just how wrong he was only 15 years ago. However, underlying Stoll’s skepticism is a worry that isn’t so easy to dismiss with a laugh. Here’s how his essay ends: “While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where–in the holy names of Education and Progress–important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.”

History has proven most of his other predictions wrong. I wonder about this last one.


About ethologist

Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University
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