war & peace
record of technological forecasting has, overall, been
pretty dim. Predictions of specific technologies have
been poor. Predictions of their implementation and implications
have fared even worse. This page highlights writing about
crystal ball gazing.
It covers -
the forecasting game
technology and economy
some clangers - specific predictions
by the great & good that in retrospect seem ludicrously
Ithiel de Sola Pool's Forecasting the Telephone:
A Retrospective Technology Assessment of the Telephone
(Norwood: Ablex 1983) is crisp, entertaining, erudite
and without the compulsion to spraypaint jargon on every
Carolyn Marvin's When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking
About Electric Communications in the Late 19th Century
(New York: Oxford Uni Press 1990), Laura Otis' Networking:
Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth
Century (Ann Arbor: Uni of Michigan Press 2001),
Richard Barbrook's Imaginary Futures: From Thinking
Machine to the Global Village (London: Pluto Press
2007) and Paul David's 2000 Understanding Digital Technology's
Evolution and The Path of Measured Productivity Growth:
Present & Future in the Mirror of the Past (PDF)
are also suggestive.
Daniel Bell's The
Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social
Forecasting (New York: Basic Books 1973) deserves
mention for introducing the notion of the 'information
society' into general debate.
Michael Dertouzos's The Computer Age: A Twenty-Year
View (Cambridge: MIT Press 1979) is somewhat starry-eyed
but overall shows the intelligence you would expect from
the author. Derek Leebaert's Technology 2001: The Future
of Computing & Communications (Cambridge: MIT
Press 1991) is also valuable, more so than Stephen Saxby's
The Age of Information: The Past Development &
Future Significance of Computing & Communications
(New York: New York Uni Press 1990).
Reality Check (San Francisco: Hardwired 1996) edited
by Brad Wieners & David Pescovitz collects the Reality
Check column from Wired
Ostensibly an exercise in debunking (no, do not expect
to teleport to Mars or play cybertennis on Pluto when
you are aged 506) it is glibly upbeat, with an emphasis
on technology as such rather than the wider economic and
social ramifications. We regard it as information economy
elevator music, although not recommended to those who
dislike Wired's how-many-weird-fonts-can-I-squeeze-on-the-page
There is a less frenetic collection in the Predictions
under the auspices of the Pew Internet & American
Life project and Elon University. It features the usual
suspects: Barlow, Dyson, Gilder, Negroponte, Stoll, Mitchell
The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next
Thirty-Three Years (New York: Macmillan 1967) by Herman
Kahn & Anthony Wiener is a classic example of the
genre. It is like a particularly rich Christmas pudding:
the odd bit of silver mixed in with the nuts and the glace
A less academic example of the genre is Alvin & Heidi
Future Shock (New York: Random House 1970), which
prophesied that by 2000 - oops - much of the population
would be living in comfort on the ocean floor or in floating
cities and that the climate would be controlled. Oops
- the crystal ball didn't detect global warming, women's
liberation, holes in the ozone layer, AIDs or other nasties.
Computers get a mere 12 passing references.
Unabashed, the Tofflers subsequently released The
Third Wave (New York: Bantam 1991), supposedly predicting
the "rise of the information age and the Internet",
with "the embedded industrial civilization based
on social conformity and muscle power" being replaced
by "an information and technology culture dependent
wholly on the creativity of the individual mind".
It might be usefully read in conjunction with Your
Flying Car Awaits: Robot Butlers, Lunar Vacations, and
Other Dead-Wrong Predictions of the Twentieth Century
(New York: HarperCollins 2009) by Paul Milo.
Sociologist Daniel Bell
1946, William Fielding Ogburn, the leading sociologist
of social change, wrote a sober book, The Social
Effects of Aviation, in which he sought to trace
out the possible impact of airplanes for the remainder
of the century. He looked to see how aviation might
affect our lives in 21 different areas, such as population,
family, cities, religion, health, environment, recreation,
crime, education, marketing, agriculture, public administration,
international relations - you name it. Quite an exhaustive
list for effects from a single cause.
Ogburn began with population, since those changes "affect
almost all the phenomena of social life," and went
on to say "Aviation will probably have the effect
of reducing the number of births slightly." One
rubs one's eyes in "slight" astonishment.
Ogburn was reasoning from the economist's model of the
introduction of the automobile, since "families
postponed the expense of ... rearing a child in order
to own an automobile. ... In a similar manner some families
will be smaller than would otherwise be because of the
expense of owning and operating an aircraft".
The Temporary Society: What is Happening to Business &
Family Life in America Under the Impact of Accelerating
Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 2000) by Warren
Bennis & Philip Slater was first published in 1968
and has proved to be more percipient, perhaps because
it concentrated on broad attitudinal changes rather than
specific technologies. George Gilder's rather silly Telecosm:
How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionise Our World
(New York: Free Press 2000) is discussed earlier in this
Scanning the Future (London: Thames & Hudson
1999) by Yorick Blumenfeld is another mixed bag, distinguished
by platitudes from Nobel Prize winners. Meals to Come:
A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: Uni of
California Press 2006) by Warren Belasco is more entertaining.
Utopistics: Or Historical Choices of the Twenty-First
Century (New York: New Press 1999) and The End
of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First
Century (Minneapolis: Uni of Minnesota Press 2001)
are bolder explorations by world systems theorist Immanuel
Our profile on the communications revolutions
highlights some of the economic and historical studies
about visions, plans and actualities.
the forecasting game
William Sherden's The Fortune Sellers: The Big Business
of Buying & Selling Predictions (New York: Wiley
1997) is a crisp introduction to the history and nature
of business, economic and technology forecasting. Cautions
are provided in Apollo's Arrow: The Science of Prediction
and the Future of Everything (New York: HarperCollins
2007) by David Orrell and The Shock of the Old: Technology
and Global History Since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford Uni
Press 2007) by David Edgerton.
Steven Schnaars' MegaMistakes: Forecasting & the
Myth of Rapid Technological Change (New York: Free
Press 1988) is an entertaining study of why people get
it wrong in predicting consumer acceptance of new technologies.
There is another perspective in William Gosling's Helmsmen
& Heroes: Control Theory As A Key To Past & Present
(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1994) and James Beninger's
Control Revolution: Technological & Economic Origins
of the Information Society (Cambridge: Harvard Uni
We have highlighted particular concerns about forecasting
and promotion in discussing the dot-com and telecommunications
bubbles of the 1990s. The
track record of many pundits - equipped with the best
information and analytical models or otherwise - has often
been poor. The savants at McKinsey for example announced
during 1981 that there would be fewer than a million US
mobile phone users in the year 2001, which saw around
130 million users.
The value of much forecasting is also problematical, although
that has not deterred a succession of print and online
publishers. 2004 saw launch of earlywarning.com,
a service that aims to forecast major world events and
analyse their likely impact on the global economy. Some
readers might derive more insights from careful reading
of the Economist or even Foreign Policy.
technology and economy
Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma Of Technological
Determinism (Cambridge: MIT Press 1994) is a collection
of essays edited by Leo Marx & Merritt Smith with
a far more nuanced analysis than anything in Toffler,
Roszak, Gilder or Sale.
Knowing Machines: Essays On Technological Change
(Cambridge: MIT Press 1998) by Donald MacKenzie, Exploring
The Black Box: Technology, Economics & History
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1994) by Nathan Rosenberg
and the lucid Paths of Innovation: Technological Change
in 20th Century America (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni
Press 1998) by David Mowery & Nathan Rosenberg are
three insightful examinations of economic/technological
development and the perils of forecasting.
Graeme Snooks' ambitious The Dynamic Society: Exploring
The Sources of Global Change (London: Routledge 1996)
is a panoramic history that argues that technology and
economics rather than politics are the drivers for social
and cultural development (although many would say, of
course, that they are inextricably intertwined).
Fans of Snooks or Manuel Castell may enjoy The Carrier
Wave: New Information Technology & the Geography of
Innovation, 1846-2003 (London: Unwin Hyman 1988) by
Peter Hall & Paschal Preston, an analysis of economic
development in terms of the information infrastructure
and Kondratieff waves.
There is a broader perspective in the detailed report
on Fostering Research on the Economic &
Social Impacts of Information Technology (Washington:
National Academies Press 1998) and in the excellent Wharton
Forecasting Principles site.
The vogue for professional futurology - as distinct
from filler for 'slow news days' - seems to recur about
every twenty years, reflecting economic cycles and the
lifespan of corporate memories.
Among organisations dedicated to study of the future we
note the World Future Society (WFS),
publisher of Futurist magazine, and the Australian-based
Futures Studies Centre (FSC)
under the leadership of Richard Slaughter, Professor of
Foresight at Swinburne Uni of Technology.
His Futures For The Third Millennium: Enabling The
Forward View (St Leonards: Prospect Media 1999) is
somewhat too New Age for our taste but supplies a useful
and some clangers
It is fun - if somewhat unfair - to highlight what
in retrospect are ludicrous predictions by the great &
good. (Their technological expertise or access to market
intelligence may, in some cases, have led them to drop
Among the more entertainingly dud new media predictions
do not believe television will come to stay until the
picture shown is sufficiently larger, cleaner and more
detailed to permit a family of five to see what is going
on, without exerting any great amount of effort on their
Waters Milbourne of WCAO Baltimore (1944)
theoretically and technically television may be feasible,
commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility,
a development of which we need waste little time dreaming."
Lee DeForest (1926)
won't] "last any longer than such parallel gimmicks
as the stereoscope and the hot-air balloon."
Fred Gaisberg (1909), suggesting that it's time to "cash
in and get out"
Christmas, the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput."
Sir Alan Sugar, Amstrad chief executive (February 2005)
"It is true that the farm tractor is on the way,
but it has less prospect of displacing the work animal
in food production than the automobile has of driving
the work horse off the road."
US geographer (1919)
occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a
gun—which could, by rapidity of fire, enable one
man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it
would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of
Richard Gatling (1877)
"There are going to be no more than one million
people capable of being trained as chauffeurs"
Carl Benz (1901) in explaining why the global car market
was going to be no bigger than 1.5m vehicles
Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not.
We have plenty of messenger boys."
Sir William Preece, Royal Post Office chief engineer
Electronic mail will put two-thirds of postal
workers out of work by 2000.
US General Accounting Office (1981)
"... however beneficial it might be as a private
enterprise, and however advantageous to the Government
in the rapid transmission of intelligence, yet it could
never become a paying concern."
US Postmaster General Cave Johnson in refusing to fund
the first US electric telegraph network (1844)
"What use could this company make of an electrical
William Orton, President of Western Union, in rejecting
chance to buy Bell's telephone patents for US$100,000
An amazing invention - but who would ever want to use
attributed to US President Rutherford Hayes (1876) regarding
"Television won't be able to hold on to any market
it captures after the first six months. People will
soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."
Darryl F Zanuck, 20th Century Fox (1946)
Books will be obsolete. Scholars will soon be instructed
through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch
of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school
system will be completely changed in ten years."
"There is no cause for worry. The high tide of
prosperity will continue"
Andrew Mellon, a month before the 1929
world potential market for copying machines is 5,000
IBM letter to Chester Carlson of Xerox (1959)
ought to be enough for anybody."
Bill Gates (1981)
years from now, spam will be solved"
Bill Gates (2004)
"Before man reaches the Moon your mail will be
delivered from New York to Australia by guided missile"
US Postmaster General (1959)
of documents via telephone wires is possible in principle,
but the apparatus required is so expensive that it will
never become a practical proposition."
Dennis Gabor Inventing the Future (1962)
a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum
tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may
have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1 1/2
Popular Mechanics (1949)
"By the year 2000 most postal systems, separated
from their respective national telephone and data systems,
will have become expensive luxuries and sending and
receiving physical mail ... will have become like home
visits from the doctor or direct delivery of coal or
milk, a slightly archaic luxury"
new media analyst Anthony Smith (1983)
"The digital world is moving so fast that before
the end of next year, we will see a billion people on
Nicholas Negroponte (1999)
computers will "usher in a Pentecostal condition
of universal understanding and unity"
atomic power will "thaw the frozen poles, and make
the entire world one smiling Garden of Eden"
Frederick Soddy (1908)
will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is
not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers,
no magazines that are delivered in paper form."
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (2008).
of past forecasts include Tim Onosko's entertaining Wasn't
the Future Wonderful?: A View of Trends & Technology
from the 1930's (New York: Dutton 1979), Laura Lee's
Bad Predictions (New York: Elsewhere Press 2000)
and Today Then: America's Best Minds Look 100 Years
into the Future on the occasion of the 1893 World's Columbian
Exposition (Helena: American & World Geographic
A note of caution about the authenticity of some forecasts
by Samuel Sass in the Skeptical Inquirer, debunking
the supposed 1899 claim by Charles Duell of the US Office
of Patents that "Everything that can be invented
has been invented".
IBM has sought to debunk the story that Thomas Watson
forecast a market of five for IBM's landmark electronic
computer, claiming it is a misunderstanding of Thomas
Watson Jr's statement at IBM's 1953 annual meeting
had developed a paper plan for such a machine [the IBM
701 Electronic Data Processing Machine] and took this
paper plan across the country to some 20 concerns that
we thought could use such a machine. I would like to
tell you that the machine rents for between $12,000
and $18,000 a month, so it was not the type of thing
that could be sold from place to place. But, as a result
of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for
five machines, we came home with orders for 18.
A perspective is provided by assessments of the economy,
will be no interruption of our permanent prosperity
Myron Forbes, Pierce Arrow Motor Car executive 1928
Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The Depression
US President Herbert Hoover, June 1930
Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently
high plateau. I do not feel that there will soon, if
ever, be a fifty or a sixty point break below present
levels ... I expect to see the stock market a good deal
higher than it is today within a few months.
Yale economist Irving Fisher, 16 October 1929
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