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Failed Futurists: Predictions Gone Wrong

December 28, 2009

Here’s a list of famous technological predictions that got things horribly, horribly wrong. One of these predictions is fake. I know because I made it up.

  • “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys,” Sir William Preece, chief engineer at the British Post Office, 1878.
  • “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” H.M. Warner, Warner Bros., 1927.
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
  • “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 Zanuck, 20th Century Fox, 1946.
  • “The world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most,” IBM executives to the eventual founders of Xerox, 1959.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” Ken Olsen, founder of mainframe-producer Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.
  • “People won’t want to play these electronic games for more than a week, not once we start selling pinball machines for the home,” Gus Bally, Arcade Inc., 1979.
  • “No one will need more than 637 kb of memory for a personal computer—640K ought to be enough for anybody,” Bill Gates, Microsoft, 1981.
  • “Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput,” Sir Alan Sugar, British entrepreneur, 2005.
  • “I’d say three pounds of bacon will be enough for breakfast.” Weathereye, 2009

I can remember the first time I used a personal computer. It was a Commodore Pet that was brought to my school when I was about 10 or 11. At that point, I had played Pong and Night Driver in a video arcade, and was fascinated. A year later, a friend got the Atari 2600, and before long the Tron movie opened the world of computers up to our young imaginations.

My kids are baffled by the concept that we didn’t have video games when we were young. “That’s not all,” I tell them. “If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to the theatre or wait til it came on TV. And we only had two channels.”

As a young sci-fi geek with a big imagination, I had a lot of ideas when I was younger. A friend and I formed a small software startup in 1984, writing games for the VIC 20, and we had an idea to somehow create comic books that would be sold on cassette tape and “played” on the VIC. Our plan was to spin that off into books, magazines and maybe even television and radio shows. Sadly, the VIC 20 does not lend itself to large-scale technological development, and once I discovered the guitar that was pretty much it for our idea.

What might have been …

The changes in technology within my lifetime — since the 1960s — are immense. The changes over the course of the past 120 years are staggering. Our world has changed more since 1890 than it did in the millions of years of human presence before that. I don’t blame those people quoted above for being unable to see outside their narrow window. None of us did. I’m still marvelling at fax machines even as I read about the Apple tablet. Now, though, we are suitable acclimatized to rapid change that we can predict, or create, the future, and new developments are less of a surprise. If I’m writing on one of those Tom Cruise Minority Report floating holo-computer thingies in a couple of years, I will probably not be surprised.

Anyway, the tech predictions I listed above come from a very good Wall Street Journal article you can read here.

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