Questioning Technology: Incorrect Predictions About Technology

The single most important fact in the entire movie industry, wrote the celebrated screenwriter William Goldman, is "nobody knows anything."In his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman strips away all pretense about predictability. "Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work," he wrote. "Every time out it's a guess -- and, if you're lucky, an educated one." The same can be said for today's digital entertainment gold rush. We are in the midst of perhaps the most profound period of technological change known in our lifetime. Along with this rush of chaotic activity comes assurances from visionary "leaders" who try to persuade us that they know how this digital revolution will play out. (Of course, this is especially true if the visionary is trying to sell you a "solution" to your problem.) Fact is, however, history is filled with predictions about technology that were so wrong they appear ludicrous with a little hindsight. With a tumultuous year of change at an end, these nuggets of wisdom may offer some perspective on how little we know about anything: * "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."-- Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949 *"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."--Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943 * "I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year." -- The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957 * "But what ... is it good for?" -- Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip. * "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."-- Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977. * "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."-- Western Union internal memo, 1876. * "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" -- David Sarnoff's associates in response to his appeal for investment in radio broadcasting in the 1920s. * "The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible." -- A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.) * "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" -- H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927. * "I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling on his face and not Gary Cooper." -- Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in Gone With The Wind. * "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." -- Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962. * "If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this." -- Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M "Post-It" notepads. * "So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.'" -- Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer. * "Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You're crazy." -- Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859. * "Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." -- Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929. * "Everything that can be invented has been invented." -- Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899. * "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction." -- Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872 *"640K ought to be enough for anybody." -- Bill Gates, 1981 However, one man, writing 150 years ago in the Massachusetts woods near Walden Pond, may have come closer than anyone to getting it right: *"So with a kindred 'modern improvements;' there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end." -- Henry David Thoreau from Walden

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