Predicting the future is an activity fraught with error. Wilbur Wright, co-inventor of the motorized airplane that successfully completed the first manned flight in 1903, seems to have learned this lesson when he noted: "In 1901, I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for 50 years. Ever since I have ... avoided predictions." Despite the admonition of Wright, faulty future forecasting seems a favored human pastime, especially among those who would presumably avoid opportunities to so easily put their feet in their mouths.
What follows are some of the more striking exemplars of expert error in forecasting the future of technological innovations.
Computers and information technologies seem to hold a special place in the forecasters' hall of humiliation, be they predictions from the media, business, politicians, scientists, or technologists. Here are some examples:
It is into this ring of forecasting fire that I too throw my hat, again. The fact is predictions that fail to come true may not actually be bad predictions at all. Often, such predictions serve as admonitions to steer us away from undesirable futures. Take your parents' warning, "Get out of the road, you'll be hit by a car," or the pessimistic predictions about the Y2K problem that resulted in appropriate action being taken.
Both overly pessimistic and optimistic forecasts are frequently faulty as a result of oversimplification. Moreover, prognosticators of all persuasions often fail to take into account the difficulty of predicting human behavior, as well as the element of surprise, "acts of God," and "wild cards." Thus, we have examples of inventions that never caught on, such as the video phone, introduced by AT&T at the 1964 World's Fair; and the U.S. Department of Labor's 1929 forecast that "1930 will be a splendid employment year," until the stock market crash of 1929 triggered the Great Depression.
Humans in general are ill-equipped for soothsaying. We too readily project our own views, motivations, and biases onto others, and tend to place too much emphasis on current experience. The latter, sometimes called "recency bias," when combined with extrapolation and oversimplification, results in conclusional leaps such as tulip manias, stock market bubbles, and predictions like those warning that everyone in the U.S. would have to become a telephone operator; 50 years later it was computer programmers.
My personal favorite jumped conclusion is the New York Times headline of August 27, 1911 that read "Martians build two immense canals in two years," after an astronomer reported seeing two previously unnoticed lines on the surface of the red planet.
The fact is our future is largely a function of our past, our present, and the choices we make. It might be simpler if the "gods" were in control and we humans merely at the mercy of the fates. But no, it is our own choices that largely determine the destiny of our species and our planet, as well as the rest of its inhabitants. And technology, much like all the other tools at our disposalmoney, guns, nuclear fission, fossil fuels, automobiles, software, hardware, and all the resthave only a potentiality for good or evil. It is humans that effectuate their deployment, humans that take the risks, and humans that reap the rewards, or retributions.
So what promises might technology hold for us, and what curses might we use it to bring about? The possibilities are nearly limitless, in either direction. I'll leave the hand wringing and prognostications to others, and instead focus my attention on the place between our ears. For it is here that our fate will literally be decided. It is the quality of our thinking, the completeness of our decision models, and the ethical basis of our decision criteria that will seal our fate. It is not our technological artifacts, but the ways we choose to use them that will determine our future.
May each and every one of us choose wisely.
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.
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