Why were we wrong? Lessons from 1980 predictions for 2000

We all like a good laugh at past predictions of the future. I have just been given a copy of “Twenty Years On: Life with Micro-electronics in the Year 2000 – text of an article to appear in the September 1980 edition of Video-world: the magazine of electronic living”. This time I was the butt of the joke. At least I had begun the article with “A forecast is a pretence of knowing what would have happened if what does happen hadn’t.”  

I got three main things wrong:

– we made far more progress in the 1980s towards “free” and “open” standards 

– we made far slower progress in 1990s in deploying fibre and high bandwidth radio 

– the cost of fuel, particularly for air transport, rose much slower 

The source of the first of my errors is a statement that is still both right and wrong:

“The communicating home video/audio/computer centre could be used for on-line mass referenda to tell the state what to do, or it could be used to occupy, amuse and control the populace. However, the probability is neither. All the signs are that the implementation will be haphazard, piecemeal with a multiplicity of standards … The word processor will eventually merge with the telephone and copier into an integrated … workstation. However this will take decades to bring about  …  “

I never envisaged that AT&T and IBM would give away the key operating systems, albeit under fear of regulatory intervention. I never envisaged that the US Government would give away the inter-operability standards that lie at the heart of today’s Internet. I never envisaged that CERN would allow one of its brightest young things to give away, with no strings at all, what has become the World-Wide-Web.

None was leading edge at the time they were given away – but they were free. They provided the catalysts for product and service inter-operability on an scale that was unprecedented in the ICT industries.  “Free” standards expedited change in a way I never anticipated.

But unless the truly creative are rewarded in a “currency” they appreciate, be it fame or fortune, we will not continue to make the necessary progress. Meanwhile not all “progress” is necessarily socially desirable. 

IPR lawyers are still trying to close the stable door. Governments and regulators are still trying to reimpose control over the future. If successful, they may yet block the way to the next round of creativity and progress that should lead us out of recession. 

We have interesting debates ahead.

My second error was in the other direction – I assumed a rate of progress that was not to be. 

I assumed that fibre to the home would be commonplace by 2000. Before 1997 UK communications policy was based on duopoly leading to full competition: BT and the Cable Companies building new networks so as to compete to supply full motion entertainment quality video to the home from 2002- after which both would have to compete with satellite and wireless. In 1997 that policy was dropped in favour of local loop unbundling. Then “broadband” was redefined downwards to mean “always on Internet” and video-streaming. 

In consequence voice over IP and Skype video-conferencing are still well short of the switchable, editable, entertainment quality, videophone that I had expected to be commonplace by 2000.  

The final assumption that I got spectacularly wrong was on fuel prices.

I expected the £25 gallon by 2000, including for air transport. We got the £5 gallon but air fuel is still exempt from taxation: allowing cheap overseas transport to climate change demos for eco-warriors, global packaged holidays for those in work, out of season fresh vegetables for the health conscious – and a chewed up stratosphere for us all.

Luckily my 1980 forecasts for 2000 are not on-line: unlike my 2001 forecasts for 2051.

I am unlikely to be around to try to defend my track record as a forecaster. Those of you who are around will be able to have a good laugh. Or perhaps to cry. I’d like to think there will be enough meat to enable both.

P.S. The 2001 paper was published before 9/11 but one reviewer pointed out an omission that was obvious to him, even then. I had left out the desire of the state to control dissent and the way this would interact with fears, whether real or exagerated, of global terrorism. The result would expedite research into image and pattern recognition. 

It has.

But much of the result is still not fit for that purpose: not because it does not work but because most human biometrics have turned out to be rather unstable – except for the 18 – 35 year-old white anglo-saxon engineers on whose biometrics much of the original research was carried out. 



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