The Technium

The Binding Uncertainty of the Present

[Translations: Japanese]

“Prediction is very hard, especially of the future,” said Yogi Berra.

But it is just as hard to judge the past, to evaluate whether you got a prediction “right” or not. Our notions of what we see — even in the present — are often vague, imprecise, and certainly incomplete. And that’s for something right in front of us. Right now few can agree on whether there prosperity for the average person today or not. We have great uncertainty of the present.

When we speak of the future we cannot escape speaking of the present. We are bound first by the vocabulary of the present.

For an example consider this 30-year old New York Times summary of a forecast of the year 2000 issued in 1982 by the National Science Foundation and prepared by the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. The very title is a hint of the problem: “Teletext and Videotex in the United States.” Is “videotex” a correct forecast or does it fail? Do we have videotex now?

The study focused on the emerging videotex industry, formed by the marriage of two older technologies, communications and computing. It estimated that 40 percent of American households will have two-way videotex service by the end of the century.

By one definition – marriage of communication and computing – we have videotex. But what’s with this “two-way” videotex? If they mean we can write as well as read, upload as well as download, then we definitely have two way. But the notion of two-way back in 1982 also assumed that the content would come down from big content providers and you would be able to interact upwards with the big guys like Viacom or Time/Warner, or Disney — the communication went two-ways, but only between these two ends, you and them. What this misses is sort of the main event of the 1990s, which is peer-to-peer, many-to-many communications. The internet. A million-way tex. And not just text, but video. The web we have now is not mere “two-way” and not mere text in one sense, although it is two-way, and textual, in another sense.

The AT&T Sceptre Videotex from 1983

So it is hard to grade. But let’s say we do have videotex now. Were the following predictions in the report correct, or at least more right than wrong?

Widespread penetration of the technology, it [the NSF report] said, would mean, among other things, these developments:

– The home will double as a place of employment, with men and women conducting much of their work at the computer terminal. This will affect both the architecture and location of the home. It will also blur the distinction between places of residence and places of business, with uncertain effects on zoning, travel patterns and neighborhoods.

– Home-based shopping will permit consumers to control manufacturing directly, ordering exactly what they need for ”production on demand.”

– There will be a shift away from conventional workplace and school socialization. Friends, peer groups and alliances will be determined electronically, creating classes of people based on interests and skills rather than age and social class.

– A new profession of information ”brokers” and ”managers” will emerge, serving as ”gatekeepers,” monitoring politicians and corporations and selectively releasing information to interested parties.

– The ”extended family” might be recreated if the elderly can support themselves through electronic homework, making them more desirable to have around.

The blurring of lines between home and work, the report stated, will raise difficult issues, such as working hours. The new technology, it suggested, may force the development of a new kind of business leader. ”Managing the complicated communication in networks between office and home may require very different styles than current managers exhibit,” the report concluded.

The study also predicted a much greater diversity in the American political power structure. ”Videotex might mean the end of the two-party system, as networks of voters band together to support a variety of slates – maybe hundreds of them,” it said.

I would give it a score of: KINDA. The home does serve as a place of employment — for some. While there has always been home based businesses, in fact the percentage of free lancers and self-employed has increased over the past 30 years, and for these pioneers it has blurred the boundaries between work and play. See Daniel Pink’s Free Agent Nation. But it is clearly not the norm. Yet.

Home-based shopping, as in on-line shopping is huge. But still smaller than physical go-to-the-store shopping. Is this a correct prediction?

Mostly the forecasted phenomenon do occur but in small doses here and there. “The future is unevenly distributed,” to paraphrase the great Gibson. But of course the report doesn’t claim the extent to which these will occur. It states: they happen.

Well, one lesson we can take from the web today is that any possible behavior is already happening somewhere at least once in the world. The very long tail of the future is already here. There is some child celebrating a birthday with 6 parents. There is someone controlling a game with their brain directly. There is someone with no paper in their house or office. There is one of every future today. Does that count if we don’t perceive it? How many hipsters living with only 100 possessions in their lives will it take before they are a trend, or “real”, or influential?

How loud does a signal need to be before it is significant? Of course it depends, which is why predicting is very hard, especially of the future.


© 2023