Image via Flickr / Sam Howzit
The Washington Post dug up a neat little nugget on Friday morning: a 1982 study from the Institute of the Future in Menlo Park, California that predicts everything from the ascent of the World Wide Web to the founding of Facebook. Funnily enough, the Institute is now headquartered less than a block away from Facebook's first offices on University Avenue, just a few hundred yards from Stanford's campus. But back in 1982, two full years before Mark Zuckerberg was even born, these futurists knew what was up.
Originally conceived as an attempt at a "technology assessment," the 314-page study was funded by the National Science Foundation, and the results were picked up by The New York Times. The ever dependable Gray Lady embarked on a pedantic and too dry summary of the findings, and it's immediately apparent that the reporter covering the news had no idea how spot on the study's predictions would be. "How spot on are they?" You ask? Let me count the ways.
The findings converge at how "one-way and two-way home information systems" will soon spread to 40 percent of American homes. This phrase refers to hypothetical development of teletext and videotex technology. These are not hypothetical technologies, though. Both came about in the 1970s as new ways of sharing information, typically using a television. To oversimplify it a bit, it's kind of like a very primitive form of the Internet on your TV. Teletext is actually still a popular in some parts of the world, though videotex has largely fallen out of use.
Though the futurists were wrong about the specific technologies that would serve as the driving force behind them, the functionality they describe encompasses a number of existing technologies, including but not limited to the World Wide Web, social media and digital publishing. From the original study:
Videotex systems create opportunities for individuals to exercise much greater choice over the information available to them. Individuals may be able to use videotex systems to create their own newspapers, design their own curricula, compile their own consumer guides.
In other words, this "two-way home information system" is a computer that's connected to the Internet. Seems like they low-balled that 40 percent number, doesn't it?
The paper goes on to predict the rise of online shopping, telecommuting, political consulting for navigating the digital sphere and more. But, there will be unintended consequence and challenges along the way, it says. This paragraph explains:
On the other hand, because of the complexity and sophistication of these systems, they create new dangers of manipulation or social engineering, either for political or economic gain. Similarly, at the same time that these systems will bring a greatly increased flow of information and services into the home, they will also carry a stream of information out of the home about the preferences and behavior of its occupants.
We're still working on that "dangers of manipulation" problem. Reddit's recent kurfuffle over users trying to identify the Boston bombing suspects is a good example. We're figuring it out, though.
The futurists from the early 1980s should be proud of themselves. They're not the first to predict some of the crazy technology that's ruling our lives more and more. AT&T ran an amazing ad campaign in the 1990s that predicting everything from the WiFi to smartphones to portable tablets. Their notions of the future weren't completely perfect either. People do not send faxes from their tablets, these days. But maybe they should. The fax is a lost art. It really is.