Future Imperfect

“You’re welcome to Le Carre—he hasn’t got any future.”

—A publisher who rejected John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which would go on to be described by Publishers Weekly as “the best spy novel of all-time.”

file000152304352 When it comes to predicting the future, we all make mistakes.  As we age, we hope to make them slightly less often, but, let me assure you, we never entirely escape the incidence.  Some of us, however, are in positions of authority which make the dimensions of our prognosticating blunders truly spectacular.  Infamous examples abound, especially in the cultural realm…

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

—Harry Warner of Warner Brothers, dismissing the idea of ‘talkies’ in 1925.

“Guitar groups are on the way out… The Beatles have no future in show business.”

—Dick Rowe, Decca Recording executive, snubbing The Beatles in 1962.

So too in the realm of technological future-telling.  Tim Wu, in his highly entertaining The Master Switch, recounts how in 1877 Western Union [Telegraph] was the most powerful information corporation on the planet, exclusive owners of the only continent-wide communications network.  The Bell [Telephone] Company was at the time a new and struggling tech firm with few customers and even fewer investors.  Such was the financial duress felt by Bell that the company’s President offered Western Union all of Bell’s patents for $100,000.  William Orton, Western Union’s President, declined the offer.  A company memo circulated a year earlier summed up Western Union’s take on the admittedly primitive Bell technology: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

Lest you think that the pace of technical innovation was invariably slower in the 19th century, it should be noted that, less than a year later, Western Union recognized the error of that take, and embarked upon a furious development effort of its own, commissioning a promising young inventor named Thomas Edison to come up with a better phone.  The effort would prove strangely inopportune (proving that luck too always plays a part in determining the future), when, just as Bell launched a patent-infringement lawsuit, it was discovered that Jay Gould, Robber Baron King mentioned elsewhere on this blogsite, was secretly buying up shares of Western Union, in preparation for a hostile takeover.  Western Union was suddenly obliged to view its telephone dust-up as a “lesser skirmish, one it no longer had the luxury of fighting.”  The company settled out of court with Bell on less than favorable terms, and Bell soon re-emerged as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), which would become the most successful communications company of the 20th century.

file1251307481611In a ‘look back’ article published earlier this year, U.S. News revisited its own predictive report from 1967 entitled, “The Wondrous World of 1990.”  The predictions made in the 1967 piece range from wide misses—a manned Mars landing, a cure for the common cold—to the remarkably prescient—a “checkless, cashless” economy, an “automated” (Google?) car.  (A blithe addendum notes how, if the driver of the robotic car does not accelerate as instructed, “the [computerized] roadway takes over control.”)

More broadly, two prophecies stand out for me in the 1967 article, two points central to the themes of this blog.  One is a miss; the other a palpable hit.  The miss discusses how, “Production and wealth will rise faster than population, so that incomes will climb steadily.”  This in turn will mean that the typical 1967 worker, who was then putting in about 2000 hours a year on the job, would, by 1990, see those hours drop to 1700 or less.  “The four-day week will arrive,” trumpets the article.

If only they had gotten that right.

The hit relates to, “Underlying the transformation to come is a quickening in the tempo of development out of scientific discoveries already made.”  One Dr. Richard G. Folsom, then President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is quoted: “The magnitude of change will expand, even explode.”

That much they did get right.

 

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