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Beware the Muses of the Digital Future

Just when I thought the dot-com madness was dead and buried, a new round of overheated "digital future" hype was served piping hot at the recent round of year-end tradeshows. It seems that failed technologies (you know what they are) die mighty hard these days.

But then why not gamble when you have nothing else on the table? One gets the feeling that many high-tech CEOs have bought into the classic movie industry theory of screenwriter William Goldman. The single most important fact in the entire film industry, noted the celebrated scribe, is that "nobody knows anything."

In his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman strips away all pretense about predictability. "Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work," he wrote. "Every time out it's a guess - and, if you're lucky, an educated one."

The same might be said for today's attempt to recapture the spirit of the faltering digital revolution. With many of the dot-com promises now in shambles, the visionaries are back, trying desperately to persuade us they now know how this digital drama will play out. (Of course, this is especially true if the visionary is trying to sell you a "solution" to your problem.)


This time around it would best if we studied history and started to think for ourselves about what constitutes good and bad technology. The uncertainty we face today is not new. History is filled with predictions about technology that were so wrong they appear ludicrous with a little hindsight.

As we begin a new year filled with the promise of tumultuous change, these predictions from the past might help moderate our zeal when the tradeshow pundits bloviate with certainty about where new technologies will take us:

•"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." -Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949;

•"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." -Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943;

•"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year." - the editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957;

•"But what ... is it good for?" - engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip;

•"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." - Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977;

•"This ‘telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." - Western Union internal memo, 1876;

•"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" -David Sarnoff's associates in response to his appeal for investment in radio broadcasting in the 1920s;

•"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,' the idea must be feasible." - a Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found the Federal Express Corp.);

•"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" - H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927;

•"I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling on his face and not Gary Cooper." - Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in Gone With The Wind;

•"We don't like their sound and guitar music is on the way out." - Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962;

•"If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this." - Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3M "Post-It" notepads;

•"So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, ‘No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard and they said, ‘Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.'" - Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer;

•"640K ought to be enough for anybody." - Bill Gates, 1981;

•"Everything that can be invented has been invented." - Charles H. Duell, commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899.


However, one man - writing 150 years ago in the Massachusetts woods near Walden Pond - may have come closer than anyone to getting it right:

"So, with a kindred ‘modern improvements;' there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end." - Henry David Thoreau from Walden.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.