A Look Back (And Forward) In Time: Tech Predictions We Got Right And Wrong

carnac prediction

Photo: TV.com

Lately I’ve become a bit obsessed with predicting the future. Not the present future, as in one year from now – I do that every year, after all. But the long-ish future, as in 10 to 20 years out.That kind of a time horizon is tantalising, because it’s within the reach of our reason – if only we play the right trends out, and anticipate new ones that could defensibly emerge.

I’ve often found that predicting the future is a waste of time, but reporting the future is a worthy endeavour. More on that in another post, but I learned this distinction from my mentors at Wired back in the early 1990s.

Late last year the Economist asked me to predict what the world might be like in 2036. When they asked, I of course said yes, because heck, it’s very rare for anyone to get a byline in the Economist (most pieces run without credit). I think my predictions were OK, but I have to say I can’t defend them with any kind of rigorous framework.

Over the past week or so, however, an idea has grown inside my mind, and I can’t shake it. I spend a lot of time thinking about where this Internet Economy is going, and I’ve grown tired of the short view. I’m itching for a wider vista, for a time frame that spans years, if not decades. Most of the blogs, news outlets, and pundits I read day-to-day are stuck in the short now. I want to think more about the long future.

So I’ve started looking for predictions that spanned at least a decade. And of course the first one that came to mind was EPIC 2014. I remember covering this short film in 2004, when it first came out. It caused quite a stir back then, because the scenario it painted seemed so…possible. And given that it was predicting events an entire decade later, it had a certain whiff of science fiction to it. We want to believe in science fiction – after all, it’s nothing more than proof that the future is already here, just unevenly distributed.

EPIC 2014 focused on one thread of our ever-changing Internet Economy – our relationship to media. Some six-plus years of heady change later, I wondered, how does it hold up? And what can we learn from watching it now, just a few years from its predictive date of 2014?

Well, depending on how you grade it, it’s either an utter failure, or pretty smart, given the constraints of the time.

Remember, after all, that in late 2004, Facebook didn’t really exist. Certainly the idea of the “social graph” was years from cultural currency. Twitter was utterly foreign. EPIC 2014 is interesting for the assumptions it makes, and what it got right, and what it got wrong. Here are few choice ones:

  • The New York Times “goes offline.” This seemed vaguely possible only a year ago. Now, the Times seems quite a bit more healthy, and it’s certainly not going anywhere soon. In fact, most news outlets look to the Times as forging a new model for news, one that just might work.
  • Google buys Tivo. Nope, but damn, I bet many wish they had. This assumes Google wants to be a really good interface to TV. Apparently, no one at Google got that memo, yet. Because all I have heard about Google TV is that the interface is way, way too hard to understand.
  • Microsoft responds to Google by buying Friendster and creating “social news.” If only! That might have saved Friendster, if only for a year or two. But the thinking that social news would be really important was prescient. Microsoft would create this social news service by 2007, EPIC predicted. Well, the company did a major deal with Digg in early 08. How did *that* work out, eh?!
  • Google will create a service called “Google Grid” – a smart pre of cloud computing, with “subscriptions” to “editors” who add value to the grid. This presages Twitter and Tumblr, or the rise of social editors and supernodes, as I’ve written previously.
  • Google and Amazon would join forces, with Amazon lending its recommendation smarts, and Google lending its grid computing. Oddly, Amazon is now the leader in cloud, with Google a close second. And so far, Google and Amazon haven’t become real partners, in fact, if anything they are poised to be mortal enemies given the fight over media distribution coming with Kindle, Android, Google TV, and Amazon’s streaming media ambitions.

Overall, what I find fascinating about EPIC is how it got the overarching trends right, in the main, but the timeline and the details, while supporting a compelling narrative, were utterly wrong. Yes, the cloud is coming, but man, it ain’t gonna take over the world in a mere five or six years! Yes, social news and social editing will be critical, but NO, the winners of the current day – Google, Amazon, and Microsoft – would NOT rule that world. Totally new and unpredictable startups – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr – own that space now. And in the meantime, a shooting star – Digg – came, flamed, and went!

All in all, I love EPIC 2014 just for the fact that it was made. Here and below is a link, again, to the video, this time on YouTube, which, of course, didn’t exist when EPIC was made.

I love the Internet.

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