By Jeff Gainer
(Author's note: This essay appeared in the November 14, 1999 Denver Post.)
Something about the turn of the millennium makes everyone believe that they can predict the future. In the information technology industry, everyone is busily making far-reaching predictions about how the Internet will change commerce, and in turn, our lives. Every toaster with an IP address, as it were. To make things doubly exciting, we have the Y2K computer problem providing still more fuel for all this prediction-making.
Thus far, I’ve resisted this temptation. Maybe it's because I don't drive to work in a personal spaceship, as was predicted in 1957. No Jetsons future, this: From my home, I go downstairs to the office, make a pot of coffee, and check my email. The commute takes about 90 seconds. When a more conventional commute is required, I book a seat on a plain ‘ol ordinary airplane. Commercial jet travel has not yet been supplanted by the routine interplanetary travel which was once predicted to become commonplace by 1970.
So I've been understandably cautious about making predictions. I learned such caution from a dispatch from the 1876 Centennial Exposition. A mightily impressed reporter gushed about a new device called the telephone, which would allow people at distant points to communicate instantaneously. The reporter went on to predict that there would soon be one in every major city. A less perspicacious official with Western Union, however, was not at all impressed. On seeing the newfangled device, he opined, "No conceivable commercial value whatsoever."
And in September 1929, a bright young economist named Peter Ducker confidently asserted "Stocks have attained a permanently high plateau."
Predicting the future for computers and information technology is particularly risky. IBM chairman Thomas Watson predicted a world market for a maximum of five computers. In 1949, Popular Mechanics magazine noted that computers were getting smaller and asserted: "Computers may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." And in 1977, the president of Digital Equipment confidently pronounced: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
So let's face it, we have to learn how to hedge our bets with our predictions. For a fine example, when asked which direction he thought the stock market would go, J.P. Morgan sagely advised, "I think it will fluctuate." Reporters dutifully noted the financial doyen's words, then hurried to telephones to file their urgent dispatches on the future of the market.
A high-school football coach regarding his star player, though, made my favorite prediction. This eloquent coach happily concluded, "The best thing is that his future is still ahead of him."
So in this spirit, after pontificating on the impending millennium, I'll make a few predictions of my own:
Computers will continue to get smaller...
The stock market will continue to fluctuate...
And the future will remain ahead of us.
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(c)1999 by Jeff Gainer