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Looking back to predict the future of the Internet

by Alex in | |

The Internet in 2000.

January: January 1 arrives, and the world doesn't end. Surprise!

March: The NASDAQ peaks at more than 2x its value a year earlier, before the dot com bubble begins to deflate.

Airplanes will fall out of the sky.

The bubble will burst.

These two gloomy predictions — one fulfilled, one not — summed up the predictions for the Internet in the year 2000. The much ballyhood Y2K bug (about which I, among many others, wrote) failed to cause much more than a few small hassles when January 1 arrived, as those of us on GMT -7 realized when we woke up on December 31 to the good news that Australia had not actually exploded at the stroke of midnight.

We were not so lucky in avoiding the gloomiest predictions about the fate of the dot com “bubble”. The bubble burst on March 10, 2000, when the NASDAQ tumbled as stock prices for (massively inflated) dot-com stocks suddenly collapsed.

That’s how it goes in the online prediction business. People love to prognosticate about the future of the Internet, but the Internet has a way of proving us wrong. Just look at a handful of predictions — some right, some wrong — that are each at least 5 years old.

Three predictions that were way off:

  1. Presence services can manage your preferences, personal information and experience on the Internet. Gartner consider what it calls “one-click Internet” as essential to bringing convenience and mobility to the Internet….Banks have had to deal with security, privacy and issues of trust for centuries, and that legacy is a particularly relevant in the digital age. Gartner gives the banks a 70 percent chance of succeeding in the presence business by 2007. — 10 Predictions to Shake Your World, 2002
  2. It has taken less than a decade for electronic mail to emerge as the heart and soul of corporate communication. Yet while e-mail has made it faster and easier for people to swap words and data, it also has unleashed inbox overload and a seemingly endless stream of spam. Future e-mail systems will attempt to remedy today’s problems–but also add new capabilities..Powerful information-management and collaboration tools are also likely to emerge. They will link associated messages and track message streams more efficiently….Finally, unified messaging will allow workers to check e-mail, voice mail, mobile messaging, and fax machine from a single inbox. — Fast Forward: 25 Trends that Will Change the Way You Do Business, 2003
  3. The Cambridge, Mass.-based market research company [Forrester Research] is predicting that North American online consumer sales, including auctions and travel, will hit US$329 billion in 2010 — a cumulative average growth rate over the next five years of 14 percent. — Forrester Sees Online Sales Through 2010 Rising, 2005  [actual figure: $165 billion]

Three predictions that were eerily prescient:

  1. Picture the scene: Dad in the living room video-conferencing with his boss in the States. In the study, Mum is teleworking while little Johnny is upstairs online gaming and big sister is shopping via a giant screen in the living room. — Jane Wakefield, The Internet of the 21st Century, 1999
  2. What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact. Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities. Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee. No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert. And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing? While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where—in the holy names of Education and Progress—important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.– Clifford Stoll, The Internet? Bah!, Newsweek, February 27, 1995 (hat tip to Five Years Too Late)
  3. The Smart Internet of 2010 is likely to become ‘the platform for personal connectedness’. Increasingly towards 2010 more and more users will want to access, andincreasingly be prepared to pay for, the connectedness that provides them with their ownchoices of music, film and video selections, the capacity to exchange specialised peer-to-peerservices, and the opportunity to express themselves through digital games. – Smart Internet 2010 report, 2005

Comparing these two sets of predictions, it’s easy to see that it’s easier to project the trajectory of the Internet’s impact on our relationships than the evolution of the specific technologies or business context. We know the path we are on: we just don’t know how long it is, or exactly what it will look like when we get there.

But we persist in making bold predictions, because we hunger for some sense of certainty about what lies ahead, precisely because things are moving so fast and so little certainty is available. I know the tempatation well: As I look back on 40 years of life online, it’s hard to resist the urge to make predictions about the next 40. But looking at these predictions sure helped!

First posted on April 24,2011

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