The pace and perversity of change
People do feel overwhelmed by rate of change in technology. What lessons
can we learn from the past about technology to help us into the future?
Well, one thing is an old folk saying that I learned as a small child from
a cowboy. He said, "Never mistake a clear view for a short distance." It's
really true. We're fascinated by change, even though we fear it and we're
fascinated by innovation. Our fascination leads us to a very peculiar form
of double vision.
We tend to overestimate the short-term impacts of some threatened change,
but we underestimate the long-term implications. Either our hopes or our
fears lead us to overestimate the short term, and then when reality fails
to conform to our inflated expectations our disappointment leads us to
underestimate the long term.
We did it with PCs. Back in 1980, everybody was saying "PCs are going to
change our lives; everybody's going to have them; we're going to live in
electronic cottages; we're going to move out to the mountains." It didn't
happen, didn't happen, and didn't happen. Even by 1985, people were
astonished that not every home had a PC. At that point, they said "It will
never happen." And they walked away.
Then one company said, "Gee, what if we created a specialized personal
computer that just did one thing everybody liked: entertainment?" That
company was called Nintendo, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now the
impacts--10, 20 years later--the impacts are actually much greater than
We take the World Wide Web for granted today, but if you had said to
someone in 1980 that researchers and teenagers--14-year-olds in 1997--would
be dialing into computers in Singapore and sucking data off and surfing
this Web, they would have thought that you were a nutcase. "No way that
couldn't possibly happen!" Even as they were saying that every home in the
United States would have a personal computer by 1985.
So one lesson is never mistake a clear view for a short distance and
understand that even the most expected of futures tends to arrive late and
in utterly unexpected ways.
If the future is so hard to predict, always comes late, and in ways you
can't foretell, how do you keep your job?
I am not a futurist, I'm a forecaster. As a forecaster, what I really do is
nothing more than applied common sense. We all forecast every day of our
lives. Get up in the morning, look out the window, and you're making an
estimate of what the weather will be like. Buy a house: Choose between a
fixed mortgage and an adjustable mortgage. You have just made a synthesized
forecast of what the U.S. economy is going to do over the next 20 years--we
all do it. The only difference is I happen to do it as a full-time job.
My motto is "strong opinions, weakly held." Information is always
incomplete. So what I try and do is come to a conclusion based on the
information I have and then systematically try to tear down my conclusions
and look for things that show I'm wrong. Most people do the opposite: They
spend forever building their conclusion and then they hold it and cherish
it in the face of conflicting evidence.
Most people look for things that fit into categories. I look for things
that don't fit. My poor wife has to suffer through this. We were driving up
the coast on Highway 101 and there was a sign that said "End emergency
callboxes." It just bugged me and it bugged me enough that I turned around,
went back, stopped in front of the sign, and shot a photograph. I didn't
know why it was important. I kept noodling over it.
Then by the end of the weekend I knew why it had bugged me. If you're
driving along, you assume that you're in a zone of no communications unless
someone puts up a sign and says you can communicate here: phone. Somehow,
we had suddenly entered a world where Caltrans (the California
transportation department) felt compelled to put up a sign saying in
effect, "Warning: You're leaving the zone of communications. You're welcome
to drive further north, but don't blame us if you can't find a phone." The
world had just flipped.
Why does the computer industry not learn from the past?
It's the same reason that they call their customers "users." That the
computer industry drips with scorn for everything except themselves. As has
been said, there are only two industries on this planet that would use such
a sneering term like "user" for its customers: the computer industry and
the drug cartels. They both have an equal lack of respect for the poor,
miserable souls who have to use their crummy products. It is the nature of
engineers to think that they invented everything and not have a sense of
Are you optimistic about the future?
I'm a professional bystander and by nature a professional agnostic. But
history of technology gives one a sound basis to be a short-term pessimist
but a long-term optimist.
If you look at the last couple of centuries, things have either been great
but everybody said, "It's about to go down the tubes," or it's been bad and
they say, "It's about to get worse." But if you look at the sweep of
history, over the long run things have actually gotten pretty steadily
better. I, for one, would not have liked to live before the invention of
modern anaesthetic dentistry.
When we look at the future we tend to amplify it. If you tend to be an
optimist, you tend to get wildly optimistic that there is a new nirvana.
But if you are even mildly pessimistic, you amplify it that way and you
imagine this unimaginable hell of our own creation. Well, neither will
happen unless we really screw up. What we will do is what we've always
done, which is muddle through somewhere in the middle and then technology
will be this mixed bag of pleasant surprises and unpleasant consequences,
but it will tend to mush on through and we'll do what we always did. So, in short, things have been going to hell for as long as anyone can
remember, but in the long term they've actually gotten better. I think
there is sound reason to believe that the same will happen now, that we
have plenty of short-term crises and surprises and bumps, but things will