Cloudy Crystal Balls
Predicting the media's future isn't as easy as it seems.
By David Carlson
David Carlson is a former AJR new-media columnist.
YOGI BERRA ALWAYS has been more than a baseball player, manager and coach. Hešs been a manufacturer of wonderful quotes.
"It's tough to make predictions," he once said, "especially about the future."
No kidding! But, as a new century dawns, I can't think of a better time to take a look back at predictions that were made in the early 1980s for what life and technology would be like in 2000.
By 1980, interactive services had been pioneered in Great Britain. CompuServe and The Source existed for computer users, but nearly everyone believed the television would be the display device of the future. In 1982, early interactive newspaper services were being introduced in the United States by Knight Ridder and Times Mirror. The two, along with other industry giants, were working to create what were called "videotex" systems, basically interactive services that used modems and set-top boxes to display news and information on TV sets. Knight Ridder was building and testing Viewtron in Miami, and Times Mirror was doing the same with Gateway in Los Angeles.
Newspapers, magazines, trade journals, authors and even college professors gushed about how the new videotex systems would change the world. Consider these predictions for 2000 from the syllabus for an undergraduate course called "Survey of Videotex and New Communication Technology" taught at the University of Florida in the fall of 1983:
"Vast systems of sophisticated, expensive equipment are pictured, with legions of happy users instantly gaining access to all the world's storehouse of knowledge. Consumers...need never leave their homes, as shopping is easily and pleasantly concluded through the systems. Education takes place largely in front of a monitor in the student's home. Instant electronic referenda assure wide participation in a self-governing democracy."
The course, it turns out, was one of the first taught anywhere on the implications of videotex. Students were required to write research papers predicting what online systems would offer in 2000. I came across the term papers in a dusty file cabinet, and their content is fascinating.
Not one of them mentions the Internet, which had been around since the late 1960s as a research network, or envisions anything like the World Wide Web, which was invented in 1990. Very few mention e-mail or other forms of electronic messaging, which already were being offered by videotex systems. The students expected videotex systems to be closed, proprietary services, more like America Online than the Internet.
Newspapers, some student and professional authors guessed, would cease to be published on paper sometime in the 1990s. Banking, bill-paying and even control of an average home's heat and lights would be done via the videotex systems. Alarm systems and the elderly and infirm would be monitored by computer as well. Cost and loss of privacy were considered problems. Shopping was a major theme.
"Computers will be highly sophisticated by the year 2000," wrote one female author. "Our computers, or TVs, or computerized TVs, will store information about our buying habits and free us from having to remember to purchase necessary but mundane items" such as paper towels and vacuum-cleaner bags.
"Home grocery shopping is expected to be one of the more exciting features of electronic services in the year 2000," she added, predicting that most of us would order our groceries online and pick them up a few hours later at convenient "substations" erected in our neighborhoods by grocery retailers. Malls, she predicted, still would exist for buyers who want to "touch and feel an item."
In another paper, a male student predicted videotex would be as commonplace as the refrigerator or microwave oven.
Another male student addressed its implications for journalism. "Characteristics of the journalist's job would certainly move with the pace of communications technology. Reporter[s] would not necessarily stay at home, though. Reporting for an electronic news service, journalists would travel in news relay units equipped with a dish antenna for transmission to broadcast satellites. Voice recognition computers in the vans would translate the reporters' words, spoken into a walkie-talkie, into text.... Videotex subscribers in the home now will have immediate coverage of newsworthy events."
As it turned out, videotex failed miserably and all but died out by 1987. It wasn't until 1993, when Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, was introduced that the online world really began to take off. Yogi Berra was right, I guess. Predictions are difficult.