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We live in an amazing age. Some would say what we can do through the web now, must have been unimaginable in pre-Internet times.
Not everyone has the same imagination.
Some of the greatest thinkers of decades and centuries past have made startlingly accurate descriptions of recent technologies we use and take for granted every day, in books, interviews, and videos. They don’t get the recognition they deserve when we’re caught up pointing out predictions-gone-wrong.
For example: at MakeUseOf we’ve looked at 8 of the most spectacularly wrong predictions of computers and the Internet. We also covered 5 predictions from the past and looked at what came true and what didn’t. What we’ve never done is focus on the earliest predictions of modern web/Internet technology, and especially, where they were right.
Read on for a journey back through time to learn how some of the cleverest people of the past described the future, and a couple of tips making your own accurate predictions.
H.G. Well’s “Permanent World Encyclopaedia” of 1937: Wikipedia
“A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of human knowledge and keeping it up to date […] [It] will be made accessible to every individual…It need not be concentrated in any one single place […] It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa.”
H.G. Wells, one of the fathers of science fiction and author of popular books like The War of the Worlds, wrote that description in an essay for the Encyclopédie Française, later published in the book World Brain. He called it the Permanent World Encyclopaedia.
Sounds a lot like Wikipedia, eh?
Though the Wikipedians aren’t as diverse a group as they could be (and they sometimes they engage in ‘edit warring‘ on numerous controversial pages (not exactly ‘world peace making’ as Wells hoped)) Wikipedia is still an amazing resource for human knowledge. It’s updated constantly, at a rate of over 10,000,000 edits every five to ten weeks. We can access it from anywhere, and see translations in a wide variety of languages, just like Wells said.
It is still amazing that a person could have dreamed up such a tool in a pre-Internet age. If you want to contribute to making Wikipedia a more balanced and peace-making resource like Wells dreamed, you can learn everything you need to know about Wikipedia to become a great editor.
Jules Verne’s “Internet”, as Described in 1864
Would you have guessed that one of the earliest descriptions of the Internet itself comes from 1864?
Author Jules Verne, like H.G. Wells, is widely regarded as one of the fathers of science fiction. Though Verne did not claim to be a ‘science fiction’ author, in his 1864 book Paris in the Twentieth Century he describes a system that sounds much like the Internet.
Set in 1960, this book describes primitive computers which can send messages to each other as part of a network: “sophisticated electrically powered mechanical calculators which can send information to each other across vast distances”.
Also, in a short story by Verne titled In the Year 2889, he describes a few other familiar technologies, which he called the “phonotelephote”. The phonotelephote would allow “the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires,” he wrote. So all in one line he alluded to fax and videoconferencing technology, and even the fibre-optics technology that makes it possible. Impressive, eh?
Online Shopping, as Envisioned in 1969
This remarkably detailed depiction from 1969 describes how computers will be used for shopping from the comfort of one’s own home, and various tools people would have for communication, e-commerce, and even home surveillance.
However, the narrator describes women doing the shopping while their husbands pay for the products at their consoles. No prediction is perfect.
Skype, Netflix, Kindle, and so Much More, as Predicted in 1965
Unless you were a fan of an obscure British comic book in the 1960s, you probably missed this entry in “The Futurescope” section of the 1965 edition of Eagle. It gives a remarkable picture of the technology we have now and are presently developing and integrating into daily life.
The article following the illustration asks readers:
“How would you like to be able to solve any mathematical problem in a fraction of a second: summon any page of any book or newspaper instantly before your eyes: have all factual information known to man at your own fingertips – all without leaving your own living room?”
I think it’s safe to say we humans of 2015 do like that, very much so! The article later describes how computers will control the power supplies to a variety of household items.
“Your TV set, your telephone, your electricity and gas meters, and your typewriter, tape-recorder and record player. All these things will be as out of date as the gas-lamp is today, for the computer will control all power supplies to your house, your videophone link and multi-channel TV signal.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a succinct description of the Smart Home. One thing is for sure though: the readers of Eagle got an amazing vision of what the world of today would be like.
Paul Joseph Watson shows off his complete copy of the comic and discusses this article in more detail at PrisonPlanet.
Smartwatches, as Predicted in 1909
I’ll keep this one short and sweet.
Nikola Tesla, renowned futurist, inventor of the Tesla Coil, designer of the A/C current electrical system, and much more, was quite possibly the world’s first person to predict a smartwatch. As early as 1909 in statements for Popular Mechanics, he said:
“It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages all over the world so simply that any individual can carry and operate his own apparatus. […] It will only be necessary to carry an instrument not bigger than a watch, which will enable its bearer to hear anywhere on sea or land for distances of thousands of miles.”
Online Learning, as Predicted in 1988
This video is a little longer, but it’s amazing to hear in detail what biochemistry professor and renowned science-fiction author Isaac Asimov (who devised the Three Rules for Robotics) thought the Internet would be like.
Home Office, as Envisioned in 1967
This amazing little video features broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite as he shows mockups of how a variety of computer technology could look. It has a few amusing quirks like “turning the button” to print or see video in a video-call, but those are minor.
A lot of neat mockups are shown, and ideas of how much control a ‘computerized communication console’ could offer are interesting, but by far, my favourite line of the whole video is this one, where Walter Cronkite seeds the idea of telecommuting in the minds of viewers:
“With equipment like this in the home of the future, we may not have to go to work – the work would come to us.”
Business & Home Computers, as Predicted in 1974
It’s one thing to describe what a technology will be like, but it’s far more impressive to time it right. Check out this next video interview with Arthur C Clarke, another renowned science-fiction author (and co-writer of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey) for a perfect example:
In the interview, Clarke talks about what home computers would be like now, and how they would impact the home life and the business world. Of course, a number of other prediction-makers have talked about similar things, as we’ve seen, but Clarke nails the timing, and that’s what makes it such a worthwhile minute-and-a-half to watch.
Making Your Own Great Predictions
Have you ever wanted to know how people can make such reasonable and accurate predictions? All of the people behind the greatest predictions had a thirst for understanding, so they would never stop learning. So, if you want to make your own great predictions, research everything you can and stay up to date on the latest technologies.
When timing your predictions of the future, it helps to be familiar with Moore’s Law, which states (simply put) that computing power doubles roughly every two years.
Free online world simulation tools can help a lot with getting an understanding of how technology affects different areas of society (and how different factors all impact each other), and making predictions.
Finally, great predictions of future technology take into account what people need for their lives to be better, akin to that of an inventor. So, try to observe your fellow human beings and surroundings. Notice when people struggle with something, and ask yourself if technology might be able to help someday.
Would you have guessed that a tool like Wikipedia was described as early as 1937? Or that the idea of the Internet was described in 1864? What do you think it takes to make predictions that will impress people of the future? Let us know in the comments below!