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This 1981 BYTE Magazine Cover Explains Why We're So Bad At Tech Predictions 276

harrymcc (1641347) writes "If you remember the golden age of BYTE magazine, you remember Robert Tinney's wonderful cover paintings. BYTE's April 1981 cover featured an amazing Tinney image of a smartwatch with a tiny text-oriented interface, QWERTY keyboard, and floppy drive. It's hilarious — but 33 years later, it's also a smart visual explanation of why the future of technology so often bears so little resemblance to anyone's predictions. I wrote about this over at TIME.com. 'Back then, a pundit who started talking about gigabytes of storage or high-resolution color screens or instant access to computers around the world or built-in cameras and music players would have been accused of indulging in science fiction.'"
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This 1981 BYTE Magazine Cover Explains Why We're So Bad At Tech Predictions

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  • Re:Surely ironic (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Trapezium Artist ( 919330 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @05:31AM (#46754747)

    OK, now having read the linked article (oops), I do see that the author (Henry McCracken) realised that the cover painting had a humorous intent (not least that it was the April edition of BYTE), satirising the conservative opinion that future tech was likely to be an extension / miniaturisation of the then-prevalent PC paradigm.

    Good to see I got it, though :-)

  • Something lost (Score:5, Interesting)

    by guises ( 2423402 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @05:55AM (#46754815)
    Ugh. Every once in a while I'm reminded of just how much we've lost (and continue to lose) with the death of print media. Byte was shut down before its time, but there used to be so many good zines like it.

    I guess 2600 is still around, maybe I should get a subscription before I forget. Are there any other decent zines still in print? I should do an Ask Slashdot instead of just posting a comment...
  • Re:Surely ironic (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @06:10AM (#46754859)

    > That doesn't mean I disagree with the point of the discussion,
    > namely that we're not that great at predicting the directions of
    > future tech

    I think that depends who "we" are, most technologists understand the principles of technological advancement - the rate at which computing power increases, the tendancy towards miniaturisation, increasing battery capacity in smaller space, convergence of devices, areas of research. Given this, most technologists know what's coming.

    The people who aren't very good are journalists, and casual users. Take this gem:

    "(One classic example: When it became clear that Apple was working on an âoeiPhone,â almost all the speculation involved something that was either a lot like an iPod, or a lot like other phones of the time. As far as I know, nobody expected anything remotely like the epoch-shifting device Apple released.)"

    It's just complete nonsense, anyone working with smartphones at the time was completely unfazed by the iPhone - the first edition wasn't entirely dissimilar (and was notable underfeatured compared to) offerings from companies like Nokia, and HP with their iPaq phones. It was a game changer in America, but America was for some obscure reason completely behind on phone technology - when I used to visit in the early 00s it was like I was from the fucking future because I had a phone that could play Doom, music, and so forth on it, and this is why commentary from Americans about how incredibly "epoch-shifting" the iPhone was looks like complete drivel to Europeans and Asians, or even Americans who had some understanding of our mobile markets.

    The article is an illustration of a journalist discovering the fact that as a journalist he knows not the slightest fuck what he is on about when he starts talking about the future of tech. It says nothing else about how the rest of us understand the future of technology though.

  • by Beck_Neard ( 3612467 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @06:11AM (#46754867)
    We genuinely are bad at predicting the future of tech, but it's usually not because we're too fanciful. It's usually the opposite. Tech predictions usually fail because we're way too conservative. That's partly the reason behind this joke drawing in 1981. Now predictions about almost everything else - society, politics, and social adoption of tech - are usually way too optimistic. But tech predictions are way too pessimistic. Here's my effort at a perhaps better future prediction: We'll have much better AI than we do today and it will know everything about everyone. Yet it will not be google, or anything like google, but a service catering to intelligence agencies. Poverty and destruction of the ecosystem will continue at a worse pace than it is going now. We will have the capability to cheaply explore other planets, but we won't actually have a colony on any planets. We'll have the capability to feed everyone in the world yet global hunger will still exist and maybe even be worse than it is today. Rich nations will be richer and poor nations will be poorer. Strong AI will eventually come about then promptly proceed to kill everyone. Not because it hates us, just for liebensraum. Have a nice day.
  • Ironic and Iconic (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Tatarize ( 682683 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @06:58AM (#46755059) Homepage

    Does anybody else want a mini-sd card form factored to look like a mini-floppy disk? I sure do. And now since I've mentioned it, you do too.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @07:02AM (#46755087) Journal
    My judgement is probably biased, because I loath my phone and its interruptions; but 'smart watches' appear to be devices that you attach to your wrist because your phone is configured to bother you so often that you need a second, more easily accessible, device to provide a summary of the incoming demand on your time and attention in order to see if you should follow through with taking your phone out of your pocket.

    Maybe I'm just getting bitter in my old age and shouting at those damn smartphones to get off my lawn; but if something isn't important enough to take my phone out of my pocket for, the fact that I'm being alerted to it is a software configuration defect that should be solved by my phone shutting the hell up, not by it phoning my watch to demand attention.
  • by Cryacin ( 657549 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @07:20AM (#46755155)
    This reminds me of Isaac Asimov's Elevator Fallacy. If we imagine ourselves back in the 1800's when buildings were no taller than 10 stories, and then talk about how towering behemoth buildings stretching 100 stories high exist, a science fiction writer would talk about how there would be sky lobbies so that meetings can be held along the way up the building, and that at the end of the day, to avoid the long trek back down the endless stair case, a slide would allow those at the top of the building to travel all the way down in a matter of minutes.

    That, or the elevator would be invented.

    It's exactly these unforseen technological changes that make us laugh at the predictions from earlier, as the pain points back then are completely irrelevant and solved today, only to have new ones exposed that were never even thought of. Who would have considered it abnormal back in the 80's to need to add and remove media constantly from their system, but would even have thought of software needing to be efficient because of power consumption?
  • by dtmos ( 447842 ) * on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @07:36AM (#46755253)

    I always thought the most unlikely technological development in my lifetime was the handheld GPS device. It would be "most unlikely" because it required tremendous, simultaneous, and largely unforeseen advances in several different technologies, each of which was hard to predict in 1981. The list is at least:

    1. Low power, low voltage, low noise L-band receivers, sensitive enough to be compatible with the weak signal coming from the internal antenna of a handheld device;
    2. Stupendous amounts of digital signal processing, also at low power and low voltage;
    3. Digital map databases of (substantially) every road in the world, accurate to a few meters;
    4. A substantially world-wide, wideband wireless data link to get the digital map into the handheld device in the first place;
    5. Low power, low voltage, high resolution, multicolor flat panel displays;
    6. Gigabytes of low power, low voltage data storage memory; and
    7. High energy density, high power density batteries capable of supplying the whole thing.

    And, perhaps most impressive of all, the manufacturing technology to make all of the above small enough to fit in a handheld device, at a price low enough to sell by the zillions.

    Of the list above, probably only #2 could have been predicted, and then only if one were willing to extrapolate the then-relatively-new Moore's Law by a very large amount. (Recall that Mead and Conway had only written their Introduction to VLSI systems the previous year; until then it was not clear that such complex chips could even be designed on human time scales, let alone built for a profit.)

    The fact that a handheld GPS device is now an anachronism, since the technology is now small enough and low-power enough to be integrated into other handheld devices, like smart phones, pleases me no end.

  • by bickerdyke ( 670000 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @09:51AM (#46756013)

    Which is exactly the point the article makes. That we're bad at predecting technology, because we tend to think along the lines of an evolution of existing technologies. But can't imagine even small but substantial new technologies. (in my example obviously the servo engine that could be used to control mechanical devices directly without a robot.)

    Another case of "almost right" is from the same Asimov book (I didn't read more than that plus the short stories) is an exact description of a GPS device used for navigation. While the actual use was a spot on hit, the user interface was as far off as possible: No one could imagine LED/LED displays, so the device was a rod that heated the handle when you pointed it in the right direction.

    Do you know that feeling when you're watching old speculative fiction pieces and suddenly realize that despite all that future tech, in a given moment, they's give their right arm for a simple Nokia cellphone? :-)

I've got a bad feeling about this.