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Comparing 1982’s Future to Today’s Present

In June of 1982, the IBM 5150 (the original IBM PC) had been out for less than a year. The Apple II+ was Apple’s big seller and the original Macintosh was still a year and half away from getting out of that bag. There was no Internet, per se; the word “internet” referred to a loose assemblage of exclusively non-commercial networks, such as ARPANET and MILNET, that used TCP/IP.

Also that month, the New York Times reported on the forthcoming release of a National Science Foundation report, “Teletext and Videotex in the United States,” that forecast how electronic communication technology would affect the United States by the year 1998. The report, as reflected in the New York Times summary, was strikingly accurate about some of the societal effects, even if the technological details were quaintly off-target and missed the move to decentralization of computing.

Teletext and Videotex — The report, which was commissioned by the National Science Foundation and written by John Tydeman of the Institute of the Future in Menlo Park, California, envisioned two types of home systems: a one-way communication system called “teletext” and a two-way system dubbed “videotex.” The bulk of the report focused on the transformative effects of the two-way system, described in the New York Times as being based on the “emerging videotex industry, formed by the marriage of two older technologies, communications and computing.”

Videotex service, delivered through home “terminals,” was seen as being used by 40 percent of U.S. households by the end of the century, its availability driven and subsidized by advertising. In the actual event, those home terminals would turn out to be personal computers, and the videotex service would turn out to be connections through various providers by various means to the Internet and the World Wide Web.

And the comparison with home Internet service? While the report overestimated its home penetration for 1998, reaching only 26.2 percent of homes that year according to U.S. Census data, just two years later the number of Internet-connected homes in the United States had exceeded the 40 percent mark (it’s now above 75 percent).

Control and Content — The report also saw people using videotex systems to tailor and combine the types of information available to them: videotex service subscribers, it said, would “create their own newspapers, design their own curricula, compile their own consumer guides.”

In reality, most people were nowhere near as proactive and organized as the report envisioned: instead, the vast majority of users at the turn of the century went no further than compiling disparate sets of disorganized Web bookmarks, and instead relied upon increasingly sophisticated search engines, such as the then-predominant AltaVista and the just-established Google, to help them “surf” to the information they sought. Arguably, with apps like Flipboard and services like, not to mention the vast collection of courses available from iTunes U and Khan Academy, we’re much closer to that prediction.

The report did see a dark side to the widespread use of videotex systems, noting that they would “create new dangers of manipulation or social engineering, either for political or economic gain.” Those who have had their identities phished, responded to an Internet scam, or been hoaxed by a fallacious news report about a non-existent political scandal, can recognize the prescience of this part of the report. Angry Birds, FarmVille, and other such “stupid” games might also be an example of manipulation for economic gain.

The report also saw dangers in how such a system could “carry a stream of information out of the home about the preferences and behavior of its occupants.” Of course, while this forecast capability turned out to reflect accurately the loss of privacy that the Internet era has engendered, much of what was perceived as a danger in 1982 has also become a socially accepted part of the business model of companies like Google, Facebook, and others, which rely upon that information to deliver targeted advertisements to increase efficacy (for both advertisers and viewers).

Transformative Effect Checklist — The availability of videotex services was predicted to lead to a number of changes in home life, business, and politics. Let’s look at some of those predictions:

  • The home would double as a place of employment: Check. Work-from-home has become an accepted part of American business practice. Although the number of teleworkers was not staggering at the turn of the century, the numbers have been steadily rising every year: by 2010, according to one recent survey, 20 to 30 million people work occasionally from home, and 15 to 20 million are so-called “road warriors.” Businesses and government offices now regularly offer some form of work-from-home support.

  • Home-based shopping: The report saw this as permitting consumers to control manufacturing directly. While that sort of supply-chain control has not yet become common, despite sites like Etsy and the first hints of products created by 3D printing, shopping via the Internet has, indeed, transformed the retail landscape dramatically, thanks to Amazon, eBay, and countless small retailers. Half a check.

  • A shift away from workplace and school socialization and toward electronic interaction: While people haven’t abandoned work and school as opportunities for social interaction, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, and the plethora of socially enabled apps on mobile devices earn this prediction a great big check.

  • The emergence of a new profession of information brokers and gatekeepers: These have emerged in all sorts of guises and forms, ranging from search engine optimization specialists to information aggregators and data-miners. If you look at a site such as Career Builder, for example, you can see that “information broker” is not only a job category but a big one. So, again, check.

  • The fragmenting of the two-party political system: The report predicted that “[v]ideotex might mean the end of the two-party system, as networks of voters band together to support a variety of slates — maybe hundreds of them.” As things turned out, the two-party system in the United States not only endures but has become increasingly entrenched and polarized. On the other hand, grass-roots movements that make use of information technology to organize, raise funds, and effect change have become a very real, and increasingly vibrant part of the political landscape. This one gets a partial check.

If We’d Only Known — I’m sure, at the time of its publication, that there were those who saw the National Science Foundation’s report as a waste of government money, but, if so, it was an uncannily accurate waste of money. Those who happened to read it, pay attention to it, and develop a long-term business or career strategy based upon its predictions, would have been in a good position to benefit as the changes it predicted largely came to pass.

Sadly, though, it said nothing about flying cars. Aren’t we supposed to have those now?

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