Edited by Peter J. Denning
Let’s be honest: Reading this book is the nerd equivalent of watching Nascar. You do it to watch people crash and burn. That said, many of the contributors’ natural sense of self-preservation make it much less interesting than it should be.
This is a book of predictions about what The Next 50 Years of Computing will look like. It was written about 20 years ago, in 1997, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association of Computing Machinery. (And what an odd name for an association that is, as if it were made of computing machines!)
It’s divided into three parts: The Coming Revolution, Computers and Human Identity, and Business and Innovation. Most of the hilarity is up front, as therein are given the most concrete predictions. Even in 1997, this would’ve been a difficult book to read from cover-to-cover, but today it borders on painful. There’s no real connection between things, and the essays can have wildly different scopes and levels of detail, as well as focus (or lack thereof).
They are short essays. However, this isn’t as much of an advantage as it should be.
Observations made can be grouped into:
1. Obvious, due to being history lessons or referring to things going on in the ’90s.
2. Vague, being an attempt to predict the future in a highly general way.
3. Insightful, for 1997.
4. Specific, in which case they are invariably wrong. (Any of 1-3 may be wrong, but “specific” is always wrong.)
Of all of these, #4 is the only one with interest today (beyond the historical). #3 had interest 20 years ago, maybe, if the insight was in a field you knew and could act in. But there’s not a lot of #3, honestly.
There’s not a lot of #4, especially outside of the first section, but these mostly consist of the pundit at the time saying, “I think this aspect of technology [as exemplified by this product] will bloom in the future”.
Sometimes it’s not that bad, like when one of the writers comments on IBM InfoMarket, you can squint and say, “OK, that never even got off the ground, but Amazon, iTunes and Steam are sort of what you’re talking about.” But then you read about “Orbis” and “Starwave” or even MSNBC and realize that the whole “technologists move into media creation” thing didn’t shake out at all like the ’90s expected it to.
And POTS. POTS hasn’t been replaced but it fell in importance real fast. Or how about the revolutionary power of Microsoft Talisman, which was probably dead by the time the book was published? Also, there’s the inevitable discussion of the end of Moore’s “Law” some time in 2010 when an obvious slowdown had occurred in the late ’90s. This is a debatable point, on the other side of which we could point to Intel’s announcement that things have slowed since about 2012, but I felt like in some ways it typified the book’s failure to predict the present, much less the future.
On the other hand, we can say that the prediction of the Internet of Things (IoT), while not called that, and while predicted grossly smaller than imagined (a billion Internet connections by 2047! We’re well past that now!), that’s fairly insightful. Most of the interesting aspects of that—Monitoring All The Things!—have yet to be borne out, but probably will be.
But, for a book of predictions, you give the guys points for being game enough to make bold enough statements that can be contradicted. The second section, oriented toward AI, is occasionally abominable. Sherry Turkle’s essay on how the younger generation will be with computers is rife with conversations between an adult who doesn’t understand technology and a child who doesn’t understand technology but isn’t phased by that. (In fairness, I remember thinking that those kids would grow up to be different, too, in how they dealt with computers—but they really haven’t.)
I read David Gerlenter’s piece “The Logic of Dreams” thinking he was nuts, but by the end I could see he was on to something. In contrast, “Sharing Our Planet” was pretty sensible throughout but ends with a neo-Malthusian rant.
The last essay on the book is a reflection on the University system, and how upheaval (in the form of virtual classes) is coming. It’s pretty good, although it gives only a nod to those new concerns of universities like affirmative action. I think we can safely say that the major output of universities these days is Social Justice Warriors. (Wanna disagree? Name any other kind of university activity that gets anywhere near the attention.)
More than a few shoutouts to “Keep those federal research dollars coming!” with no awareness of how those dollars will be diverted toward “feminist glaciology”. Data and innovation no longer matter: All that matters is who gets the credit. (Science!)
Oh, and the most tragic essay of all is the “Information Warfare” piece. This essay, written as the dot-com boom was flowering, is a sober reflection upon all the steps governments, corporations and individuals are going to have to take to protect their privacy in the coming years. It’s almost unthinkable to the author that these issues won’t be resolved before things get out of hand. After Assange, Snowden, and the Clinton semi-private email server, and after rampant, persistent leaks at the IRS, healthcare.gov and straight-up pwnage of Sony, netizens upload their personal information with a casualness that I think must bring Larry Druffel to tears.
I’m sure these are all smart guys with lots of awards and book titles to their names. The real problem is that it’s all so dated, and the fact that they knew this would be a document for the ages makes the authors cagey about being dated. It would’ve been more interesting if they had gone all in for the buggy whip, or the bicycle-propelled-biplane or whatever. It’s really, really hard to recommend this.
Maybe the first thing they should’ve predicted is the end of books like this.