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One Last Look at 2014: Visions of the Future, From the Past

12.15.2014
An early version of Facebook
On February 4, 2004, syntactically-challenged Thefacebook officially launched on www.thefacebook.com – with membership restricted solely to Harvard students. While any undergrad English major could have predicted a slight name revision in its future, few could have predicted Facebook’s ubiquitous permeance 10 years later.

As 2014 draws to a close though, it turns out that most 2004 predictions about what business, life, and society would be like in 2014 were reasonably accurate – though predictions from 1994 and 1964 fell a little further from the mark.  

Via the New York Times, in 1964, noted scientist, technologist, and science fiction author Isaac Asimov predicted what the economic and social world of 2014 – 50 years hence – would look like:

“The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being.” A fairly grounded prediction, that went on to range from fantastically Jetsons-esque: 

“Compressed air tubes will carry goods and materials” with “switching devices that will place specific shipments in specific destinations”

To mundanely accurate:

“Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare ‘automeals,’ heating water and converting it to coffee, toasting bread…and so on.”

1964 telecommunications predictions similarly ran the gamut – accurately surmising Skype, iPad, and Kindle: 

“Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen [will] be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”

While stretching earthly boundaries a bit too far:

“Synchronous satellites, hovering in space, will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth…for that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies.” 

And of course, the iconic flying car of the future makes an appearance:

“Jets of compressed air will lift land vehicles off the highways.... Bridges will be of less importance, since cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets....”

Despite the lofty visions of flying cars and moon colonies, Asimov had an unexpectedly realistic take on artificial intelligence – “robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.” A modest prediction from the author of I, Robot.

Guardian newspaper scoffed that in the future “we [will] be watching hundreds of implausibly specialized TV channels, such as the  [Soccer] Channel and the Gardening Channel” – absurd! And, unbelievably, accurately that then-Terminator 2 star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, would one day be the Governor of California.

AT&T ran a series of “futurist” TV ads in 1994, depicting that strange and distant world (asking “Have you ever...” and proclaiming at the end “You will!”), getting some right:

Narrator: “Have you ever…crossed the country, without stopping for directions?” with visuals of a mostly recognizable, dashboard-mounted GPS.

And some very wrong:

Narrator: “Have you ever…sent someone a fax, from the beach?”  with visuals of a laughingly absurd, portable fax machine.



Jumping ten years ahead to 2004, the Pew Research Center got many of its predictions mainly right, but some wrong by degrees:
 

“By 2014, all media, including audio, video, print and voice, will stream in and out of the home or office via the Internet. Computers that coordinate and control video games, audio and video will become the centerpiece of the living room and will link to networked devices around the household, replacing the television's central place in the home.”

Close – but not quite to that maximal level. And in terms of the access to broadband speeds that enable those devices, Pew further predicted in 2004:
 

“By 2014, 90 percent of all Americans will go online from home via high-speed networks that are dramatically faster than today’s high-speed networks.”

Again, they came close – in 2013 (the latest data from their research), that number was actually 70 percent. That’s up dramatically from the 34 percent that had access in 2004, but not quite at the 90 percent trajectory yet. 

So in all, present day 2014 stacks up pretty well to “imagined” 2014. Let’s hope that trend continues for 2015 and beyond – and just to keep tradition going, we might as well predict the arrival of the flying car for 2064. 

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