Bold predictions about the Internet from 1982

April 26, 2013

TIM WIMBORNE/REUTERS

Here's a fun New York Times article from 1982 making some uncannily accurate predictions about the future of information technology (via @modeledbehavior):

The report suggests that one-way and two-way home information systems, called teletext and videotex, will penetrate deeply into daily life, with an effect on society as profound as those of the automobile and commercial television earlier in this century.

We don't call it "videotex," but this sounds about right. The National Science Foundation report in question also made some surprisingly solid predictions about the Internet's broader societal and economic impact:

-- Individuals may be able to use videotex systems to create their own newspapers, design their own curricula, compile their own consumer guides.

-- Home-based shopping will permit consumers to control manufacturing directly, ordering exactly what they need for ''production on demand.''

-- There will be a shift away from conventional workplace and school socialization. Friends, peer groups and alliances will be determined electronically, creating classes of people based on interests and skills rather than age and social class.

-- The blurring of lines between home and work, the report stated, will raise difficult issues, such as working hours.

Of course, it also made some odd forecasts that are hard to assess now:

-- The "extended family" might be recreated if the elderly can support themselves through electronic homework, making them more desirable to have around.

It also made some predictions that haven't panned out at all. So far, at least, the Internet hasn't upended the logic of the two-party system — instead, it arguably helped strengthen some major-party candidates and led to interesting power struggles within the parties:

The study also predicted a much greater diversity in the American political power structure. ''Videotex 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,'' it said.

Not a bad job by the NSF overall. And those sorts of predictions from the past are always worth keeping in mind when thinking about current discussions about the future of technology.

Case in point: Recently, Northwestern economist Robert Gordon has been arguing that the digital revolution hasn't been nearly as revolutionary as, say, the advent of electrification or automobiles. That provoked a response from Matt Yglesias, who argued that the Internet has already upended a variety of smaller sectors — like journalism and retail. If digital technology could ever upend health care, education, or housing, that could be truly transformative. We just haven't seen it yet. (Arguably, digital technologies are already upending the transportation sector and enabling young people to drive less.)

Who's right? Well, it's difficult to say. But looking back at those past NSF predictions, it's worth noting that experts often underestimated the rate of change — the report predicted that just 40 percent of Americans would have access to "two-way videotex service" by 2000 — and also underestimated how resilient existing institutions could be in the face of technological pressures, such as major political parties or work offices.

Further reading: Have we reached the end of economic growth?

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Dylan Matthews · April 26, 2013