Saturday, July 02, 2011

NYT's 1982 article on how teletext would transform America

(with thanks to Joseph P for the cite).

There were familiar computing names in the 1980s - Apple, IBM and so on. There were also many now lost, such as Atari and Commodore PCs. There were networks and email and decades old sophisticated collaboration technologies now almost lost to memory.

Against that background the Institute for the Future tried to predict the IT landscape of 1998. They were looking 16 years ahead.

You can see how well they did. For reasons I'll explain, the italicized text are word substitutions. Emphases mine ...


WASHINGTON, June 13— A report ... made public today speculates that by the end of this century electronic information technology will have transformed American home, business, manufacturing, school, family and political life.

The report suggests that one-way and two-way home information systems ... 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.

It conjured a vision, at once appealing and threatening, of a style of life defined and controlled by network terminals throughout the house.

As a consequence, the report envisioned this kind of American home by the year 1998: ''Family life is not limited to meals, weekend outings, and once a-year vacations. Instead of being the glue that holds things together so that family members can do all those other things they're expected to do - like work, school, and community gatherings -the family is the unit that does those other things, and the home is the place where they get done. Like the term 'cottage industry,' this view might seem to reflect a previous era when family trades were passed down from generation to generation, and children apprenticed to their parents. In the 'electronic cottage,' however, one electronic 'tool kit' can support many information production trades.''...

... The report warned that the new technology would raise difficult issues of privacy and control that will have to be addressed soon to ''maximize its benefits and minimize its threats to society.''

The study ... was an attempt at the risky business of ''technology assessment,'' peering into the future of an electronic world.

The study focused on the emerging videotex industry, formed by the marriage of two older technologies, communications and computing. It estimated that 40 percent of American households will have internet service by the end of the century. By comparison, it took television 16 years to penetrate 90 percent of households from the time commercial service was begun.

The ''key driving force'' controlling the speed of computer communications penetration, the report said, is the extent to which advertisers can be persuaded to use it, reducing the cost of the service to subscribers.

''Networked systems create opportunities for individuals to exercise much greater choice over the information available to them,'' the researchers wrote. ''Individuals may be able to use network systems to create their own newspapers, design their own curricula, compile their own consumer guides.

''On the other hand, because of the complexity and sophistication of these systems, they create new dangers of manipulation or social engineering, either for political or economic gain. Similarly, at the same time that these systems will bring a greatly increased flow of information and services into the home, they will also carry a stream of information out of the home about the preferences and behavior of its occupants.'' Social Side Effects

The report stressed what it called ''transformative effects'' of the new technology, the largely unintended and unanticipated social side effects. ''Television, for example, was developed to provide entertainment for mass audiences but the extent of its social and psychological side effects on children and adults was never planned for,'' the report said. ''The mass-produced automobile has impacted on city design, allocation of recreation time, environmental policy, and the design of hospital emergency room facilities.''

Such effects, it added, were likely to become apparent in home and family life, in the consumer marketplace, in the business office and in politics.

Widespread penetration of the technology, it said, would mean, among other things, these developments:

- The home will double as a place of employment, with men and women conducting much of their work at the computer terminal. This will affect both the architecture and location of the home. It will also blur the distinction between places of residence and places of business, with uncertain effects on zoning, travel patterns and neighborhoods.

- 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.

- A new profession of information ''brokers'' and ''managers'' will emerge, serving as ''gatekeepers,'' monitoring politicians and corporations and selectively releasing information to interested parties.

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

... The blurring of lines between home and work, the report stated, will raise difficult issues, such as working hours. The new technology, it suggested, may force the development of a new kind of business leader. ''Managing the complicated communication in networks between office and home may require very different styles than current managers exhibit,'' the report concluded.

The study also predicted a much greater diversity in the American political power structure. ''Electronic networks 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.

Now read this article on using software bots (not robots, contrary to the title) to shape and control social networks and opinions and two recent posts of mine on the state of blogging.

So, did the Institute for the Future get it right - or not?

I would say they did quite well, though they are more right about 2011 than about 1998. I didn't think so at first, because they used words like "videotext" and "teletext". They sound silly because we still do very little with telepresence or videoconferencing -- contrary to the expectations of the last seventy years.

On careful reading though, it was clear what they called "teletext and videotext" was approximately "email and rich media communications". So I substituted the words "computer", "internet" and "networked systems" where appropriate. Otherwise I just bolded a few key phrases.

Rereading it now they got quite a bit right. They weren't even that far off on home penetration.  They also got quite a bit wrong. The impact on politics seems to have contributed to polarization rather than diversity. Even now few elders use computer systems to interact with grandchildren, and none did in 1998.

So, overall, they maybe 65% right, but about 10 years premature (on a 16 year timeline!). That's now awful for predicting the near future, but they'd do even better to follow Charle's Stross prediction rules ...

The near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.

(Oh, and we're living in 2001's near future, just like 2001 was the near future of 1991. It's a recursive function, in other words.)

However, sometimes bits of the present go away. Ask yourself when you last used a slide rule — or a pocket calculator, as opposed to the calculator app on your phone or laptop, let alone trig tables. That's a technological example. Cultural aspects die off over time, as well. And I'm currently pondering what it is that people aren't afraid of any more. Like witchcraft, or imminent thermonuclear annihilation....


Kaleberg said...

Teletext was basically the HTTP protocol. The prototypes showed text on a television set and used the vertical retrace time to transmit information. (Vertical retrace time anyone?) You could send requests for data such as weather, stock prices, schedules, menus and the like and it would give you a screen full of text in response. You could fill in a form and send email, book a flight, order a pizza and so on. Visually, it was extremely limited, but it was basically a proposal for the modern internet.

JGF said...

Funny, just reminded me of TeleScript, a late 80s proposal for distributed code (see 2010 AJAX, Javascript) that was inspired in part by PostScript.

I recall green screen apps from tyhe 80s/90s built like that, it explains now why they used the word "teletext". I had forgotten that word once had a formal technical meaning.

Thanks for the connection!