“After two decades online, I’m perplexed,” American astronomer Clifford Stoll admitted in an article penned for Newsweek back in 1995. “It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet,” he explained, adding that he’d “met great people and even caught a hacker or two”. “But,” he conceded, “I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community.”
“Visionaries,“ Stoll observed cynically, “see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms.” Some, he said, are even prophesying a future for “electronic town meetings and virtual communities.” All a bunch of baloney, in Stoll’s words. It will never catch on.
As we come to terms with what’s being described as The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a global all-consuming shift, shaped by dramatic and constant technological innovation, it would be all too easy to dismiss Stoll’s epically false prediction as a sign of simple stupidity.
But a flick through the history books informs us that even the greatest thinkers are fallible and can misstep in this way. Albert Einstein in 1932 observed that there’s not “the slightest indication” that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. A few years later IBM chairman Thomas Watson said that the world market would be able to accommodate “maybe five computers”.
The automobile and television were snubbed as fads, just as categorically as The Beatles were. And today – if the cliche is to believed – history might indeed be repeating itself, as another big hitter seems to be nonchalantly dismissing the digital world as a cute, nice-to-have gimmick: UK Plc.