Can Technology be Predicted?

Is technology predictable?

cartoon of predictions

If predicting future technology is a mess, how do we say anything useful about it?

First divide it into smaller issues, different kinds of predictions:

inventor, utopian writer
fundamentally new devices
long term
engineers, entrepreneurs
improvements on existing technology
less than 10 years
designers, marketers
new models
less than 3 years
Nye p. 34

Predictions are stories even if they aren't published as science fiction stories (another example of seeing technology as narrative to understand how we relate to technology)
weather forecasting
The problem of weather forecasting: it is easy to predict that a trend will continue, harder to predict new directions

Bad predictions cost us in wasted investment and careers.  If we look at the pattern of bad predictions we can perhaps see how to do better.  (source:  Herb Brody, "Great Expectations: Why Technological Predictions Go Awry" Albert H. Teich, Technology and the Future, sixth edition (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993).)
Futurist Architecture
Other predictions:

computer timeline
In 1945 it would have been very hard to predict what the computer would become, but now we can see trends (even if we don't know what new technology will enable that trend to continue): Consider how each of these trends impacts society.  Is it a continuous process, or are there breakpoints where the impact changes?

Integration of telephone, television and internet is one of those things that has been predicted as just around the corner for a long time.

What might computers do for us in the future?  Would you want to:

Some feasible technologies don't catch on:
picture phone at 1964 World's Fair
family using a picture phone
  • in the 1960s and 1970s AT&T (which then had a telephone monopoly in the U.S.) thought that picture telephones would be the next big thing. 
    • Consumers weren't interested because it was an extra cost in a system where you paid for each phone call individually and because they feared loss of privacy
    • a 2001 AT&T analysis of what went wrong concluded that people didn't want to be seen on the phone
    • Skype was introduced in 2003, used computers people already had
  • the supersonic transport (commercial airplanes going faster than the speed of sound) hasn't been successful--the U.S. decided not to build on and the French-English Concorde is now out of use
Even successful major innovations can be very slow to catch on--Nye gives as examples the telegraph, telephone, phonograph and personal computer
google glass
The failure of Google Glass:
  • in 2013 Google released a system to put a computer in front of your eye at all times, but in Jan 2015 they stopped selling the product
  • a lot of negative publicity
  • do you want more information about everything you see?
  • privacy concerns as they enabled users to film whatever they were looking at
  • Steve Jobs: "People don't know what they want until you show it to them." (source)  But sometimes they don't need it even then.
  • it caught negative cultural connotations: "glasshole"
  • safety and health concerns
  • will we see a new version soon?

The best technology doesn't always win--the classic example of this is Betamax
  • when VCRs were first introduced there were two competing tape formats, Betamax and VHS
  • Betamax is generally considered to have been technologically superior, though some disagree
  • Sony didn't license its Betamax system to other manufacturers
  • as a result VHS won out and Betamax disappeared
"Far from being deterministic, technologies are unpredictable."

But it is clear that sometimes something very new comes along and takes us in a different direction

If we look at why future technology is hard to predict, what can that tell us about technology?
  • two kinds of change--following a trend or something radically new
  • some radically new technologies come from scientific discoveries, for example the atomic bomb
  • an inventor with a new idea about what people might want, for example Eastman and the Kodak camera for ordinary people
  • sometimes technologies aren't accepted
  • sometimes the "best" technology doesn't win

This page written and copyright Pamela E. Mack
HIST 1220