A recent boost in Facebook shares has vaulted Mark Zuckerberg, for now, past Warren Buffet to become the third-richest person in the world. One and two on the Bloomberg list are Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

This is the first time that the top three are all technology entrepreneurs. Bloomberg tracks the world’s 500 richest people, and tech-made fortunes total about 20% of their $5 trillion-plus in wealth.

Zuckerberg, Bezos and Gates, and their companies, have revolutionized how people interact. How might technology disrupt our relationships – with each other, and with commerce – in the years ahead?

It’s usually difficult to predict the future. I was reminded of this while reading an old issue of Time magazine that I just picked up at a yard sale. It was dated Feb. 20, 1978, 40 years ago, with a 15-page special section on the computer society.

This was probably one of the first times a mass consumer magazine wrote about the topic in such detail. The cover was an illustration of people whose heads were replaced by a monitor, digital watch, calculator, motherboard and computer key. In the background is C-3PO from Star Wars, holding up, for some reason, a peace sign.

Some of what Time forecast was prescient. The magazine imagined a time, years away, when computers would set our thermostat; turn on a screen (they thought it would be the TV) with a selective rundown of the latest worldwide events; start our car; give us comparative prices at local merchants; allow us to order supplies for a dinner party (following consultations with the butcher, baker and grocer on “the tube”); and be more common in schools than even slide projectors.

We’d even, they said, have “pencil-size portable phones” for the car.

The section also offered some notes of caution. Like the possibility that governments could possess an interconnected computer system that would act as a dictatorial, Orwellian big brother. Or the chance of a weapons disaster due to a computer breakdown (or, more likely, human error in programming).

Another worry expressed in the pages: “A democratization of computers, making them as common as television sets are today, may eventually cause human intellectual powers to atrophy.” Although the magazine did argue, on the other hand, that the typewriter hadn’t ruined our ability to write longhand. (As many would ask today, what’s a typewriter? What’s longhand?)

What did Time miss?

Time was correct that the “miracle chip”, as it called it, would transform society. What it missed, or maybe underestimated, was the scale of the Internet. That’s a big one.

And while the computer has obviously taken over, speeded up or assisted greatly with many mundane tasks, it has not led, as the magazine thought it would, to a life of leisure and simplicity.

It’s one thing to consider general trends, quite another to land on specific impacts.

At the time the Feb. 1978 issue of Time appeared, Gates was 22, running his three-year-old company in Albuquerque. Bezos, who coincidentally was born in Albuquerque, was a science whiz who had just turned 14. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, had yet to be born; his parents only married a year later, in 1979. Back then, envisioning the mark they’d each make would have been impossible.

If we could see the future, it would have been smart to take advantage of some advertised offers elsewhere in the pages of that Time issue. Like a three-bedroom condo in downtown Toronto for $115,000. Or $84,000 for a two-bedroom. I’ll take half a dozen please.

Can we really predict the future of computers? A surer bet is that computers themselves are able to predict the future.

With machine learning, all sorts of technologies already anticipate our needs, acting based on our interests and patterns. Those powers are expanding.

MIT researchers had a computer examine a photo and create a short video clip depicting the immediate future of what was in that image. Google’s DeepMind division gave AI algorithms an “imagination”, so they can predict how a situation might unfold.

And Amazon has filed a patent for “anticipatory shipping”. It could result in you getting a delivery at your door before you even ordered the item, just based on your profile. Creepy or cool?

Are we still using dumbbells?

Humans are not machines, even if we create them. We have our own flaws and limitations when it comes to seeing the future.

So where is technology taking communication and other human networks next?

What the Time of 1978 got right was understanding that we can rarely foresee the full ramifications of revolutions.

“Extraordinary as today’s computers are, they will probably seem like dumbbells compared with those on the horizon,” read one essay. Another piece in the section suggested that at least 25,000 applications of the computer await discovery, and that asking what they are is like asking to identify the applications of electricity.

That’s still useful to remember when we wonder what’s around the corner, let alone how technology will affect our lives and work in decades to come.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

July 11, 2018

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