Monday, December 15, 2008

Where Do We Go From Here?

Something that always fascinates me is peoples’ inability – often extremely smart peoples’ inability – to have a true sense of context in history and an imagination outside of the time in which they live. There is a tendency to make absurd extrapolations of the future based on the recent past. Hence, some of my favorite “dumbest things ever said”:

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. patent office, 1899

“In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.” – Paul Ehrlich, Stanford biologist, 1970

“Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” – Robert Metcalfe, 3Com founder and inventor of Ethernet, 1995

Bets against a brighter future, bets against growth, bets against innovation, bets against human ingenuity – these have never turned out well. The reason is that they are almost always relative to the recent past, and forecast the future based on whatever happens to be the current fad, fear, or state of affairs.

But what about the person in the early 1800s, sitting in a pasture – in the dark, in a world without electric light – who looked up at the moon and said: “In 150 years, we will travel there.” What about Wilbur Wright, who looked at the birds and remarked “for some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man” – that we could fly across countries or even the world.

They would have been ridiculed beyond belief.

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This work by Nicholas E. Radice is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.