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In 1966 Time Magazine imagined what the world might look like in the year 2000. Among other predictions it stated that: “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop because women like to get out of the house; like to handle merchandise".

This is clearly a bad prediction. Not just because the chauvinism of the article has gone out of fashion but because remote shopping, facilitated by the internet, has surged: global online retail sales recently topped $500bn, thrice the GDP of Peru, and both men and women spend in droves.

It can take quite a bit of digging to find better forecasts. But when it comes to digital media, particularly social media, there are some eerily accurate predictions to be found lurking among the the wilder imaginings.

This article solely focuses on the darker of those predictions. Technological advances have afforded some tremendous opportunities too. I work with the web, but quite a few of the more thought-provoking and prescient forecasts focus on the gloomier impacts of the imagined future.

Here are four of the ‘best’ that I’ve discovered, in chronological order:

1909: The Machine Stops

IMAGE-1-The-Machine-Stops-EM-Forster

Author: E.M Forster

Quick summary:

The story describes a world where life on the surface of the earth is no longer possible and each member of the human population lives in underground isolation in cocoon-like rooms where all needs are met by an omnipotent 'Machine'. Travel is permitted by airship but is unpopular and rarely necessary.

Communication is made via a video-conferencing and instant messaging component of The Machine called the speaking apparatus, which people use to conduct their only activity: the sharing of ideas and knowledge.

The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is a conformist: content with her life and fiercely loyal to the machine. Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel.

He persuades a reluctant Vashti to abandon their communication through the machine and endure the journey - and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction - to his room.

Predicts a dark side of:

Social Media: The rise of second hand knowledge & experience:

The machine’s technology engenders an apathy for direct learning and experience - towards a preference for sedentary enjoyment and learning through the machine.

To this gloomy and severe end, the book’s citizens no longer desire or enjoy direct experience - and much of the true meaning of past events has been eroded.

Familiar to:

Anyone who has guiltily (or drunkenly) enjoyed an entire evening searching through Facebook, or just taken some dubious facts from Wikipedia as gospel.

Extracts:

A lecturer delivers a sermon on ‘ideas’ through the machine:

Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element - direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine - the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought Lafcadio Hearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution.

An awkward moment occurs when Vashti travels to see her son Kuno by airship:

The attendant of the air-ship, perhaps owing to her exceptional duties, had grown a little out of the common. She had often to address passengers with direct speech, and this had given her a certain roughness and originality of manner. When Vashti swerved away from the sunbeams with a cry, she behaved barbarically — she put out her hand to steady her. “How dare you!” exclaimed the passenger. “You forget yourself!”

Spooky modern-day example:

Pew Research Centre study: finds teachers now using Wikipedia as often as students are.

Film Version?

First made in 1962. An acclaimed short film of the book was made also in 2009 by The Freise Brothers.

1924: WE

IMAGE-2-Yevgeny-Zamyatin-we

Author: Yevgeny Zamyatin

Quick summary:

We is the journal of ‘D-503’ - the book’s central character - who lives in the One State: an urban nation of ‘mathematically infallible happiness’ that’s constructed almost entirely of glass so the secret police can supervise the public more easily.

Life is organized to promote maximum productive efficiency through the regimentation and control of personal liberty, privacy and nature. People march in step with each other and wear identical clothing.

There is no way of referring to people save by their given numbers. Males have odd numbers prefixed by consonants; females have even numbers prefixed by vowels. Over the course of D503’s journal, he suddenly finds himself caught and conflicted in the unthinkable and illegal activities of love and rebellion.

Predicts a dark side of:

SEO: uniformity vs expression:

The book’s technological descriptions are fairly vague but the narrative’s notable due to the unsettling presence of the ‘meta keywords’ that summarise and simplify every diary entry for the journal’s imagined readers.

IMAGE-3-SEO-Keywords-WE-Zamyatin

The inclusion of said keywords is part of the book’s overall skepticism towards uniformity and its leveling-down of diversity. It’s arguable that at least old-skool SEO made websites and content similarly generic.

Fittingly though, such spammy days are hopefully fading into the past due to algorithmic developments like Hummingbird, Panda and Penguin.

Familiar to:

Any journalist or copywriter presented with an intimidating list of ‘focus keywords’.

Extracts:

Critical journal entry 11’s meta keywords read...


IMAGE-4-No-SEO-Keywords-WE-Zamyatin

One of D-503's journal thoughts from the same entry:

All of life in its complexity and beauty is forever minted in the gold of words.

Spooky modern-day example:

We’ve all seen these blighters; some still use them:

IMAGE-5-meta-keyword-tag-SEO

Film Version?

There are some amateur versions on YouTube that I can’t confidently recommend or embed.

But someone has seemingly gone to a huge amount of effort impressively recreating scenes in Minecraft.

1953: Fahrenheit 451

IMAGE-6-Ray-Bradbury-Fahrenheit-451

Author: Ray Bradbury

Quick summary:

Continuing the dystopian theme, but with a massively more popular book; Fahrenheit 451 presents a near-future American society where the reading of books is criminalised - and literary contraband is burned by firemen to suppress the rise of dangerous, dissenting ideas.

At the same time, technology has evolved to stupefy - by providing easy in-home access to addictive memes, videos, and updates on massive interactive screens. Like The Machine Stops’ screens, Fahrenheit 451‘s also allow mass communication with others.

Montag, a fireman and the book’s main character, becomes increasingly fascinated by the literature he’s supposed to burn until the temptation becomes too much and he is criminally pursued by the forces he once fought for.

Predicts a dark side of:

Memes & information (overload):

The story’s key psychological points are neatly personified by Montag’s wife, Mildred, who is permanently glued to the base broadcasts on their gigantic screens in their apartment.

Mildred’s addiction to simplistic entertainment has resulted in a decline in her ability (or desire) to think deeply, focus in-depth, or concentrate on one thing for a long period of time - as well as an accompanying anti-intellectualism. The character’s cognitive malaise has been both echoed and refuted by at least a few recent real-life studies.

Familiar to:

Anyone wrestling with concentration, or just suffering from inappropriate Internet withdrawal on a short break in Budapest.

Extracts:

Mildred and friends are engrossed by a video clip on one of the home’s gigantic screens:

On one wall a woman smiled and drank orange juice simultaneously... In the other walls an X-ray of the same woman revealed the contracting journey of the refreshing beverage on its way to her delightful stomach! Abruptly the room took off on a rocket flight into the clouds, it plunged into a lime-green sea where blue fish ate red and yellow fish. A minute later, Three White Cartoon Clowns chopped off each other's limbs to the accompaniment of immense incoming tides of laughter... "Isn't this show wonderful?" cried Mildred. "Wonderful!"”

Montag dwells on his relationship:

Well, wasn't there a wall between him and Mildred, when you came down to it? Literally not just one, wall but, so far, three! And expensive, too! And the uncles, the aunts, the cousins, the nieces, the nephews, that lived in those walls, the gibbering pack of tree-apes that said nothing, nothing, nothing and said it loud, loud, loud.

The installation of a fourth screen is anticipated:

It’ll be even more fun when we can afford to have the fourth wall installed.

Spooky modern-day example:

University of Swansea study: finds internet addicts can suffer withdrawal symptoms similar to drug withdrawal

Some would argue that the staccato shortening and simplifying of content through apps like Vine parallels the book’s themes too.

Film version?

Made in 1966 but Mel Gibson has peculiarly bought the movie rights to make an update.

1977: Vogue (J.G Ballard Essay)

IMAGE-7-Vogue-1977-JG-Ballard

Author: J.G Ballard

Quick Summary:

J.G. Ballard writes an essay of his future predictions for a 1977 edition of Vogue magazine.

Predicts a dark side of:

Social networking:

Ballard's portrayal of the personally-gratifying side to the social experience is somehow spot-on. The quote below says far more than I can.

Familiar to:

Anyone who’s taken one too many selfies.

Extracts:

We will sit back to scan the rushes, selected by a computer trained to pick out only our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue, our most affecting expressions, filmed through the kindest filters, and then stitch these together into a heightened re-enactment of the day.

See longer section below:

IMAGE-8-JG-Ballard-Predicts-Social-Media

Spooky modern-day example:

University of Michigan study: finds correlation between vanity and social media use.

Film Version?

N.A

Wider of the mark:

  • “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop – because women like to get out of the house; like to handle merchandise." Time Magazine | 1966. // This one deserves a special second mention.
  • “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse” Robert Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet | Infoworld Magazine | 1995
  • “Using Twitter for literate communication is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite the Lliad” Bruce Sterling | The New York Times | 2007

Other quotes:

  • "When [Earthlings] built computers to do some thinking for them, they designed them not so much for wisdom as for friendliness. So they were doomed." Kurt Vonnegut | Breakfast of Champions | 1973

And probably the most poignant...

  • “Don’t send an email, let me touch your face” Eoighan Quigg (pictured below) - UK X Factor Finalist | Debut Single ‘28,000 Friends’  | 2009

IMAGE-9-Eoghan-Quigg

Touching.

But have I missed anything interesting? Any other interesting reads or examples?

Michael Wilkins

Published 8 November, 2013 by Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins is a freelance Online Consultant and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can contact him on LinkedIn.

9 more posts from this author

Comments (6)

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Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

“Remote shopping ... will flop because women like to get out of the house; like to handle merchandise". - first hand experience from my wife: online shopping just means more multi-tasking!!

Great article, thanks. I love seeing historical projections into modern time and equally to think that in 20, 50, 100 years time they'll be mocking us right back!

about 3 years ago

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iain martin

We're not there yet, but I have a strong feeling the gadgets and usage in 'Visit from the Goon Squad' are not far off.

about 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

Depesh, very glad you enjoyed. Thanks for the comment.

Iain, that title's on my list - I've heard good things about it.

about 3 years ago

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Matt Lovell, Head of Group Analytics & Digital Insight at Thomas Cook Group AirlinesEnterprise

Great Article!

I would definitely recommend reading 'Being Digital' by Nicolas Negroponte (if you can find a copy as it's out of print) as despite being published in 1995, he comes up with some great predictions about how humanity will become digitalised (from newspapers to entertainment and even sex) with the suggestion that the book is made of "unwieldy atoms" that will probably be replaced by a digital copy by the time anyone reads the book! Quite funny when you can now buy it on many ereaders!

He is convinced that HD television would be a waste of broadcasting power and never truly take off buy hey - you can't get everything right!

Also surely no article about what is written or said in terms of prophecies is the 'If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we'd all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.' comment frequently attributed back to former CEO of Nintendo, Kristian Wilson...

about 3 years ago

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Matt Lovell, Head of Group Analytics & Digital Insight at Thomas Cook Group AirlinesEnterprise

This is also worth a watch on the same line... not bad for 1984!

http://www.ted.com/talks/nicholas_negroponte_in_1984_makes_5_predictions.html

about 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

Cheers for the contribution and tips Matt. I'll take a look - interested to see the TED presentation in particular.
On 1984, I even considered including the book of the same name but it's not quite as prescient as it's oft-cited to be - even though it's an absolutely cracking read.

about 3 years ago

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