Predictions from the past.

The other night I found a slim volume dating from 1998, which I had quite forgotten about. Now, I’m always finding old books, but I mention this one because it was one of a series of books which attempted to predict what would happen over the next 10 years in a variety of fields, and given what I usually blog about, it seemed quite relevant. If you’re taking notes, it was entitled “Media” by Patrick Barwise and Kathy Hammond, and published by Phoenix Books, and dealt with what was likely to happen in the field of digital technology. (Full bibliographic details at

Well, the ten years have passed, and it was interesting to see what the authors had got right. Quite a lot as it turns out, although inevitably some of their forecasts do look a bit strange to our eyes. I’m not going to rehearse all that here. In the first place, they were the ones who stuck their necks out to make the predictions, and I’m writing with the luxury of hindsight so it would be churlish to point out what they got wrong, and in the second place if you care that much, you can always find the book through the library service, or one of the online booksellers and read it yourself. (It’s not available in e-book format, as far as I can see. There again, they did predict that books would still be around in 2010.)

What I did want to comment on though were some of the social implications. They did suggest that new technologies would increase communication between people, while implying that the quality of that communication may fall. I think they were right about that. Facebook and Twitter are no substitute for real human interaction. In a poignant coda to their section on work for example they describe “teleworking” as approaching the “grim type of life experienced by outworkers in the clothing trade (the PC taking on the role of sewing machine, with payment based on the number of enquiries handled). It could represent a backward shift in employee conditions: no office or canteen socialization, less chance of training, promotion or even “sick pay” (p42) Call centres anyone?

Secondly, although they don’t dwell on this they do identify the potential of digital technologies for increasing inequality. If you can’t access the technology, whether for economic, social or health reasons, and it’s the only way to get information, you are bound to be be disadvantaged. Barwise and Hammond thought you’d have to pay more to get your information in an alternative format if you fell into one of these categories. In practice, I suspect that even that might not be possible. In many cases alternatives do not exist. The problem is not the technology, but the value market capitalism places on human interaction. Not much, unless it can be monetized, it would seem.

It would be very interesting to see some of the other volumes in this series. Unfortunately the publisher’s web site doesn’t list them. I suppose they’re long out of print now.