Predicting the Internet

In 1993, Larry Landwehr wrote the following about the impact the Internet would have on society. Remember, this is 1993:

“It’s like trying to predict back in 1910 the impact of the automobile on society – the highway system, gasoline refineries, motels instead of hotels, new dating patterns, increased social mobility, commuting to work, the importance of the rubber industry, smog, drive-thru restaurants, mechanized warfare, and on and on. The net will bring more than quantitative changes, it will bring “qualitative” changes. Things that were impossible will now become inevitable.”

Landwehr is right. Making those predictions in 1910 would have been hard, but not impossible. I wrote about this in my book, “Infinite Progress: How Technology and the Internet Will End Ignorance, Disease, Hunger, Poverty, and War” :

I think there is a third reliable way to predict the future. It rejects both the slavish following of the straight line no matter where it leads and rejects the purely speculative approach that ignores the facts and trends evident today.

This third way is based on the principle that it is possible to see the future by accepting discontinuity, but not unpredictability.

Imagine if someone had come to you on January 1, 1991 and said, “Before the end of the year, the Soviet Union will vote itself into non-existence and peacefully break into fifteen republics. The defining political struggle of the world for nearly half a century will end without a shot fired and Russia itself will reject Communism as a failed system.”

You would have thought this was crazy. So would have I. So would have everyone. No one saw that coming because, frankly, no one could conceive of it happening. But, wait! A few people did see it coming. In 1970, Andrei Amalrik, a Russian writer and dissident, wrote an essay entitled “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” in which he concluded of the USSR that “…the logical result will be its death, which will be followed by anarchy.” He was off by just seven years.

History is full of sudden radical breaks with the past that only seem to have come out of nowhere but were in fact predictable.

What if you were a pilot who had met the Wright brothers as a boy and someone had come to you in 1944, when every plane you had ever seen had a propeller, and said, “In twenty-five years, we will walk on the moon.” You would have said that was crazy. And yet, that happened. As impossible as it must have seemed at the time, a few people predicted the moon landing, based on the non-linear increases in aircraft speed already being seen, along with an understanding of the potential output of the new technology of jet engines.

Discontinuity happens, but it is not unpredictable. So, how does one go about looking for discontinuity in a sea of predictable linear change? Very humbly, for starters. If you don’t enter the process already humble, the process will make sure you leave humbled. Having said that, I think looking for discontinuity is pretty straightforward and involves neither opium nor a Ouija board.

That is what this book is about: seeing discontinuity coming. It is about detecting these sudden breaks with the past before they happen. And here we are, living at a peculiar time, with many such discontinuous breaks about to happen. Their aggregate effect will forever change life on this planet and usher in a new golden age for humanity.

Expand image.