The Problem with Looking Back at People Looking Forward

by Colin Berkshire

Colin here.

There has been an articles circulating around about how Arthur C. Clark really foresaw the future in 1976.

A Huffington Post writer expressed it thusly:

Yet, Clarke, with total confidence, was somehow able to accurately predict the rise of such technological advances like the iPhone, Skype and Google.

The implication of the article was that this vision was unique, and he was prescient about the future in a miraculous sort of way.

To a young reader you may think that today’s future was unforeseeable forty years ago. It even helps our egos to think we have done magic by creating the unforeseeable.

The the vision expressed by Arthur C Clark was a widely held one at the time. Everybody tasked with forward thinking foresaw these generalities about the future. We got the specifics wrong, but the generalities were known and widely discussed.

We knew there would be a vast peer-to-peer network and by the 1970s there were several viable candidates such as Tymnet and CompuServe. We knew there would be forums (already in widespread use) and publicly available documents and search engines and email. By 1977 I was already getting a personalized newspaper with articles of interest to me using keywords from a service that scanned the API and UPI newswires and UseNet. PicturePhones were fully developed by 1962, although they weren’t economically viable. The future that is today has been a vision for forty or more years, its not a surprise that we are here.

UNIX existed in the 1970s and was widely deployed for billing systems and phone systems (including the #3ESS.) Email actually pre-dates the Wikipedia account of its invention. Email was in full service in the late 1960s on the #1ESS-ADF, a number of years before the ARPANET had anything. (Proof: Look at Bell System Technical Journal BSTJ v49 issue 10 page 2733~3003.)

Its very easy to create a fanciful story with Revisionist history, where you omit almost-forgotten facts to craft a story of heroism. I suppose it is human nature to do this. Just look at the stories of World War II that play up the Holocaust (6~9 million killed) while largely sidelining Russia’s 20-million losses or, China’s 30-million losses during the same war (source). The Nazis were “nice” people compared to the Japanese.

Arthur C Clark was a visionary and he had a clear vision of the future. He invented many things, including the geostationary satellite. But have perspective: Bell Laboratories invented the geostationary satellite at the exact same time, independently. Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone despite Elisha Gray having a prior working model and Mr. Ericsson having one years before. Our history has been revised to neatly credit Bell and that’s the end of the story.

The future can be foreseen. It is not magical or elusive. It is very much like driving down a road. You look out perhaps 250~300 feet and can see a bit of the road ahead, and the steering 50-feet in the front of the car takes care of itself. If the road heads “west” you know you will go west, although the specific mountain-pass you use may not be initially obvious.

The Internet or something so close to it as to be essentially equivalent was inevitable. ARPANET was far from the only peering network being developed. It was rather late onto the scene by some historical accounts. It won out because it was, well, military subsidized and was free. As Amazon can tell you: loss leading a market is a good way to dominate it.

I don’t mean to discredit great people. But we need to keep perspective here. And, we need to understand that the future is foreseeable.