Here we go! We’re on the eve of the 2020, a year with a “zero” on the end of it. We’re already one-fifth of the way through the 21 century. Similar to other “zero” years (like turning 40, 50, or 60) it offers all of us a chance for reflection.
Especially those of us in the predictions business of being futurists. It’s always instructive to take a look back at where we were at the beginning of this century (or further) and take the temperature of our future.
As good a barometer as any I could find is/was this article from Nicole Jacoby of CNNMoney, “A Prosperous New Century”, with a dateline of December 28, 1999, and only five years removed from the now-classic howler: "What *is* Internet?"
What did they – meaning the futurist cognoscenti of the late stage Clinton years – get right? What did they get wrong? If the future is always in the future, what can we learn from this portal to the past? (One visceral pro-tip: by the looks of the HTML (still, to this day) comprising the piece, it’s pretty clear the vogue years of Web 2.0 and “design thinking” were still years away).
So, on with the awards!
And the winners are....
WINNER OF THE “POIGNANT” AWARD. The 2000 CNN Money article begins rather poignantly, written in an optimistic time that was pre-hanging-chad, pre-9/11, pre-WMD, pre-iPhone, pre-Obama, pre-Facebook, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, pre-Ukraine, pre-imagined-nearterm-dystopia-of-Black-Mirror… “If there's one thing analysts, economists and stock market strategists seem to agree on, it's that the future looks bright. ‘We are really entering somewhat of a golden age here,’ said Maureen Allyn, chief economist at Scudder Kemper Investments.”
WINNER OF THE “GOLDILOCKS/IT’S ABOUT RIGHT” AWARD. “’Right now, the biggest barrier to the Internet is the Internet itself,’ said Scott Alexander, senior online editor for Yahoo! Internet Life. ‘It can be intimidating. You need to know a lot to get onto the Web. But all that is going to change... eventually you won't even think of it as the Internet anymore.’” In our incipient, 2020s era of fade-to-the-background, ambient computing, extreme user friendliness, and voice-as-a-platform, this quote strikes me as neither too-hot, nor too-cold; it is ... just about right. (But how do we all feel about use of the term “the Web” in 2020?)
WINNER OF THE “COMIN’ ROUND THE MOUNTAIN” AWARD. "Internet enthusiasts of this generation are destined to forget that the appliances of the future -- refrigerators that take milk orders when the last carton sours and portable music players that download the latest top 40 hits as they are released -- are actually connected to what we know today as the World Wide Web.” Also known as the “we’ll get there eventually” award, I still don’t have a fridge that orders me milk (nor the oat, soy and almond plant-based-alternatives my daughter loves so much). But we do have Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music -- but what's "Top 40"? (Special props to 1999 for pervasive use of the phrases “world Wide Web” and “Internet enthusiasts”, as if they were ham radio operators, or civil war re-enactors).
WINNER OF THE E PLURIBUS PLURIBUS AWARD. “Perhaps one of the brightest trends of the 21st century is the one toward individual empowerment. Consumers, investors and employees all promise to benefit from technological advances that simultaneously bolster choice and simplify lives.” I’m as pro-individual and choice as they come, but without some sense of societal cohesion, the center can’t hold. This is something we wrote about recently in our report “From/To: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Future of Your Work (but Were Afraid to Ask)” – that personal technology is undermining belief in a common identity (and with the advent of VR, the fabric of society will come under further and further strain).
WINNER OF THE MISSED-IT-BY-A-COUNTRY (MILE) AWARD. “Some enthusiasts believe technology will be the great equalizer, narrowing once and for all the gap between the haves and the have-nots. ‘This is an opportunity for some of the developing nations to really leapfrog,’ said Alexander. ‘It just depends how the government treats it.’" All you have to do is look at the skew between the top 1% and the rest of the world to see where this one came off the rails. At the same time, the middle classes that burgeoned in countries (thousands of) miles away from the USA like China, the Philippines and India might beg to differ. Meanwhile, get ready for life under "the Splinternet".
WINNER OF THE “NAILED IT!” AWARD (PART 1). "’The price we have to pay for all this is someplace," said Allyn. ‘Early in the century, we're going to see a real good old-fashioned panic of the kind we haven't seen in a long time.’ That hysteria, she believes, will be the natural fallout from years of debt accumulation.” One imagines if anyone at Bear Stearns might have read Nicole Jacoby's Money article when it debuted. And then read “Too Big to Fail” a decade later. In re: fallout-to-come from debt accumulation, the millennial generation is looking at you, student loans industry…
WINNER OF THE “NAILED IT!” AWARD (PART 2). "’More doors will be open to people, but that also means competition will get much greater,’ said Chris Selland, vice president of Internet computing at the Boston-based technology consulting form Yankee Group. ‘People who win will really win. It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats, but some boats will go much higher than others.’” While Selland may have nailed it, his observation is also quite possibly the understatement of the century. Per Google (how meta, eh?!), by 1999, Sergey Brin and Larry Page had already figured out – maybe only a year earlier – how Johannes Gutenberg must’ve felt: "Pretty soon, we had 10,000 searches a day. And we figured, maybe this is really real.” Jeff Bezos, by comparison, was already allowed to borrow $2 billion in bank loans by 2000.
WINNER OF THE NOSTRADAMUS AWARD. “Perhaps one of the most ironic developments of the 21st century will be the re-emergence of the monopoly. As consumers become more demanding and reduced barriers of entry create fierce new competition, companies will feel pressure to stay afloat. Mergers are likely to result in a wide array of industries, as innovation and economies of scale become important catalysts for success.” See messrs. Brin, Page, and Bezos above... And Zuckerberg… and Dorsey… and Cook…
So as 2020 dawns, look around. You’ve never been surrounded by more technology. But has it bred optimism — or just “optimization?” How do your co-workers or neighbors — or you — feel about it? As we wrote in our recent report “From & To”, nobody — yet — has gotten a handle on how to respond to the speed, intensity and breadth of change spawned by digital disruption. When the inability to respond is compromised, resilience is too. And when businesses, societies or individuals aren’t resilient, you get “shock” and even outright chaos.
And in the wake of the last two decades of the internet, while new platforms threaten disruption to come, it’s important to have resilience to help the center to hold. It’s true that modern technology gave people, businesses and societies tools for greater centralization and (especially) control. But it’s always been decentralized expressions of free will, hope and trust are what make liberal democracies — and confidence in commerce — work.
By looking backward to see what worked – and what didn’t – will help us find (and Award!) the solutions to some of the vexing problems of the digital age to come.