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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Experts - just how wrong can they be?

If you want some real pessimism, you can't beat the anti-technology brigade...

Written in my Jersey hotel and dispatched to silicon.com via a wide-open wi-fi service.

A few weeks ago some kind person at the BBC sent me a CD copy of a TV programme made in about 1995 in which I briefly appeared. I was one of a number of 'experts' positing views on the future of technology, mankind and society.

I just got around to watching the programme and was struck by the streak of negativity and dire warnings of the naysayers and technophobes. Here is a small sample of some of the more risible predictions:

  • TV will become the main portal to the internet and not the PC.
  • Home shopping won't work because you can't smell fish and meat.
  • People will become mindless and isolated zombies talking to machines more than people.
  • Information overload will drive people away from the internet.
  • The stress generated by the internet will induce people to riot.
  • Old people will never use computers.
  • Society will become more divided, less well-informed and impossible to govern.
  • Technology has no place in education.
  • Newspapers will never be replaced.
  • Books will be with us forever.

And then there are the recommendations of the same crowd:

  • We should close down the internet before it is too late.
  • We should destroy all the computers and TV sets.
  • We should think carefully and go back to a people-orientated culture.
  • We need to build more libraries and restrict access to the internet.

Who were these so-called experts? British and American psychologists, behaviourists, politicians and pundits. Where are these people now? Judging by their age, probably in an even more embalmed state.

I well remember this period because I was often lambasted in the media and in public for my views on technology and society, and especially for any statement on a migration that foresaw a merging of man and machine.

For some reason my vision of technology becoming wearable like a wristwatch or a pair of earrings caused most heat. Well, here we are, with Bluetooth attachments appended to the ear, and iPods and smartphones seen as normal and socially acceptable.

So, 15 years on, I was right and they were wrong. But with the benefit of hindsight I can see I was also pessimistic in 1995. We have actually achieved far more than my wildest predictions suggested.

But where was I far too optimistic?

I really didn't think we would still be putting a cross on a piece of paper to elect a new government, or using credit cards instead of mobile phones, and I really did think we would be in the broadband race instead of out of it.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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