‘The horse is here to stay’, other mistaken technological predictions

Delta Milayo Ndou #DigitalDialogue
There is a thin line between futuristic thinking and absurdity such that proposals on some innovations often get dismissed contemptuously. The innovations proposed appear, on the face of it, to be totally far-fetched as to not warrant serious consideration. There will always be detractors whenever a technological innovation is proposed or introduced. Here are some of the most terrible technology predictions I discovered recently.

In 1903, the President of Michigan Savings Bank advised Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company insisting, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad.” Rackham reportedly ignored the advice and invested $5 000 in Ford stock, selling it later for $12,5 million.

There are some leaders who have a the-horse-is-here-to-stay mentality whenever proposals to try something new come across their desk because they refuse to imagine a future in which the way we live, work and interact today will be different from the way we will live, work and interact five or 10 years from now.

They think the “horse” of convention is here to stay and that disruptive technologies are just a passing “fad”.

In 1876, William Preece of the British Post Office was quoted as saying, “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”

There are many people who assume that needs are unchanging, and some needs may very well be unchanging but how those needs are fulfilled is certainly a variable factor.

People may need news, but they don’t need newspapers to get news; they may need banking services but they might not necessarily need physical banks and people may need to shop but they may not necessarily need to physically go into a shop to do so.

Needs may remain constant but how those needs are met today and how they will be met tomorrow is an entirely different matter.

Scepticism in the face of innovation

Scepticism has long been the default response to innovation and I find that to be normal but one should be willing to keep an open mind regardless of their incredulity.

There are instances where innovations have been regarded as criminal because the inventors promise an outcome which, on the face of it, seems totally fraudulent.

During the prosecution of an American inventor, Lee DeForest in 1913 a US District Attorney argued that: “Lee DeForest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years.

“Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company”.

Lee DeForest stood accused of selling stock fraudulently through the mail for his Radio Telephone Company, at the time it seemed absurd that radio communication could do all the things Lee DeForest claimed it could.

When Robert Fulton’s idea of the steamboat was proposed in the 1800s, it is said that Napoleon Bonaparte retorted, “How, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.”

Here are a few more technological predictions that didn’t stand the test of time.

In 1966, Time Magazine wrote off e-commerce long before it was conceived of by claiming that: “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.”

In 1981, an inventor called Marty Cooper was adamant that: “Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems.” Then there was Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, who in 1995 gave this prophecy: “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”

Then as far back as 1899, Charles H. Duell, a Commissioner of the US Office of Patents claimed that: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Locally, I am often reminded of the Econet advert for their roaming services which they did a few years ago in which an agitated father calls his son to alert him of an emergency at the rural home (whereby the family’s cattle had strayed into a neighbour’s field and the neighbour had to be compensated) only to be told by his son that he was out of the country.

The father responds; “how are you out of the country when I am calling you on your local number and you are answering? Stop being funny this is a serious matter’ (this is a loose translation of the dialogue).

The concept of mobile roaming was alien that sceptical dismissal was the only reasonable response. On a rating of 1 to 10, how technologically-receptive do you think you are? Do you give innovations the benefit of the doubt?”

At the brink of life-altering technologies

We are living in an age of life-altering technologies but because they are unfolding in the developed countries many people tend to assume those changes have nothing to do with us.

Discourses around “The Internet of Things” or Artificial Intelligence do not animate us because we are too busy to concern ourselves with “fanciful” technology things because they are not bread and butter issues.

In explaining the value of futuristic thinking, a University of Pretoria Guest Lecturer, Dr Anthon Botha argues managers, “will very seldom talk about “future thinking” when strategic discussion takes place” and their fore-sighting focuses mainly on horizon scanning than reflecting on “what lies beyond strategy?”

According to Dr Both, the future cannot be predicted, yet it is also not predetermined, and the future landscape can be shaped through present influence.

If the future landscape can be shaped through present influence, it means the current wielders of influence should be mindful of the life-altering technologies we can invest in, harness and prioritise to advance our nation’s developmental agenda.

There is little to suggest — from a cursory glance across private and public sector entities or within Government’s priorities — that futuristic thinking is a major preoccupation.

The technologies we take for granted today (mobile money, remote controlled gates, TVs, ATMs, swipe machines) were once novelties — viewed as “futuristic” innovations that seemed too far-fetched to apply to our local scenario.

Last year, the launch of Econet’s Connected Home received what I considered to be a rather subdued reception and I do wonder how the uptake has been for that innovative service.

Whenever I pass by a property development site, I often wonder whether in the planning stages, there is an allowance for internet fiber optic cables to be laid because I find it hard to imagine a home without internet.

Perhaps this is a consequence of my immersion in the technology but it often seems to me that internet-enabled homes should become a norm and not an exception.

I acknowledge the elitism of such a view in a context such as Zimbabwe.

We are comfortable with the idea that a house must have water pipes, electricity lines and sewer system, etc — we take for granted that these features are essential for a habitation but how many property developers think beyond to consider the benefits of internet-enabled properties that can make smart homes a commonplace reality?

We can harness life-altering technologies, bit by bit, through incremental steps. It begins with thinking futuristically.

Delta is a digital evangelist who advocates technology-driven solutions. Follow her on Twitter: @deltandou

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