Sunday, May 02, 2010

Look How Wrong You Can Be

Latest Newspaper Column:
I’m writing the first draft of this column, as I often do, using a Web-based tool called Google Documents, which is a simplified word processor built into a website.

The advantage of Google Docs is that, using your password, you can access and edit your document from any computer. When the column is done, I’m going to e-mail it to Steve Bouser. Then, when it comes out on Sunday, the first time I read it will be on The Pilot website.

I’m mentioning all of this to show the pervasive effect the Internet has on my life and the lives of others. It’s hard to believe that, as recently as 15 years ago, a famous and respected scientist was predicting that the Internet was going to fail.

His name was Clifford Stoll, and he was no crackpot technophobe. He was a Ph.D. scientist who’d helped track down a KGB computer hacker who was stealing secrets from American computers. Yet Stoll wrote a book in 1995 called “Silicon Snake Oil,” in which he confidently predicted: “The truth is, no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher, and no computer network will change the way government works.”

Well, as Rod Stewart once sang, “Look how wrong you can be.”

Newspapers are scrambling to survive in a world where people get their news from the ’net, students go to college online, while political campaigns raise millions and communicate with supporters via the World Wide Web.

Reading the account of Stoll’s blown prophecy reminded me of how sometimes even very bright people can be dead wrong when ­trying to predict the future. Like a computer magazine editor named Erik Sandberg-Diment who, back in 1985, predicted that no one would want a portable computer. “Somehow,” he wrote, “the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a ­keyboard grafted on as an extension of their fingers. It just is not so.”

Now people have laptops, netbooks, iPhones, smartphones, iPads, etc. etc. “grafted to their fingers,” and the dumbest of them has more computing power than you could buy in 1985.

It’s not just computer geeks who can be very experienced, very confident and very wrong when they try to play Nostradamus. The CEO of a major record company once told a band’s manager that the band had “no future in show business,” and that “guitar music is on its way out.” The year was 1962, and the band was the Beatles. You may have heard of them.

Political predictions are a cavalcade of errors that seem laughable in hindsight. In January 2007, The Wall Street Journal wrote that Barack Obama was “unelectable” because of his name and his race.

In 2008, Time Magazine reporter Mark Halperin predicted that an ad talking about John McCain’s gaffe in which he forgot how many houses he owned would actually “end up being one of the worst moments in the entire campaign for one of the candidates — but it’s Barack Obama.” Halperin said bringing up the gaffe “opened the door to not just Tony Rezko ... but to bring up Reverend Wright, to bring up his relationship with Bill Ayers.”

As it turned out, Barack Obama was elected by a decisive margin and no one but a few hard-core right-wing dead-enders even remembers who Wright, Rezko or Ayers are.

The good news is that being wrong, even on a massive scale, is no barrier to later success. Halperin’s book about the 2008 ­election is on the best-seller list. The Wall Street Journal still seems to be doing well. The guy who turned the Beatles down later signed the Rolling Stones. Sandberg-Diment’s still writing.

And so is Dr. Stoll, the guy who said the Internet would fail, and who now looks back good-humoredly and says: “Of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as ­public as my 1995 howler. … Now, whenever I think I know what’s ­happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong, Cliff.”

Words to live by — and to remember the next time some pundit or writer confidently predicts who will rise, who will fall and who’ll be on their feet when the smoke clears. As another musical philosopher, Chuck Berry, once put it, “It goes to show you never can tell.”


pattinase (abbott) said...

As someone who used three computers, this will be a godsend. And I never heard of it before. Thanks!

Mark Terry said...

Yeah, amazing, isn't it? Part of my "day job" so to speak, is as a writer of market research reports, primarily on the topic of the clinical lab industry, of which, I suppose, I am an expert. And I'm often required to "predict" or "project" what will happen in the next 5 to 10 years. I do, base it on tends and gut instincts, but really, I'm fully aware that the entire industry is one "killer app" away from a major paradigm shift, or one major screwy piece of legislation. And that's not different than most industries. There was a recent court case in which the ACLU sued a genetics company, Myriad, about gene patents, and I fully expected the ACLU to get laughed out of court, but to my surprise it didn't. That case is going to go on for a while in appeals, and an awful lot of legal experts think it'll eventually make it to the Supreme Court because of how important it is to the biotech industry where gene patents are concerned. But the whole thing has the potential to blow up the entire clinical lab industry as well, so how can you really predict what will happen with something like that?

Like Rockefeller said when asked what the stock market would do, I'm inclined to respond: "It will fluctuate."