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The Future Isn’t What It Was Claimed to Be

Remember how before the introduction of the Segway HT, when it was still code-named “Ginger,” it was rumored to be “bigger than the Internet”? Evidently, it wasn’t.

Remember how before the introduction of the Segway HT, when it was still code-named “Ginger,” it was rumored to be “bigger than the Internet”? Evidently, it wasn’t. And if the Internet is figured as the technological ne plus ultra of the present time, then Bob Seidensticker, a man who spent a good portion of his career working at tech companies (including Microsoft at one point) works hard in Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change (Berrett-Kohhler; $15.95) to make the argument that the Internet is not, well, the Internet, at least not as it is thought of. In terms of technological development it is not more phenomenal than, say, the printing press. But Seidensticker looks at plenty of other technologies in the book, and essentially his message is that we all ought to be a bit more cautious when thinking about—and making claims for—technologies. He points out: “New products loom disproportionately large, often simply because they’re new.” We take the existing for granted (like the printing press). Also, “Too often we mistake a new technology for an important one.” Which was pretty much the case with the Segway (an example, by the way, he doesn’t use).

One important point that Seidensticker makes is that technological development isn’t as deterministic as some people seem to think it is. Consider fuel cells, which we are ostensibly going to find powering our cars in that not-too-distant future. He writes: “The fuel cell has been heralded as an energy solution for decades, even though it was first demonstrated back in 1839.” Let’s hope that we’re more fortunate than those who were looking forward to the fuel cell as a viable power source by. . .1850. Seidensticker comments about the tech: “Even if fuel cells were widely used, they wouldn’t tap a revolutionary new energy source because they are just another way to use fossil fuels. (This is the twenty-first century, and we’re still dependent on fossil fuels?)” Yes, and cars still don’t fly. Which leads to another point he makes: “The market leaders are probably where evolutionary products will come from, but this is less likely for more revolutionary products. And when it comes to a completely new kind of product, it usually comes from outside the industry.” Which is as straightforward an explanation of why cars today are pretty much like cars were in the 19th century and why if there is going to be a significant change, it may come from somewhere else—which is an awfully good argument for keeping attuned to what’s happening elsewhere.—GSV