The Future That Never Happened

Slate

Tech forecasting is a perilous endeavor. No one wants to be a false prophet with a prediction so immediate that it can be easily proven incorrect in short order, but long-term predictions can be even harder. And yet even though people know predictions can be a waste of time, they still want to know: What’s next? Wishy-washy tech timelines only makes prognostication more difficult, as entrepreneurs and researchers stumble around in the dense fog of developing prototypes, performing clinical trials, courting investors, and other time-consuming steps required for marketable innovation. It’s easy to hit a wall at any point in the process, causing delays or even the termination of a project.

Slate has noticed a wily hedging mechanism among Silicon Valley soothsayers to circumvent these uncertainties—make predictions for “five to 10 years out.” It hits that sweet spot: just close enough that people can begin to taste it, but just far enough away that (almost) no one is going to call you out if it doesn’t become true. A review of press releases and tech articles stretching back to the 1990s finds that these Goldilocks forecasts are abundant. We’ve compiled a list of 81 predictions for innovations coming in “five to 10 years” to illustrate the cliché.

While the sample size is admittedly too small to make any definitive conclusions, there are a few trends that stood out in the data. One of our most striking findings is that scalability is a common trap. Many a tech oracle seems to conflate the invention of a device with its widespread adoption. For instance, virtual reality has indeed been packaged as a consumer product, as many people have anticipated. But the cost is prohibitive for most people: An Oculus Rift headset costs about $360.

And some predictions did eventually become true, just not in the manner that people expected. A particularly poignant piece in Wired from 1997 reads, in part: “Skorman says that in the next five to ten years technology will allow film fans to download movies instantly, directly into their TV or PC screens.” So far, so good, right? But then it continues: “And you can bet Reel.com will be one of the first video-on-demand outlets at the starting gate.” Oops.

Take a look at our list of “five to 10 year” predictions below. Each includes the publication (or company press release) from which it came, the person who made the prediction (sometimes a journalist, sometimes a person quoted in the piece), the date it was made, and the prediction itself.

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