False prophecy

Millennium fever spurs crazy new-age predictions, and disbelief seems permanently suspended. S&VC's editor emeritus exposes some of the predictions he
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False prophecy

Dec 1, 1999 12:00 PM, Ted Uzzle

Millennium fever spurs crazy new-age predictions, and disbelief seemspermanently suspended. S&VC's editor emeritus exposes some of thepredictions he guarantees not to come true.

The millennium will come to an end on December 31, 2000. That does not seemto bother some pundits, who predict streets of gold on January 1, 2000, orelse the end of civilization as we know it. Why do we credit these insanepredictions? Most of us do not fully believe them, but we listen anyway andattentively read the crackpot articles in irresponsible journals. It istime for some little child to point at the emperor, snicker and say, "He isnaked!"

Movie theaters will close

In 1979, the futurists at the Rand Corporation predicted the movie theaterswould all close by 1984. They would all be displaced by home video onBetamax. Well, home video came on as strongly as predicted (although notBetamax), but the movie theaters never actually closed their doors. Infact, theater box office takings set a record in 1984, which lasted onlyuntil 1985, and that record lasted only until 1986. The 1986 record lastedonly until 1987, which lasted only until 1988. Do you see a trend here?

Movie theaters get about six months of exclusivity before the feature comesout on video. The money made by film companies in the cinemas does notdetract from the subsidiary revenues they inevitably receive six monthslater from video sales and rental. Why should they surrender box officetakings for no financial benefit later?

Movie theaters will go to video

This crackpot notion has been around for 45 years, and at this time, it isno closer to happening. Video projector salesmen claim the besthigh-definition video projectors are now equal to the best 16 mmprojection. On what planet might that be? The best theatrical 16 mmprojectors, from Hortson in France, Kinoton in Germany or Prevost in Italy,blow the socks off any video projection now available. Video-projectorshootouts never include the best theatrical 16 mm projectors, and there isa reason for that. Compare the best video projectors to 35 mm theatricalprojection, and there is no contest - film rules.

Whenever you go into a cinema and see bad picture and hear bad sound, thefault does not lie in the technology. More than likely the theater ownerwill not pay for proper maintenance until the projector is jammed so tightthat it will not turn at all. Besides, the projectionist is often a17-year-old popcorn popper making Federal minimum wage.

Replace that film equipment with video equipment, and the cinema still willnot pay for maintenance, and it still will not pay for a qualifiedtechnician to run it. You will see just as much bad picture and hear justas much bad sound with video in cinemas as you do with film.

Why should a theater owner junk all that film equipment, already long paidfor, and spend money anew for video projectors? How is the owner to makemore money to pay for the new video equipment? If there is no more money tobe made, why spend? Imaginably, the film distributor might save moneydistributing features as digital video, but the film distributor will notbe paying for the new projectors. In the long run, the theater owner willsave nothing.

What about security? It does sometimes happen that an underpaid cinemaemployee "borrows" a release print from a projection booth overnight andbrings it to a crooked film laboratory to be duped or transferred to VHS.The investment in hardware, however, is daunting for the common thief. Waituntil the thieves can get their hands on infinitely duplicable digitalcopies, whose encryption they can hack, or try to hack, in their verybedrooms. Remember, those underpaid cinema employees are teenagers. Videoin the cinemas makes no sense, neither technically nor financially.

Thin, flat-panel video will conquer

A cliche of science-fiction is the wall-sized, flat-panel video display.Trouble is, nobody wants that but science-fiction authors and dedicatedfans. Consumers want bigger displays for less money. What difference doesit make to a consumer if the display is 4 inches (102 mm) thick or 20inches (508 mm) thick? The size of the average newly constructed Americanhouse grows every year; space is simply not that scarce. Besides, rightnext to the video display is a VCR or DVD player that is 14 inches (356 mm)deep, a receiver that is 18 inches (457 mm) deep, and loudspeakers that are9 inches (228 mm) deep. How is the average homeowner to benefit from anyextra space in the room? Because consumers want bigger pictures for lessmoney, I am betting on video projection as the home-video future.

The paperless office

We have been promised this malarkey for some 15 years now. Go into abusiness office today, and you will stumble over the mountains of fan-fold,pin-feed printout.

Some industries have actually achieved a nearly paperless office. Consider,for example, the back office of a brokerage company and the back office ofa bank. Those businesses, however, are not using PCs. They are actuallyusing mainframe computers along with a million lines of custom-writtencode. The software costs more than the hardware. Right now, that is theprice for a paperless office. Do not look for it in your office anytimesoon.

E-mail will replace snail-mail

What do we hate about snail-mail? It used to be slow, although that hasimproved tremendously. My letters get overnight delivery in a four-statearea, and second-day delivery in most of the Midwest, all for 33 cents.

The main thing we hate about snail mail is that there is too much of it -unsolicited, unwanted offers and catalogs. Yet, is that not even worse withe-mail? We do not get spammed simply because the spammers like electronictechnology; we get spammed because it is free. Then, there are the crackpote-mails, page after page of jokes and puns. Also, there are the strangerswho send prayers or ideological rants, things I would prefer not to havejammed into my face without solicitation. Legislators no longer evenrespond to e-mail because it is too easy to send, and they have no way toknow if a thousand e-mails are the views of a thousand voters or the toilof one obsessed fanatic.

As we control access to our e-mailbox to filter out the unwanted, we willstill need a physical mailbox. A snail-mailbox has a filter of its own, youknow: Those who want to communicate with us must be willing to pay,modestly, for the privilege. If your message is not worth 33 cents for youto send it to me, how much value should I place on it?

The Internet will replace book-libraries

I really want to find out what "sikolijee" is all about, but the Internetwas no use at all. My browser found absolutely nothing. Someone recommendedI read a sikolijee book by Sigmoid Froid, but it seems that he never wrotea book. I have seen pictures of him, goatee and all. Why are his books noton the Web?

E-books will replace paper books

Several recent bestsellers, or bestseller wannabees, have been releasedsimultaneously as bound paper and as e-books. Guess what. The e-books costmore than the bound-paper books. Oh yes, dear reader, this has a big future.

An e-book is infinitely duplicable, while copying an in-print bound book onan office copier is an exercise in insanity. If I had to live off theincome from my books' being sold, I am not sure that I would wantdistribution as e-books, whatever the price.

The physical classroom will disappear

A wise man once said the best-equipped classroom consists of a hollow logwith the student sitting at one end and Socrates sitting at the other. Thelesson, I suppose, is that the physical setting, or lack of a physicalsetting, does not matter. Certainly, I would rather be in a teleconferencewith a great teacher or in a tumble-down urban schoolroom with a greatteacher than in a Palace of Learning with an inarticulate, incompetent hackof a teacher.

Turn it around the other way for a moment. Ask the great teacher, "Wouldyou prefer a schoolroom or a row of video monitors?" The answer you getwill be immediate and vociferous. The physical classroom is the goldstandard, and will remain so.

Calculators will replace math study

Here is a 25 year-old prediction, as phoney now as it was at the time ofits inception. Quick, what is eight times seven? Quick! Sorry, too slow.You do not know, do you? Now, run and ask an old geezer who went to schoolbefore calculators. Guess what? The old geezer does not know either.

Our ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide in our heads is terriblypoor, but then, it always was. With calculators, we do more math than everbefore, and with calculators, we study algebra and trigonometry moreeffectively because we are not interrupting our problem solving to lookinto log and trig tables. Give an extremely smart kid a scientificcalculator, and the kid will invent the calculus for himself or herself.

The nation's lungs will atrophy

Here is a gem from a century ago. When shown Edison's new phonograph, JohnPhilip Sousa recoiled in horror and predicted unemployment and destitutionamong musicians. They would record a piece of music once, and then no one would ever want to play it again. Besides, he said, the nation's lungs would atrophy because American families would no longer gather around the parlor pianoand lift their voices in patriotic song.

In the modern incarnation of this myth, we are told in the 1990s thenation's youth will have sunken chests, spindly arms and legs and nointerpersonal skills because of the time they spend on the Internet. Doesthat sound familiar? We heard it in the 1980s about video games. Earlier inthis century, we were told that would be the result of masturbation. Eachmodern generation is taller, stronger, healthier, and longer-lived than theone before. The atrophied-lungs prediction was wrong a century ago, and isstill wrong today.

Technological gurus will predict the future

This is sure to come true. Unfortunately, the predictions to come will beas inaccurate as the predictions of the past. The self-appointedpunditocracy is bloated to bursting with the afflatus of its ownself-importance and unable to spot a trend outside an advertiser's pressrelease. That will not, however, stop them from making whack-o predictions.

Here are the tell-tale signs of a worthless prediction:

- The crackpot prediction presumes that technology will advance even ifnobody makes any money off it.

- More generally, the crackpot prediction assumes technology drives theworld. Sorry, but that is wrong. Greed drives the world; love drives theworld; hate drives the world; fear drives the world; hope drives the world.Technology is not even in the top 20. I cannot believe that this is notcommon knowledge.

- The crackpot prediction assumes technology is inherently good orinherently evil. The crackpot prediction believes a semiconductor can makea moral choice.

- Ignore all the many predictions that refer to "Silicone Valley."

- The crackpot prediction ignores the 80-20 rule (it takes 20% of theeffort to get 80% of the way to a technological goal, but 80% of the effortto get the last 20%).

- The crackpot prediction extrapolates one single present trend but assumesnothing else in technology or society will change.

- More specifically, the crackpot prediction assumes that there will not bea direct, competitive response to the present trend being extrapolated.

- In closing, here is one more piece of advice about predictions: Once atrend is reported in Time magazine or Newsweek magazine, you will know forsure that it has peaked and is on the way down.

Remember, the greatest piece of technology in your house or office wasinvented by Minoans around 2,000 B.C.E.: the flush toilet.

- "In less than 25 years. . .the motor-car will be obsolete, because theaeroplane will run along the ground as well as fly over it." -Sir PhilipGibbs, 1928.

- "The Wankel [engine] will. . .dwarf such major post-war technologicaldevelopments as xerography, the Polaroid camera and color television."-General Motors, 1969.

- "[By 1965] the deluxe open-road car will probably be 20 feet long,powered by a gas turbine engine, little brother of the jet engine." -LeoCherne, 1955.

- "50 years hence. . .[w]e shall escape the absurdity of growing a wholechicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these partsseparately under a suitable medium." -Winston Churchill, 1932.

- "Cold fusion may eventually turn out to be one of the most significantsources of energy for the world in the 1990s and beyond." -U.S. CongressmanRobert S. Walker, 1989.

- "In 15 years, more electricity will be sold for electric vehicles thanfor light." -Thomas Edison, 1910.

- "[A] few decades hence, energy may be free - just like the unmeteredair." -John von Newmann, 1956.

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