We’re Always Out-of-Touch with the Future

February 1, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Humanity’s inability to accurately predict the future is a favorite theme of mine. Another is the media’s tendency to hype everything, to see crises everywhere. Today’s exhibit, from the November 1962 issue of Popular Mechanics illustrates both.

The article in question discusses a promising technology known as photochromic micro-imaging (PCMI) – which represented a genuine improvement over the limitations of old-fashioned, photography-based microfilm.

According to Popular Mechanics, PCMI was the answer to what its cover and headline called a “crisis.” Human knowledge was growing by leaps and bounds, but the ability to catalog and quickly retrieve information was lagging.

“Scientists predict that whole libraries will some day be recorded by PCMI – with reading screens set up in every home” declares the article on page 104. “PCMI promises to revolutionize the storage and retrieval of information…and may even render our libraries obsolete,” it enthuses on page 107.

As if to prove that linking the crisis du jour to national security isn’t anything new under the sun, toward the end of the article we read:

A good many thoughtful Americans are wondering whether or not we still have the prerogative of proceeding slowly in the area of data storage and retrieval. Allen Kent, associate director of the Center for Documentation and Communication at Western Reserve University, said recently, “The Soviet Union has mounted a massive effort to ‘brainpick’ the world’s recorded literature in order to assure a more effective scientific and technical effort on their part. We, too, must go in this direction and our ‘brainpicking’ efforts have been desultory.”(p. 224)

As we all know, the future didn’t work out the way the magazine writer envisioned. We don’t have a bulky PCMI reader in every home, we have personal computers, laptops, netbooks – and smart phones with Internet connectivity in our pockets. We don’t need an army of librarians, we have Google.

This magazine article is less than 50 years old, yet our current information-access-abilities are well beyond anything that magazine writer was capable of imagining.

Just a little something to keep in mind the next time we read about the deadly nightmare catastrophe tsunami corral-reef-free devastation that awaits us in 2060 [each word links to a separate document].

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Entry filed under: historical perspective, media, predictions that failed. Tags: , .

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