Predicting The Future - What 1981 Got Wrong

As part of my MSc, I fell down a research rabbit-hole of 1980s "Office Of THE FUTURE!!" articles. Ultimately, I couldn't find a way to include it in my research - so you're getting my cast offs.

So, I present to you some choice predictions from "Technology and the office of the future" by B. W. Manley.

A microchip with a British flag on it. Technology and the office of the future There is considerable scope for improving the productivity in offices. The major technological advances which will have an impact on this sector are the low-cost VDU, mass data storage, the digital network and voice command by B.W.Manley

Low cost computers (VDU) - yup! Data storage - the article talks about storing "the entire contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on one side of a disc — words and pictures".

Philips Digital Optical Recorder System stores one million megabytes of data, text or images on a single disc, with access in less than 1s.

Digital networking! Brilliant! Voice Command! Wait... what?

The most far-reaching technological advance we can foresee affecting this sector is speech recognition. While embryo systems exist already, it will be ten years before practical products will be available. Then we can foresee the end of the dial and keypad in the telephone. There will be an even more significant change in text processing as a result of speech recognition — the disappearance of the keyboard.

By 1991 we didn't really have practical voice recognition systems. And certainly nothing that could replace the keyboard. Here we are FORTY YEARS later and most of us are thumping away on keyboards for long-form writing. If we're driving, we can scream "CALL MUM" and Siri will probably get it right. And there's the occasional use of voice recognition to compose a quick text. But we're not in 1981's future yet.

What about video? Sadly, too expensive and not useful enough.

it would be a mistake to think that video transmission, especially of moving pictures, will ever be cheap. It is questionable, moreover, whether TV as a business aid in the office is of any great significance. For many years now, the prospect of videophone and videoconferencing has been held out as a great opportunity — particularly as a means of cutting travel costs. A number of experiments have been carried out on the use of videoconferencing. Although they have demonstrated the great convenience of summoning a meeting involving people at a considerable distance, they have not claimed to reduce the travel budget. Rather, they encourage more meetings.

After a year of COVID, I think we can all agree that Zoom has encouraged more meetings than are strictly necessary!

The humble FAX was about to become the big tech of the 1980s. Sadly, some places are still stuck with it - despite the obvious limitations.
Facsimile There are many developments currently occurring in facsimile. The most interesting relate to Group 3 machines, able to transmit a page within 60s. Facsimile will fulfil the needs of a specialist sector of the market. The costs of transmission are relatively high, and likely to remain so since the number of bits per character is significantly greater than with encoded character transmission. In addition electronic storage and retrieval is always likely to be more troublesome than with encoded text systems; you cannot use keyword searches on a scanned page. Perhaps the most important limitation is that facsimile relies on printed paper as its input and its output. It does nothing toward the prime task of reducing the use of paper.

What have we learned today?

Predicting the future is hard. Saying that something will always be too expensive is never a good bet.

Knowing that a technology has serious shortcomings - like not being able to search a fax - is irrelevant when it is simply a more convenient version of the existing paradigm.

Unintended consequences are the most exciting part of any technology. We don't use voice control in a noisy, open plan office - but we use it at home. Videocalls do increase the number of meetings - as predicted - but they also do slash travel budgets.

What's your favourite prediction from the 1980s?

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One thought on “Predicting The Future - What 1981 Got Wrong”

  1. Alex Gibson says:

    ('real' ones - not those neck-breaking segways without handles...)

    Tony Hawks on a not quite hoverboard:

    Technology demonstration of superconductor levitation by the Royal Institution:

    And the current crown goes to... Lexus, of all people! They pretty much combined the two.

    So... it exists, but still not yet in a practical form, and we've blown way past 2015...


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