Ah, the 90’s. As with any decade in the past, the 1990’s can be an extremely nostalgic time for many to reminisce on. From the classic sitcoms of Friends and Seinfeld to the catchy bops of the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, the 90’s gave us so many gifts. But aside from being an excellent era for pop culture, not everything from this decade could withstand the test of time. Along with the piles of ginormous JNCO jeans sent off to local thrift stores as they faded out of style, some predictions made in the 90’s can be funny to look back on as well.
Inspired by a newspaper article from 2000 titled “Internet May Be Just A Passing Fad As Millions Give Up On It” going viral on Twitter, we began digging up other hilariously inaccurate predictions from the past. Although these claims about the future did not ring true, they certainly are amusing to read today. Below you’ll also find an exclusive interview featuring Dan Gardner, author of “Future Babble : Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway” and “Superforecasting – The Art and Science of Prediction”.
Enjoy this comical list we’ve compiled at Bored Panda, and keep in mind what Forrest Gump so wisely told us in 1994, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”
We’ve all heard the phrase “history repeats itself”. Often uttered by middle school teachers trying to convince their students of the value of their education, this saying does bear some truth. There are clear similarities between Napoleon and Hitler’s attempted invasions of Russia, greatly hyped ships sinking such as the Titanic and the Vasa, and The Great Depression compared to 2008’s Great Recession. Even much smaller cultural aspects, such as fashion and beauty trends, recycle over time. It makes sense for people to use their understanding of history to make predictions about the future.
However, no matter how well informed our predictions are, they are still merely guesses. Remember the group of people warning that the world was supposed to end in 2012? Thankfully, they were misinformed. But why do we feel the need to make proclamations rather than simply living in the moment and waiting to see what will come? As naturally curious creatures, people are often searching for some semblance of control. “We have a strong psychological aversion to uncertainty,” author Dan Gardner told us in our interview with him. “We really hate being unsure! That aversion is so strong that even being told that something bad definitely will happen can feel better than being told that something bad may possibly happen,” he explained. If believing we know something about the future can provide a bit of comfort, the temptation to lean into this hope is understandable. Many people love to read their horoscopes and have tarot readings for the same reason.
“I don’t believe that phone books, newspapers, magazines, or corner video stores will disappear as computer networks spread. Nor do I think that my telephone will merge with my computer, to become some sort of information appliance.” “Video-on-demand, that killer application of communications, will remain a dream.” – Clifford Stoll
When we asked Gardner for his expert opinion on what makes us so susceptible to believing false predictions, he told us to first “be careful about what is and isn’t possible about prediction”. “We can forecast on smaller scales and shorter time frames,” he explained. “But we cannot forecast the really big stuff, over the longer time frames, that we most want to forecast!” A tip he gave to remember this is to “think of weather forecasts”. “They’re actually quite reliable looking a day or two or three ahead. But looking weeks ahead, they’re useless. How far ahead we can forecast varies greatly by subject matter but the bottom line is this: Our ability to foresee the future is quite limited — and it is only a tiny fraction of our desire to foresee the future!”
He went on to say that there is a clear root cause for people falling prey to predictions that they absolutely should not believe, predictions like “here’s what the global economy will look like in 2050!”. It goes back to psychology.
“The whole way that you can check somebody’s reputation will be so much more sophisticated on the Net than it is in print today” – Bill Gates
“When we are confronted with some major, frightening changes– like when a crazy man takes office or a pandemic breaks out or a war erupts — we look into the future and we see that there’s a huge number of paths the course of history may take. There’s so much uncertainty! That is profoundly unsettling so we go looking for something that will sweep away the uncertainty and replace it with the feeling of knowing.” Gardner went on to explain the various coping mechanisms people are likely to take when overwhelmed with the unknown. The first example he notes is finding “a particularly dogmatic form of religion”. “Another thing that can replace uncertainty is a conspiracy theory that claims to explain everything. And there’s good evidence that interest in dogmatic religion and conspiracy theories goes up during heightened uncertainty.”
Lastly, he told us, “A third thing that can sweep away uncertainty is experts who make predictions.” But not just any expert will do, he elaborated. “The sort of expert who says ‘maybe’ or ‘it’s possible’ a lot will not sweep away uncertainty.” Only an extremely confident expert will put minds at ease. “They KNOW what’s coming! And they have a simple, clear, conclusive story to explain it. That sort of expert gives us the certainty we psychologically crave.” This confidence can be comforting initially, but Gardner is sure to note the facts. “Unfortunately, research also shows that the predictions of that sort of expert are especially likely to be wrong.”
Clifford Stoll being sceptical about online shopping, which is basically how everyone buys stuff now: “We’re promised instant catalogue shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts.
Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet—which there isn’t—the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.”
“I suspect Big Brother won’t have an easy time tracing us. … Our privacy will be protected, as it always has been, by simple obscurity and the high cost of uncovering information about us.” – Clifford Stoll, 1995
“When high-bandwidth links allow every home to access animated, talking, holographic computerized encyclopedias, I can’t help thinking that kids still won’t use ’em.” – Clifford Stoll
When asked if humans have become any better at making predictions in recent years, given the rapid advancements of science and technology, Gardner replied, “Yes, we have seen some improvements in forecasting thanks to science and technology. But they tend to be small, incremental improvements.” “And every additional advance is harder to make than the improvements that preceded it,” he added. He used weather forecasting over the past 100 years as an example. “The bottom line: We are somewhat better at forecasting than we were in the past but we are still pretty bad at it and the big things that we most want to forecast — ‘What will Russia look like in 10 years? Is the era of globalization over? Will our children be poorer than we are?’ — are all far beyond our power to predict.”
“No matter how inexpensive the machines become, I still can’t imagine the average user taking one along when fishing.” – Erik Sandberg-Diment
In 1998, FourFourTwo magazine predicted David Beckham would like like this (left) in 2020. This is how he actually looks like
Given his expertise on the topic, we asked Gardner if he finds it difficult to avoid making predictions in a society that seems perpetually obsessed with what is coming next. “The really frustrating thing is that it’s impossible to NOT make predictions,” he explained. “All of our decisions, explicitly or implicitly, are based on expectations of future conditions. That is, forecasts. There’s no way around it. If you set a time and place to meet someone for a beer after work, your expectations of when work will end, how much traffic there will be, how busy the pub will be, etc, are all part of your decision. And they’re all forecasts.” His advice in a world consumed by prediction is to “recognize that we are making forecasts all the time and learn to distinguish between those that people can reasonably make (when traffic will be busy, for example) and those that we cannot possibly make with any accuracy (how strong the economy will be in a decade).” When it comes to making important decisions, Gardner says that we must “develop the habit of thinking that the future could unfold across a very wide range. So it’s not one future you want to predict and prepare for. It’s a great many futures. Or to put that more simply, for the big picture stuff, we have to stop thinking of ‘one future’ and think of, and prepare, for ‘many futures’.”
If you are interested in delving deeper into the elusive prediction after finishing this article, be sure to check out Dan Gardner’s books or his newsletter “PastPresentFuture”.
Unfortunately, making false forecasts is still the norm rather than the exception. Our brains are full of biases that make it extremely hard to make predictions, even when adequate information is available. “For example, psychologists have shown that people very easily convince themselves that a random bit of good luck was, in fact, the result of skill,” Gardner mentioned in a previous interview. “Even when the task at hand is guessing which side of a coin will turn up when it is flipped – the very symbol of randomness – people are easily convinced that their correct guesses were the result of skill, not luck.”
In her article “The Psychology of Prediction”, Morgan Housel sheds light on many facets of our belief in predictions. One thing she notes is that “credibility is not impartial”. “Your willingness to believe a prediction is influenced by how much you need that prediction to be true.” For example, when we are in desperate situations, we are much more susceptible to believing grand predictions. A notable historical example of this is The Great Plague of London in 1665.
In 1988, the Los Angeles Times magazine published a special issue predicting what life would be like in 25 years’ time. In some ways, they missed the mark completely:
Cities mandate that business stagger shifts, to ease the burden on commuting and city services.
Barcodes on our money to avoid corruption and crime and keep track of every dollar bill and who it belongs to.
Multiple families cram into single-home structures, because there’s no housing. The opposite of the housing bubble that floods markets with too many empty homes.
“You’ll never make any money out of children’s books” – Advice to JK Rowling from Barry Cunningham, editor at Bloomsbury Books, 1996.
In the September 4, 1998, edition of the Amarillo Daily News in Texas, writer Amy Tao made a few predictions about what life may look like in 20 years—most importantly stating that human cloning will be commonplace. “Cloning will be a big thing. Despite moral activist protests, clones of animals and human beings walk the earth. Don’t feel like going to school? Send your clone! What if your dog dies suddenly? Just take out the clone of him!” she writes.
When writing about the Great Plague of London in 1722, Daniel Defoe wrote, “The people were more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales than ever they were before or since … almanacs frighted them terribly … the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these: Infallible preventive pills against the plague. Neverfailing preservatives against the infection. Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.” Over the course of 18 months, this plague wiped out a quarter of London. It was only natural for these people to grasp to any sliver of hope they could find.
Jeff Bezos in the late 90s, describing Apple Computer as an “true American tragedy”, among other choice quotes of what caused Apple to bite the dust
In 1993, internet expert John Allen told CBC that he believed that our own moral code and internal rules would stop people from doing horrible things online.
“There’s not a lot of cursing, or swearing. One would think if you’re anonymous you could do anything you want, but people in a group have their own sense of community and what we can do.”
“Admit it, you’re out of the hardware game.” – Wired Magazine challenges Apple to face up to the ‘fact’ that it can’t compete with other gadget makers, 1996
Another factor is “outcome-irrelevant learning”. This is when people essentially cherry pick information from a historical event to confirm their own ideas and biases. It reinforces one’s confidence in their predictions through the belief that evidence is on their side. History does repeat itself, but often we do not realize a historical event is recurring until it has already begun. Even our instincts create biases. One 2008 study investigating how “free” our decision making truly is found that “the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity up to ten seconds before it enters awareness”. It must be extremely difficult to predict the future with a range of subconscious biases clouding our judgement.
“Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet, which only just recently got this section here in InfoWorld, will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” – Robert Metcalfe
As entertaining as it can be to poke fun at past generations for their expectations of the future, we can’t really blame them for their now hilarious ideas. I’m sure many of us know the feeling of innocently opening Facebook and being smacked in the face by the “Memory” of a 10-year-old status that’s now painfully cringey to read. My prediction for the future is that our current projections will be met with the same laughter we now direct towards the 90’s. Times change rapidly, but we do know that the future is a mystery to us all.
And PS, we likely won’t be too proud of our current fashion choices twenty years from now either.
“HANGING OUT IN THE YEAR 2020” Trapper Keeper from 1993
Ines Uusuman, the Swedish minister of communication said in 1996“Internet is just a temporary fly”
In 1994, the RAND Corporation, a global think tank that’s contributed to the space program and the development of the internet, said they expected us to have animal employees by the year 2020
“The RAND panel mentioned that by the year 2020 it may be possible to breed intelligent species of animals, such as apes, that will be capable of performing manual labor,” Glenn T. Seaborg wrote of the corporation’s prediction in his book “Scientist Speaks Out”
1995 quote from Clifford Stoll, of Newsweek: “The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works. Electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc. At best, it’s an unpleasant chore.”
In the January 1997 issue of Popular Mechanics, the electronics editor wrote that the internet became so flooded with users at the time that “nobody bothers to go online anymore.”
“We were afraid that if the internet’s underlying infrastructure didn’t improve, the volume of users would make the internet so slow that it would essentially become useless.”