When it comes to reading the proverbial crystal ball in business, Inc. has had some wins and some misfires. Here are a few of our best and worst predictions from years past, graded on a scale of A to F.
1981: An Apple on every desk.
Apple Computer Inc. … has inaugurated the workplace of the future by putting its personal computers on most of its employees’ desks. The company almost eliminated typewriters, abolished the job title of secretary … –Steve Ditlea
In October 1981, Inc. declared on its cover that 26-year-old Steve Jobs “has changed business forever.” His vision for the office of the future was of productivity supercharged by the personal computer. With a prescient understanding of the “special relationship” that can develop between a person and her devices, Jobs didn’t so much predict the future here as hustle it in — and Inc. just chronicled it. This one rates A+.
1982: Networking is a new, cool, flat thing.
We are moving from hierarchies to networking … A network is not a thing, it is a process, a three-dimensional communication structure in which the constantly changing participants treat one another as peers. –John Naisbitt
In 1982, Naisbitt, author of the best-selling Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives, shared his “10 Megatrends” for the future in an issue of Inc. Through networking, the forecaster wrote, people will mostly “treat one another as peers” in a “three-dimensional communication structure” with “constantly changing participants.” Doesn’t this sound a little bit like LinkedIn? Or any open floor plan office where you worked in the Before Times? We give this one an A.
1995: The rise of infotainment.
We can see what TV really did. Look at what the O.J. Simpson trial has done to everyone. … The information superhighway will be two lanes loaded with tollgates, and it’s going to tell you what to look for. People will just watch the show. ––Kurt Vonnegut
In a 1995 issue of Inc., Vonnegut, positioned as a skeptic, argued with author Tom Clancy about the impact of technology on quality of life. “People will just watch the show,” Vonnegut said, citing the O.J. Simpson trial as an example of early infotainment. The first 24/7 news cycle event to prompt a nationwide audience for days on end, the coverage of the white Bronco chase and subsequent courtroom drama surrounding the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were an amuse-bouche for our now-insatiable hunger for cable network commentators and reality content. Throw in the internet, smart phones, FOMO, and social media, and it’s fair to say that for some, when they aren’t watching the show, they’re trying to be a part of it. Could Vonnegut’s lament of “tollgates” on the “information superhighway” be considered a clairvoyant reference to the repeal of net neutrality? Magic Eight Ball says yes, so this prediction gets an A+.
1995: Information is (still) war.
If you can control information, you can control people. –Tom Clancy
With this statement, Clancy concluded his 1995 debate with Vonnegut. Of course, this observation has long been true. But as far as geopolitics is concerned, the maxim has taken a strange twist in an era when two nations are sparring over an app where people post videos of themselves doing funny dances to music, and public policy has often taken its cue from the micro-blogs of an American president. Clancy was right. The U.S. is fighting fewer traditional wars, but the battles over information, spurred by social media platforms, are just hitting stride. This prediction gets an A+.
2005: Digital advertising is creepy.
Advertising has long been a sort of black art with a murky ROI … Perhaps just five years from now, companies will be able to routinely and inexpensively embark on ad campaigns that hit exactly the right prospects — and anyone else with entertaining, hard-to-ignore messages can follow people via new high-tech media into their cars, offices, living rooms, and bedrooms. –David Freeman
Ad campaigns that “hit exactly the right prospects” with messages that “follow people via new high-tech media into their cars, offices, living rooms, and bedrooms” is just what everyday life is now. In one sense, Freeman, an Inc. contributing editor, was just in time with his 2005 piece. Two years later, the Federal Trade Commission held a conference on behavioral tracking in advertising that proposed a “do not track” mechanism. (How quaint.) Fast-forward a few years, and Facebook continues to deny that it listens to its users conversations, even as consumers continue to notice ads in their news feeds for things they are discussing on the couch at home. At this point, the algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. This one rates a solid A.
1982: Local news outlets will see an upsurge.
The national television networks will become the Life, Look, and Saturday Evening Post magazines of the 1980s, as specialized cable TV and local programming proliferate. –John Naisbitt
In Naisbitt’s 1982 list of predictions, he says that national television networks will become outdated, and local cable networks will take their place. This forecast is a flop: One in five U.S. newspapers have closed, according to the University of North Carolina, and the national media is more consolidated than ever, with Fox News leading the pack as the most popular news network in the U.S. To make things harder for area papers and TV stations, hyperlocal subjects, once the bread and butter of local news, are now getting their 15 minutes of fame on social media platforms. Want to learn about new local restaurants, connect with area residents selling used cars, or see who’s hiring in your town? There’s an app for that. We give this one a D.
1982: For corporations, the long term will take precedence over the short-term bottom line.
U.S. corporate managers are beginning to think about the long term rather than the next quarter. –John Naisbitt
To say that this prediction is overly optimistic is close to an understatement, especially as climate change continues apace and public-company CEOs persist in their agony to customize company performance for quarterly earnings calls. Things had gotten so nearsighted for CEOs that, in 2019, nearly 200 companies signed a letter that declared they would stop solely focusing on maximizing shareholder profits. This blooper rates an F.
2005: Cellphones won’t become spam torture devices.
OK, turning your prospects’ cellphones into ringing spam machines is probably not your idea of cultivating goodwill. And it’s not likely to happen. –John Freeman
Perhaps Freeman believed implicitly in the National Do Not Call Registry, which was established in 2003. But our phones have indeed turned into spam machines. In 2020, President Trump signed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act to try once more to rein in the intrusions. We vaguely recall an organization texting a petition about it for us to sign. Unfortunately, this prediction gets an F.
1995: Technology has made things … better?
Our tools keep getting better, and as a result of that, our lives keep getting better. –Tom Clancy
To be fair, Clancy didn’t see social media depression (or disinformation) coming. Of course, technological advances save lives. The rapid development of promising Covid-19 vaccines, for example, couldn’t have happened without them. On the other hand, technology has also given people a massive and speedy platform for questioning whether the pandemic even actually exists. Clancy’s prediction was imbalanced in its optimism. In the end, technology’s ability to improve lives is only as good as the people who yield it. We’ll give this one a C.
1995: Will we go back to the office?
I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterward I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, “Are you still doing typing?” Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, “OK, I’ll send you the pages.” –Kurt Vonnegut
In this piece, Vonnegut went on to say that he could work remotely and never speak to humans if he so wanted–but that people would, despite technological advances, always choose to be around one another. Was his prediction true? Forty-five percent of people in a 2020 study by Twingate said that they missed the office for one reason or another. We’ll have to see how life goes post-pandemic to know how much we stay away from one another when our lives no longer depend on it. This grade is marked Incomplete.