We came across this magazine recently in our shop. Twenty years ago, the May 31, 1993 edition of Newsweek featured a cover story that envisioned what the future might hold once information began to race along a looming “superhighway.” While this fast approaching digital revolution was undeniable, the details of how it would change everyday life for all of us were largely unclear. Change on that scale is both exciting and intimidating, as we all have learned over the past two decades. With speculation rampant, Newsweek journalists Bill Powell, Anne Underwood, Seema Nayyar, Charles Fleming, Barbara Kantrowitz and Joshua Coooper Ramo envisioned a surprisingly accurate overview of how technology was preparing to change our lives.
Arguably the most impressive techonological accomplishment during my early childhood was the NASA moon landing. I remember being aware in 1969 that my grandmother, who lived with us and was born in the 1890s, had been my age at a time when even flight seemed a ridiculous concept. Now she was sitting beside me watching a man step out onto the moon’s surface. That fast pace of change in one lifetime has of course continuted to accelerate. The world of 1993, only twenty years ago, stood on the cusp of the digital revolution, although the term “internet” was still largely unknown. 27% of American households had a home computer, but many admitted to using it less than 5 hours a week! Fiber-optic cable was far from universal, movies were rented at brick-and-mortar stores to be viewed on VCRs. The CD ROM was an amazing new invention that could store video, music or text on one disk but needed a specialized player to be accessed.
In their focus on the potential of what was about to happen, Newsweek chose the concept of “interactivity.” The future would allow consumers to be participants in their consumption of entertainment and services, no longer just a “couch-potato” who passively viewed and absorbed information. The missing pieces in 1993 for this sea change were the expansion of fiber optic cable networks to connect us, and huge investments in infrastructure, technology and content that the major players in the cable, communications and entertainment sectors were deploying. Looking ahead from this landscape in 1993 with amazing prescience, Newsweek envisioned:
- Video phones with clear pictures (and lens covers to ensure privacy)
- “New age goggles” and virtual reality that a “mighty computer” would be able to deliver
- Lightweight, compact laptop computers. “Work will never be more than a keystroke away.”
- HDTV with a sharper than ever screen picture
- Software to be used for education.
- “Viewer-directed” movies and video games where the user can choose alternate endings or direct the entire action.
- On-demand movies and channel selections. (In 1993, only one network in California offered “interactive TV programming” where you bought a device for $199, then paid $15 to interact with game shows or predict sporting events.)
- An early concept of “icons” on a computer screen that search the “superhighway of information” for news uniquely tailored to a person’s interests…. and then connect to other people with those same interests – social media in it’s infancy!
A central concept our 1993 world had trouble envisioning was through what devices in our households would we be accessing this interactivity, and who would be paying to do so. Would it be through our TVs, phones or personal computers? If these “smart boxes” as Newsweek calls them, grow too complicated, would people want to deal with them after a long day’s work? How much would we be willing to pay to access banking, entertainment, or investment information?
This article also accurately foresaw the dilemnas and coming ethical conflicts our new interactivity would generate:
- Al Gore was advocating for a “scheme to build a nationwide fiber-optic network,” and is quoted as saying this “data superhighway” will be the ” ‘most important marketplace of the 21st century.’ ” – He got that right.
- “It’s quite possible that some entrepreneur in a garage is coming up with a really new idea that will forever alter the best-laid plans.” – A premonition of Zuckerberg and Facebook, perhaps?
- “Who will protect the privacy of consumers whose shopping, viewing and recreational habits are all fed into one cable-phone company data bank?” – an early understanding of the complexity of privacy issues that abound today.
- “The government could electronically spy on individuals; bosses could track employees.” – Edward Snowden was about 9 years old when this was written.
- Of the major players in the industry in 1993 – U S West, Time Warner, AT&T, TCI, Microsoft, Intel, General Instrument, Sega, MCA – Newsweek realized these would “live or die based on the decisions they make in the next decade…. Not everyone is going to make it. Those that do could change everything.”
With all they got right, what is the most surprising thing Newsweek missed in their look ahead? That their magazine itself would, in twenty years time, cease print production at the end of 2012, becoming an online-only digital publication.
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