Here is a great way to learn about the present: look at how the past forecast it. It is a form of voyerism into prior perspectives, but it teaches interesting lessons too if you do not let one thing get in the way — the sense of superiority that comes from knowing how the future turned out.
Joshua Gans spotted this 1993 commercial from AT&T. At the time AT&T was the largest and most recognizable phone company in the world, not to mention a prior leader in new communications technologies (who wanted to retain that reputation). Notice the wonderful touches in the commercial. They get many things right, but a few are just off. The mistakes are informative.
* The commercial forecasts that someday you will be able to send a fax from the beach from your computer. That is basically right. Yet, they got that one wrong in two ways. The first mistake is obvious…Send a Fax?! How about email? In 1993 they did not want to discuss email? The second mistake is more subtle. The commercial presumes the message gets carried by a phone carrier — a wireless phone carrier (who?). I guess Wifi was just too far off in the distance.
* The next example is wrong in an interesting ways. It suggests that in the future you will want to tuck in your baby with video service over the phone. They got that sort of right. Yes, in today’s world we can do this. But the method is totally different than forecast. Today we would use the Internet, the Web, Skype and no phone at all. Were AT&T executives still smarting over the failures of the infamous Picturephone?
* There is one other thing they got terribly wrong as well… AT&T is not making much money in any of these markets today. There is a long story there….
By the way, if that commercial made you feel sentimental for the views of the past, then try this twenty year old sexy commercial about cell phones in 1989. The actors make very suggestive movements and the music soothingly sets up the embrace at the end….and, like good advertisers, the product gets mixed into the scenery in a relaxed way. Only one thing is wrong. The phone is a clunker! It is as big as a brick, and looks like the walkie talkies from the 1950s US military. Even a slide rule in a nerds pocket protector looks sexier than this.
Ah, makes me sentimental about the progress we have made…Hope you like it. Enjoy!