Here’s another look at the old WIRED magazines salvaged from my flooded basement. This time, the incredibly optimistic July 1997:
Oh, that cover declaring a 25 year boom is painful! We have seen some huge improvements but also some astounding setbacks in the 17 years since this was published. Let’s take a look at the tech world of 1997 and what we hoped and expected the near future to hold.
- pg 12-13: a Macintosh PowerBook 3400c ad that has the headline “What can you do with 240 MHz?” and brags about the built-in 33.6 Kbps modem. For reference, the laptop I’m using now has a 2.20 GHz processor.
- pg 14-15: an ad for the Saturn SC2 coupe. Heavy sigh. I owned a 1997 Saturn SL1 and I loved it. My current car is a 2004 Saturn Vue. The brand may not have lasted long, but they really were great cars for the price.
- pg 36: in the Rants & Raves section, a letter from a 15 year old girl that includes lines like, “What we don’t want is more nonsense that girls games must include pink, lace, makeup, shopping, and boys,” and “The makers of girl games need to wake up and realize that not everyone without a penis must wear makeup and chase blond surfers named Ken.” Ah Janie, you’re in your 30s now and things haven’t changed nearly enough, have they?
- pg 40: a GeoCities ad. Cue the spinning logo, under construction gif, and blink tag!
- pg 42: a small blurb about DVDs, listed as the “next Big Thing in consumer electronics”, and the annoying decision to make them regionally encoded.
- pg 47: Wow. A tiny blurb about Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who were only known for creating an edgy animated Christmas card for a Fox Broadcasting exec at the time. South Park debuted the month after this.
- pg 48: a couple paragraphs about wearable computers, in this case, the possibility to have a subdermal implant that can be read through the skin and can monitor a chronic condition like diabetes.
- pg 80: the Reality Check column, which asks a panel of experts their opinions on tech development, takes on the future of radio. One of them thought that digital audio broadcasting was unlikely to ever catch on, and two thought Internet radio wouldn’t eclipse terrestrial radio. A quote: “Besides, radios are cheap; computers aren’t. And computers involve a learning curve; radios don’t.” How quaint.
- pg 116+: the cover article. Oh my. It’s too big to tackle here. The authors didn’t anticipate many things, including: large terrorist attacks that provoked unending military responses, increasing and institutionalized economic inequality, how difficult some medical questions really are (they forecast that a gene therapy for cancer would be found around 2012), the rise of nationalism and fundamentalism, any negative effects of globalization, and pushback to (and evil corporate use of) genetic modification of livestock and crops. By now, they thought we would be voting online from home in presidential elections — no hackers or Bush v. Gore in their world. They thought we would have a “superpower nonaggression treaty” between the US, China, Europe and Russia, and instead we have more conflict with Russia than since the Cold War ended. They thought world GDP growth would top 6%; it’s actually projected to be 3.7% this year. They thought the Middle East would be out of oil and we’d have third stage hybrids that ran on pure hydrogen; instead, the US is now the world’s top oil producer and electric cars are still rare. They thought that organ donations from animals would be common, birth defects would be completely eliminated, and that education would be radically reformed from kindergarten through university. Oh, and human life expectancy should reach 120 next year. While they were a little closer on some of their computer industry predictions, they really overestimated humankind. To be fair, on page 129 they have a list of “Ten Scenario Spoilers” that includes a couple that came close. #3: Russia devolves into a kleptocracy run by a mafia or retreats into quasicommunist nationalism that threatens Europe. #10: A social and cultural backlash stops progress dead in its tracks. Human beings need to choose to move forward. They just may not… (I’ll suggest that human beings don’t agree on what “forward” means.)
- pg 153: a review of Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations. This is still such an important read. Then again, I speak as someone who believes that data visualization and information hierarchy should be key literacy units taught in high schools.
- pg 157: in the Just Outta Beta column, a paragraph about Blizzard’s new game Starcraft
- pg 164: an ad for HotBot (WIRED’s search engine) declaring that “AltaVista is History.” Google started as a college project the year after this magazine was published.