“It’ll never amount to a thing.”

Psalter World Map (c.1265), Wikipedia

Just saw Singin’ in the Rain last night and laughed at all the e-book references.

[after the demonstration of a talking picture]
R.F. Simpson: What do you think of it, Dexter? 
Rosco: It’ll never amount to a thing. 
Olga: [with heavy, snotty accent] Its vulgar! 
Cosmo Brown: That’s what they said about the horseless carriage.

That movie was released in 1952–a perfect example of what tvtropes.org calls the “It Will Never Catch On” trope. We get to laugh at those obtuse people in the past for refusing to see the obvious.

I thought: what a great idea for a blog post. I’m an indie e-book writer–I’ll compile a bunch of false predictions about the failure of an emerging technology over the past century or two. Off the top of my head I thought of automobiles, radio, TV, and microwave ovens. There had to be a dozens more. It would be a great post.

Of course, like so many great ideas, this particular light bulb had already lit up over other peoples’ heads. Michael Hyatt of Thomas Nelson Publishers, in fact, had already compared the trope to e-books in particular:

In 1442, “I will never get used to a book. It doesn’t feel right. I just love the experience of unrolling a scroll and the beauty of hand-written words.” Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type and the mechanical printing press in 1439.

I found this gem, too. Newsweek (now infamously) predicted the failure of the Internet:

By Clifford Stoll | NEWSWEEK
From the magazine issue dated Feb 27, 1995
After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

 Then I hit the Google Motherlode. I’d already accepted the idea that my Original Idea was already a cliche…but I wanted more examples. Eureka! Love those English teachers. In 1997, not long after the Newsweek prophesy about nothing coming out of e-anything, the English Teachers Network wrote up a great page of Prediction Quotes. Here’s a sampling:

  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
  • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876.
  • “”The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

Not all false predictions throughout history have been pro-technology, pro-Big Change. For instance, it’s already 2011 and we neither have jet packs nor Mars vacations.

But when big change happens, even after it has happened, we often don’t notice for years afterward. Especially when we have a vested interest in things staying the same.

5 thoughts on ““It’ll never amount to a thing.”

  1. Gretchen Galway says:

    And this blogging thing? Just a bunch of losers in their pajamas.

    (Which always made me wonder: what's the matter with pajamas? All the most advanced people in Star Trek walked around in their pajamas.)

  2. Sarah says:

    Thank goodness for Star Trek or some of these invention never would have made it. <3 Sci Geeks.

  3. Gretchen Galway says:

    Yay Sci Geeks! Also Romance Geeks, Mystery Geeks, Thriller Geeks, Horror Geeks, YA Geeks, SCA Geeks, Poetry Geeks, Lit Geeks, Comic Geeks…

    Geeks in general. General Geeks.

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