Virtual Worlds: Reassessing Our Tech Predictions 25 Years Later

7 min
 (Mark Fiore/KQED)

In 1993, AT&T ran a series of advertisements that predicted a future where technology would grant us all sorts of conveniences. The ads show a world with cars that display digital maps, telephones that stream live videos and kiosks where you can buy concert tickets.

There's even a kicker that says someday, maybe soon, we'll even have the ability to send a fax from the beach. All of these utopian dreams unfold over an upbeat soundtrack, and every ad ends with the narrator saying "you will."

Almost every promise in those ads has come true, but not exactly in the way AT&T predicted. While AT&T might have shown us these possibilities, it was not the company that brought many of these technologies to the market. And the predictions AT&T made are all slightly askew.

The ads show people buying concert tickets from an ATM machine, making video calls from a pay phone and sending their beach messages through a fax. It was a vision of the future projected on the technological apparatuses of the early 1990s.

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The 1993 AT&T ads served as a starting point for a story KQED reporter Peter Jon Shuler was working on at the time. His piece was about how emerging technological innovations were shaping work and allowing people to work anytime, anywhere. “Telecommuting” was the buzzword back then. Shuler's story was part of a five-part series about the emerging “virtual world.”

Shuler introduces his story with AT&T's promise that one day we would "fax from the beach."

“The implied promise is that the new technology will free us from the bounds that constrain us," Shuler wrote. "Lock the doors and head for the beach.”

That line has more than a tinge of sarcasm in the radio story. You can tell he was far from convinced.

Shuler said that back then he felt like emerging technologies were creating an environment where everyone, including him, was expected to do more — to always be on and available.

“I was feeling harried and miserable and overworked and stressed, and so I started to explore this topic,” he said.

The Old and the New

As a newly hired Silicon Valley reporter at KQED, one of my goals is to give some perspective on how internet companies here are shaping the region and our society at large. To do that, I wanted to get some perspective on what things were like here in the early days of the internet. I immediately searched for Shuler, who has been reporting on the Valley for more than 25 years.

Shuler directed me to a digitized archive where he'd uploaded some of the stories he produced as the internet was just beginning to take off. I asked him what it was like to listen to those pieces today, and Shuler said he was struck by how optimistic and generally uncritical he and others seemed of the “brave new world of new technology” emerging around them.

A young Peter Jon Shuler interviews a protestor on the Stanford campus back in the 1990s. (Paul Sakuma)

That is not the case with the stories Shuler produced for KQED’s series on "virtual worlds," particularly the one about technology and work. That piece has holds even more resonance today. “Everything the sources said in the piece was true then,” Shuler said, “and it is even more true now.”

It has been 25 years since Shuler filed his story, which he titled "Techno Slaves." As part of a new series that examines our current relationship with technology, we decided to take a look back at Shuler's reporting and check in with those people he interviewed a quarter century ago.

Pondering the Digital Chain

The first person I got in touch with from Shuler's story was Maureen Glancy. At the time Shuler interviewed her, she was a professor  at San Jose State University. Back then, Glancy described feeling terrorized by all the little flashing red lights on her new office phone messaging system. Each one was a voicemail that she would be forced to deal with. Today, Glancy has retired from SJSU and gone on to teach children and adults how to make Renaissance-period handicrafts.

As you can probably deduce from her hobby choice, Glancy isn't impressed by the track technology has taken over the years. She told me that because of smartphones, we are always available, always on call. She said “the chain” is never unbroken. The chain. That’s the same metaphor Shuler used in his story.

“We find ourselves encumbered by a ponderous digital chain that binds us to the workplace wherever we go," he wrote.

Glancy told me that if she closes her eyes, she can still see those little, red lights blinking away on her office answering machine, each one a task demanding her attention.

The second source in Shuler's story is a man named Jeff Johnson, who was described as a computer interface expert and chairman of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. Johnson, like many of the sources in the story, was worried that emerging technology was not giving us more free time, but just increasing the expectation that we get more done faster.

Johnson now teachers computer science at the University of San Francisco. When I played the old story for him, he laughed. “We were savvy in a way at that time, but still kind of naive,” Johnson said.

Back in the mid-1990s, Johnson’s big worry was that major companies would take over the internet and turn it into an information network predicated on shoving ads at people and encouraging them to buy everything online. Johnson wrote about these fears in an article titled "The Information Highway From Hell: A Worst Case Scenario."

For a live scene with some of the newest gadgetry on display, Shuler visited the office of a Dan Shafer, a “power user” of the latest technologies. Shafer had such cutting-edge technology as a Mac Quadra and a "cellular" phone.

After Shuler interviewed him in 1993, Shafer continued to write about technology, but he also became the “spiritual teacher in residence” at Unity Monterey Bay. I found Shafer's Facebook page, which was still up even though Shafer had passed away about a year ago.

Through Shafer's old church, I got in touch with his widow, who was pleased and shocked I had tracked her down. She thanked me for calling and asked me to send Shuler's story so she could hear her deceased husband’s voice. This doesn't have anything to do with the story, but it was a touching reminder of the power of audio to preserve a moment, or in this case, a person in time.

Deus Ex Machina

The last source in Shuler's story is Paul Saffo. He was, and still is, a “technology forecaster.” He's a professor at Stanford University School of Engineering. Back then, Saffo was skeptical about some of the utopian promises being attached to the internet and computing, especially as it related to work.

“The danger is that we will allow the anytime, anyplace office to become the every time, everyplace office," Saffo told Shuler.

When I spoke with Saffo, he described the '90s as a period of unbridled optimism about technology. But he wasn't surprised by the sentiment. He said it followed a typical pattern.

“When new technology arrives, inevitably we approach it with naive optimism,” Saffo said. “It is going to be the thing that solves all of our problems, cures the common cold and brings in world peace. That’s exactly how everybody looked at the worldwide web and what we now call social media."

Saffo still has an admiration of computers and the internet. He fondly recalls his college days of playing on Harvard's big mainframe computer and hacking telephones or "phone freaking." But unlike 1993, Saffo says it is now far less fashionable to be so optimistic about technology. He believes we need to be wary of the dangers of our digital creations.

"As Heraclitus put it so nicely a couple of millennia ago, nothing new comes into our lives without a hidden curse," Saffo said. "And the more powerful the thing is, the more subtle the curse."

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Over the last 25 years, we have unleashed things far more powerful than a fax machine you can take to the beach, a pay phone with a video screen or an ATM where you can buy concert tickets. By Heraclitus's logic, the curses today will be far more subtle than those of Shuler's time.

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