What Happens When Your Tech Predictions Tank

A New York Times software columnist revisits his prognostications from the 1980s.

In the 1980s, Erik Sandberg-Diment was a household name in Silicon Valley.

He had what was at the time a radical gig at The New York Times, or any other mainstream publication for that matter. He was a software and technology columnist, and wrote weekly reviews and reflections about the burgeoning personal computing industry. It was an era when terms like “pixels,” “megabytes,” and “floppy disks” earned painstaking explanations, and printers came with sound shields because they were so noisy.

In recent years, there’s been something of a Sandberg-Diment revival online; his archived work occasionally pops up on forums like Reddit and Hacker News. Picking apart predictions of the past has long been a beloved parlor game among history buffs and technologists, and Sandberg-Diment’s oeuvre is a particularly rich trove—owing largely to the confluence of his lively and assertive writing style and the technologically dynamic time at which he was covering computing.

In 1985, for example, Sandberg-Diment declared laptops would never be a mass-market technology. “On the whole, people don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper,” he wrote. “Somehow, the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a keyboard grafted on as an extension of their fingers. It just is not so ... Because no matter how inexpensive the machines become, and no matter how sophisticated their software, I still can't imagine the average user taking one along when going fishing.”

Before that, he had predicted people would never use laptops on airplanes because the Federal Aviation Administration would ban the devices. (Although reporters eventually raised questions about the safety of carry-on laptops, the FAA never banned them.)

Then there was the time, in 1984, when he a wrote a piece decrying windows as a misguided fad. (Windows, in this case, meaning the kind used to display multiple programs running on the same computer at once.) “In the somewhat pretentious pep talk of the software industry, windowing was to emulate the familiar, comforting desktop, a cluttered one at that,” he wrote. “But it is extremely difficult to use efficiently a system that displays bits and pieces of documents in windows next to and above and below each other, like so many papers spread out in overlapping piles on a desk with just their edges sticking out here and there to identify them. So little was visible of each document, so few identifying lines, that the user often simply forgot what was hidden underneath.”

He also dismissed email no better than snail mail. “When all is said and done, electronic mail is no more efficient, in the vast majority of cases, than the telephone or the postal service it is supposed to replace,” he wrote in 1985. (He also criticized email’s decentralized infrastructure, which is widely heralded as perhaps its greatest feature today.)

In 1987, he insisted that personal computers would not be the “linchpins of the paperless office,” as many suggested. And he wrote more than one diatribe against computer graphics as going nowhere. (“Frankly, I find the prettiest picture a business can present is an attractive bottom line on the accountant's statement—in plain black and white,” he wrote in 1985.) That included the idea that Print Shop, the letterhead- and sign-making program, would never take off. Instead, it went on to become one of the best-selling pieces of software in the United States for more than 100 weeks, a fact Sandberg-Diment pointed out in a subsequent column.

In fact, Sandberg-Diment was acutely aware of the perils of prognostication, and he acknowledged as much repeatedly in his columns over the years.  “[W]e know from past ‘futures’ that reality, when it arrives, rarely concurs with prediction,” he wrote in 1982.

When I reached Sandberg-Diment by phone this week to ask if he’d be willing to reflect on some of his past perspectives on technology, his first reaction was to let out a hearty laugh.

“So I was wrong about laptops,” he said, then paused for a moment.

“But I turned out to be right. I hate to put my foot in it again, but the laptop is at the bottom part of the curve,” he said, referring to the rise of smartphones.

The thing is, he really wasn’t wrong all the time—far from it, actually. When Sandberg-Diment said laptops would never leave niche markets, the machines could cost upward of $7,000 and the lightest-weight models clocked in at over 18 pounds. His annoyance with windows wasn’t off-base either. It’s still possible to display multiple windows at once, but many people prefer to minimize programs not in use, or toggle between tabs.

And other times, Sandberg-Diment was outright prescient.

In 1984, he predicted the rise of specialized apps (in the context of word-processing packages, but still). And in 1987, he described the paradox that would accompany the arrival of the Information Age: the idea that being confronted with more data actually leads to a narrowing of views, not unlike the concept known today as the Filter Bubble. (“But if we are to retain any kind of perspective on the role of humankind in the future,” he cautioned, “we must sometimes stand back and view the landscape, not merely a tree.”)

That same year he imagined pop-up ads—which wouldn’t be created for another decade. “I foresee an appalling trend in which users powering up their computers and preparing for work will routinely be greeted with computerized commercials,” he wrote in 1987.

He predicted the ascendance of the digital mouse way back in 1982, and, later, the rise of networked computers in the workplace. He also had several accurate predictions about the ways in which computers and the Internet would eventually disrupt publishing.

He imagined a machine like Paige M. Gutenborg, Harvard Book Store’s custom book-printer, more than 20 years before it existed. “It takes no great deal of imagination to envision a bookstore of a decade hence filled with 'sample’ volumes only,” Sandberg-Diment wrote in 1983. “Pick a title, and the book you wanted would be printed and bound for you on the spot.”

That same year, he described a near-future in which readers would focus on screens rather than paper: “Instead of slumping in the easy chair with an ugly lump of wood pulp, tomorrow's readers would sit erect, alert, and jut-jawed, before a video screen, scanning all the news of all the world, or plugged in to the entire contents of the British Museum Reading Room, including all the world's works-in-progress as of five minutes ago.”

In 1983, he suggested that computers might “replace an antiquated distribution system and totally alter our means of acquiring reading material.” And he predicted the rise of a publish-anything culture in which even bots can scrape and aggregate content. He wrote this in 1984: “I have the impression we are heading toward a future filled with the emperor’s new words, where word processing cranks out fast-food prose, becoming to writing what Xerography has become to the office memo: a generator of millions of copies of contentless words assembled for appearance’s sake—rarely read, much less reflected upon.”

Judging from a decade’s worth of Times columns, Sandberg-Diment’s understanding of technology was obviously profound—though he insisted to me that he’s really a Luddite. (When I countered that Luddites don’t build their own computers, as he had, he scoffed. “That was just following instructions.”)

He was also critical by default, and didn’t hesitate to call out software developers for having “infectious enthusiasm” about products that were nothing more than “vaporware.” And he was skeptical not just of the software he was reviewing but of technology generally. This attitude is somewhat surprising for a man who, in 1977, founded the magazine ROM: Computer Applications For Living. Then again, Sandberg-Diment has long been a self-described curmudgeon, too.

Today, Sandberg-Diment’s cynicism about technology is as robust as ever. “When I started Rom, I had all sorts of hopes for computers somehow—that they would do wonderful things for mankind,” he told me. “To be honest with you, I’ve been utterly disappointed. I think they’ve done more to destroy culture and society than they’ve helped.”

“I don’t know if technology went wrong or if we just went wrong,” he continued. “Yes, it’s very handy to be able to Google things instantly. It’s very handy to be able to use email, etcetera, etcetera. But it’s also very isolating. I find that the degree of human-human rather than computer-human interaction has decreased. Personally, I am—as you can probably tell—fairly stuck in the past.” That’s part of what prompted him to take up painting again after many decades, he told me. “I purposely developed a style of painting that exposed my emotions and could never be produced by those little buggers,” he said, referring to computers. “Note the word ‘never’—there I go again, sticking my neck out.”

And yet Sandberg-Diment seems optimistic about the direction of technology in spite of himself. “The advances in technology in the next 20 years are going to be incredible,” he told me, quickly adding that “incredible” doesn’t necessarily mean uniformly positive. He worries that people are “losing contact with the real world.”

“Like most kids in the ’50s and ’60s, I was impressed by computers when they first came out,” he said. “The best I can say is I expected something more and I expected something less. My techie friends are going to kill me, but I did not expect the isolation and the reduction of humanity.”

Sandberg-Diment, who eventually left journalism to start a company manufacturing rivets for space shuttles, is good-natured about the revival of his columns among collectors of terrible tech predictions from the past.

“It really doesn’t bother me,” he told me. In some ways, he joked, it’s flattering. One list, he says, featured Sandberg-Diment alongside Thomas Watson, the former IBM president, who in the 1940s speculated that there would be a world market for “maybe five computers.”

“Foretelling the future is indeed perilous, and perhaps never more so than when it involves technology,” Sandberg-Diment wrote for the Times in 1983. “Nonetheless, speculation is tantalizing and makes good reading.”

Maybe it was for old time’s sake that he threw out a bit of prognosticating in an email after our phone conversation. “It seems to me Facebook is rapidly taking over from e-mail,” he wrote. “Don’t feel the same about Twitter, which I think is heading the way of MySpace.”