Here at Paleofuture, we love failed predictions. It’s kind of our bread and butter. But shockingly, some of the failed predictions being passed around on the internet are often misleading, frequently taken out of context, or sometimes completely fabricated.
Fake quotes on the internet? Unbelievable, I know. But today we have seven predictions you may have seen recently as examples of “bad predictions.” They sound too good to be true. And that’s because they are.
1) “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” - Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the US patent office in 1899
This is perhaps the most popular “failed prediction” of our age. I think it’s now technically illegal to make a Powerpoint presentation about business innovation without this quote in your first slide.
The only problem? It’s totally fake. There’s no evidence that Duell ever said it. It gets debunked from time to time in books like Future Hype (2006) and Atomic Awakening (2009). But people still love quoting this absurdly fake prediction.
Sometimes it’s attributed to different years and people, like in 1939 when a newspaper columnist attributed the quote to an unnamed “man who resigned from the U.S. patent office in 1883.” But here in the 21st century, the fake quote is most often attached to Duell in 1899.
There’s a joke in an 1899 issue of Punch magazine that uses the line, but it’s unclear how this became attributed to the commissioner of the patent office — a man who would quite obviously never predict something so silly. On the off chance that he did say something using similar words (and again, there’s no primary source to back this up), he was almost certainly taken out of context.
2) “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” - Albert Einstein
People love to put words in Einstein’s mouth. It’s as if attributing some quote to Einstein makes it automatically infallible. Even the president of Macalester College (a fine institution that proudly boasts Kofi Annan amongst its alumni) tosses this quote around to complain about the scourge of social media.
But as Quote Investigator points out, there’s absolutely no evidence that Albert Einstein ever said this. In fact, the origin of this quote can be traced to a movie. It appears the quote is an altered version of a manufactured Einstein quote from the 1995 film Powder.
Donald Ripley: “It’s become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.” Powder: Albert Einstein. Donald Ripley: I look at you, and I think that someday our humanity might actually surpass our technology.
So there you have it: People here in the 21st century are bemoaning the fact that technology has overtaken “human interaction” by misquoting a fake Einstein quote from a 90s movie about a fictional genius with paranormal powers. Sounds about right.
Not only does Gates deny saying this, nobody can seem to find independent evidence that he did. Back in the mid-2000s, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations tried to track down where the quote came from to no avail.
“I’ve said some stupid things and some wrong things, but not that,” Gates himself wrote in 1997. “No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time.”
You can make anything sound dumb if you take it out of context. In the case of this quote, it sounds like a conservative magazine couldn’t foresee the online shopping revolution that was to come. In reality, the quote comes from a larger article about all of the amazing tech advances that were on the way. Time was simply summarizing the opinions of some skeptical (unnamed) futurists about the future of shopping from home.
The quote comes from the February 25, 1966 issue of Time magazine and certainly sounds a lot different when placed in context.
As for shopping, the housewife should be able to switch on to the local supermarket on the video phone, examine grapefruit and price them, all without stirring from her living room. But among the futurists, fortunately, are skeptics, and they are sure that remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop—because women like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.
The entire article is decidedly pro-technology, promising everything from telecommuting by videophone to cures for cancer by 2000 — a far cry from the techno-reactionary document that those of us who peddle in futurist-schadenfreude want it to be.
Buzzfeed uses the partial quote in a terribly misleading post filled with inaccuracies. But the prevailing futurist mindset of the time was definitely on the side of home shopping via TV and computers.
5) “It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology.” - John von Neumann in 1949
John von Neumann was a brilliant mathematician and a key figure in the history of computing. So how could he say such a thing? Again, we have a case of a quote being snipped into pieces and taken out of context.
The full quote? “It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology, although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in 5 years.”
So yes, von Neumann was indeed being a bit shortsighted. But he recognized in the same breath that he was almost certainly wrong. As a reminder, this is what a computer looked like in the late 1940s.
6) “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” - Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943
The only trouble with this quote? There’s no evidence that Watson ever said it. Some people have tracked down the earliest mentions of this quote to the mid-1980s. But despite this one being another staple of modern Powerpoint presentations about futurism and technology, no one has yet produced solid evidence that it’s real.
7) “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olsen, founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation in 1977
Olsen supposedly did say this at a World Future Society conference in 1977, but again we have an example of a quote being taken out of context. As Snopes explains, he wasn’t referring to personal computers, but instead was talking about enormous computers that would oversee the entire home. And this kind of skepticism was warranted, given all the promises that futurists were making in the 1970s about the way that homes of the 1980s would be plugged in.
In a way, Olsen was rejecting the sci-fi ideas of what we now call the internet of things. And if the techno-utopians prove right about the house of the next decade, he still has plenty of time to be wrong.
All images via Getty