What Futurists Got Right – and Pretty Wrong – Three Decades Ago

Futurist Ray Kurzweil made some wild-sounding predictions as the second millennium came to a close. In his book “The Age of Spiritual Machines,” he predicted we’d be living to 100, computers would be invisible, and privacy would be a massive issue. Oh, and books would be dead.

So, how’d he do? Close but no cigar on many of these predictions, according to Grace Hauck in USA Today.

“While Kurzweil may have accurately predicted health-related gadgets (such as fitness watches, BioScarves and EKG apps for your smartphone), he jumped the gun on life expectancy,” Hauck writes.

“In 2019, the average life expectancy of the global population was 72.6 years, according to the United Nations. That average is slightly higher in the USA, at 78.6 years in 2017, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.”

Privacy, as we all know, has become a flashpoint in political and social discussions, and computers are all but invisible with keyboards and cables become rarer, as Kurzweil expected. Self-driving cars, personal electronic companions (hey Siri), and unmanned spacecraft on Mars all point to a future that’s unfolding as predicted … with some glaring exceptions.

“Though the net revenue of the U.S. book publishing industry has decreased since 2014, the industry still sold 675 million print books and brought in nearly $26 billion in 2018, according to the Association of American Publishers’ annual report,” Hauck notes.

Kurzweil’s prediction might have seemed reasonable from a technical perspective – he’s right that most paper documents and books are now scanned and available digitally. But it seems he didn’t factor in the human connection to print.

Instead, print forgot to die, and media brands can take away a huge lesson here. We’ve seen print publishers face existential challenges about what and who they should be going forward. And the results have been unexpected and in many ways exciting to see.

Change has been the prevailing word for this past decade, with many publishers leaning back toward paid content models, expanding into new revenue channels, and positioning themselves to move beyond the digital ad duopoly. The one change that means the most to me? I no longer hear the incessant mantra that print is obsolete.

Instead, I see digital-first brands launching print publications as brands seek to connect on a more human level. I see print taking its rightful place as the long pants of brand fashion, signaling a more mature approach to marketing strategy. And I see print … in magazines, catalogs, direct mail, books, and all the rest… offering a digital weary audience the respite they seek from their online experience.

Print continues to evolve as it has for more than 2,000 years. It’s going to take more than one decade of tech advances to change our basic relationship with this most tangible form of communication.

For media brands, the takeaway – and the prediction for the next 20 to 30 years – is simple: Make money by doing what works for your audience. None of these technological advances and predictions would have come true without some buy-in from the people who make them real. Understand this, and your predictions for your business could get a fresh perspective this year.