We’re accustomed to a model of technological innovation that works like this: a mysterious project introduced on a stage, then takes the world by storm. Think of the iPhone, say, or the first Apple Mac, or, further back, Post-Its.
Yet that’s not the only way new tech succeeds. Another pattern we know from history is more public and less rapid. This is when inventions appear, then fail to conquer. They go underground, mutate, develop, mature, then eventually reappear and prosper. Think, for example, of ebooks, which first appeared circa 1980 (!), and trundled along as a marginal thing until Amazon made the Kindle go big in 2007. That’s nearly 30 years.
Or consider virtual reality, which had a fun boomtime in the 1990s, complete with a media feeding frenzy, rapid technology development, and plenty of experimentation. That boom then fell into spectacular bust, and VR vanished, becoming at best a byword for technological paths not taken (which helps explain Jaron Lanier’s subsequent bitterness). Only recently has VR come roaring back to some measure of adoption and commercial heft. That’s twenty years, which is roughly a geological epoch in internet time. It’s even longer than that, if we consider pre-1990 VR work.
Artificial intelligence is another instance. It’s been dreamed of and worked upon since the mid-20th-century, and only now starting to realize world-transforming powers.
So let’s combine views of the past with prospects of the future. Are there any other digital technologies that failed to crack the popularity code or just sank without a trace, that we might see bob to the surface in the next few years?
For example, during the 2000s virtual worlds went through a spectacular boom and bust cycle, notably in the meteoric arc of Second Life. Will they come back? After all, many of us inhabit virtual worlds called computer games; we just don’t call them Metaverses. And VR’s immersive powers suggest we might be able to realize some virtual world dreams through headsets and goggles after all.
Should we expect peer to peer computing to return? Around 2001 this was a gleaming technology filled with promise for decentralizing the web. Instead it went semi-underground via vile sharing and torrents, while the rest of the web fell madly in love with centralization. Now thoughtful skepticism if not open terror is rising in the wake of the Five Horsemen’s triumph (Alphabet (i.e., Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft); will we turn back to p2p’s old promise?
Responses to my “back to RSS” post are partly what’s behind this question. RSS is another early 21st-century technology of promise, which collapsed into the silence of iTunes and fell to our goofy Facebook newsreading habits. Yet people are increasingly irked by the Zuckerbergsphere’s habit of randomly shuffling our news, not to mention deliberately probing our privacy. Could a new iteration of RSS roar into public view?
Which digital tech might take us back to the future? What laughed-at old dreams are now incubating away from the TED stage, inching towards love once again?