1995: The year the future began
Notable among the skeptics was astrophysicist Clifford Stoll whose 1995 book, Silicon Snake Oil, offered such predictions about the digital world as:
“I don’t believe that phone books, newspapers, magazines, or corner video stores will disappear as computer networks spread. Nor do I think that my telephone will merge with my computer, to become some sort of information appliance.”
And this howler: “Video-on-demand, that killer application of communications, will remain a dream.”
But the most spectacular, off-the-mark prediction of the year 1995 had to be that of Bob Metcalfe, the multimillionaire inventor of Ethernet technology and founder of 3Com Corporation. He also was publisher of InfoWorld, for which he wrote a weekly column called “From the Ether.”
In the issue of Infoworld dated December 4, 1995 — 20 years ago tomorrow — Metcalfe wrote that the Internet “will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 will collapse.” He identified a number of factors would bring about the Internet’s collapse, including security breaches, capacity overloads, and demand for video online.
Metcalfe upped the stakes in a follow-up commentary, promising to eat his Internet-collapse column should the “supernova” prediction prove wrong.
It did, of course.
As I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Metcalfe took the stage in April 1997 at an international World Wide Web conference in Santa Clara, California, and acknowledged that the Internet “supernova” had not occurred. He “handled the situation with his usual flair,” wrote the Infoworld editor-in-chief, Sandy Reed.
Metcalfe put to a voice vote the question of his eating the column; the response was overwhelming, a contemporaneous news account reported: “Eat, baby, eat,” conference-goers shouted. Metcalfe then wheeled onto the stage a large cake decorated to look like his InfoWorld column. He proposed to eat a large slice of the cake instead — a suggestion greeted with boos.
Metcalfe relented. He ripped his wrong-headed column from InfoWorld, tore it to shreds, and sprinkled the remains into an electric blender containing a bit of water. The blender whirred, producing a milky, pulpy substance. Then, to cheers from the his audience, Metcalfe ladled the goop into a bowl and slurped it down.
It was, he told the Economist magazine years later, his “greatest publicity stunt of all time.”
Metcalfe, now a professor of innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, reiterated that sentiment yesterday, in an email reply to my query about the approaching 20th anniversary of his errant prediction. “Best publicity stunt I ever did,” he wrote, adding that he is probably “better known for that mistaken prophecy than inventing Ethernet.”
Which probably is true.
A faintly amusing footnote to Metcalfe’s having slurped down the liquified Infoworld column: Before taking the stage at Santa Clara, he had assured himself that ink on the page he wasn’t toxic.
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