Monday, 17 January 2011

How Wrong Can You Be?

The twentieth century saw technological, political and social change at a rate far quicker than ever before. Whilst in hindsight, some of the events and developments may today appear to have been inevitable; history has shown that on many occasions, influential and powerful leaders and experts often had little idea of just how drastically their world was to change.

Politically, the United Kingdom, and more widely, the world, would now be a very different place had the predictions of Margaret Thatcher and Neville Chamberlain been correct. Speaking in 1974, Thatcher declared that it would be “years -- not in my time -- before a woman will become Prime Minister”. In fact it would be only five years, and she would be in office – a momentous, although often controversial premiership that has shaped the way much of the British public views politics. On the 30th September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the then Prime Minister, made a statement, which was to be completely wrong little less than a year later when Britain declared war on Germany. Showing just how unexpected war was, he boldly declared that he believed it “is peace for our time”. Unfortunately, Britain found itself fighting arguably the world’s most tyrannical ruler, Adolf Hitler.

Political change, although often drastic, is often much harder to pre-empt and a major event can happen without much prior warning. In many ways, it is the inaccurate social and technological predictions that are most telling about how rapidly change was taking place. “We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out” was the verdict on the Beatles given by Decca Recording Co. Without realising, they had just rejected the biggest boy band of all time.

In regards to computing, computer manufacturer, IBM, has seriously underestimated the role that computers were to play in modern life not only once, but twice. In 1943, the company’s chairman, Thomas Watson said; “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers". This was followed in 1968 with, "But what ... is it good for?" by an engineer in regards to the microchip – a device heralded by Robert Winston as one of the ten biggest breakthroughs on his programme, ‘How Science Changed Our World’. It is yet to be seen whether our present day anticipation of the future will be any more accurate, but similar quotations and thoughts that have already been proven to be incorrect can be viewed on

Many thanks to SF for this post.

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