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Remember Googlezon?

By - January 25, 2011

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Lately I’ve become a bit obsessed with predicting the future. Not the present future, as in one year from now – I do that every year, after all. But the long-ish future, as in ten to twenty years out. That kind of a time horizon is tantalizing, because it’s within the reach of our reason – if only we play the right trends out, and anticipate new ones that could defensibly emerge.

I’ve often found that predicting the future is a waste of time, but reporting the future is a worthy endeavor. More on that in another post, but I learned this distinction from my mentors an co-founders at Wired back in the early 1990s.

Late last year the Economist asked me to predict what the world might be like in 2036. When they asked, I of course said yes, because heck, it’s very rare for anyone to get a byline in the Economist (most pieces run without credit). I think my predictions were OK, but I have to say I can’t defend them with any kind of rigorous framework.

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Over the past week or so, however, an idea has grown inside my mind, and I can’t shake it. I spend a lot of time thinking about where this Internet Economy is going, and I’ve grown tired of the short view. I’m itching for a wider vista, for a time frame that spans years, if not decades. Most of the blogs, news outlets, and pundits I read day-to-day are stuck in the short now. I want to think more about the long future.

So I’ve started looking for predictions that spanned at least a decade. And of course the first one that came to mind was EPIC 2014. I remember covering this short film in 2004, when it first came out. It caused quite a stir back then, because the scenario it painted seemed so…possible. And given that it was predicting events an entire decade later, it had a certain whiff of science fiction to it. We want to believe in science fiction – after all, it’s nothing more than proof that the future is already here, just unevenly distributed.

EPIC 2014 focused on one thread of our ever-changing Internet Economy – our relationship to media. Some six-plus years of heady change later, I wondered, how does it hold up? And what can we learn from watching it now, just a few years from its predictive date of 2014?

Well, depending on how you grade it, it’s either an utter failure, or pretty smart, given the constraints of the time.

Remember, after all, that in late 2004, Facebook didn’t really exist. Certainly the idea of the “social graph” was years from cultural currency. Twitter was utterly foreign. EPIC 2014 is interesting for the assumptions it makes, and what it got right, and what it got wrong. Here are few choice ones:

- The New York Times “goes offline.” This seemed vaguely possible only a year ago. Now, the Times seems quite a bit more healthy, and it’s certainly not going anywhere soon. In fact, most news outlets look to the Times as forging a new model for news, one that just might work.

- Google buys Tivo. Nope, but damn, I bet many wish they had. This assumes Google wants to be a really good interface to TV. Apparently, no one at Google got that memo, yet. Because all I have heard about Google TV is that the interface is way, way too hard to understand.

- Microsoft responds to Google by buying Friendster and creating “social news.” If only! That might have saved Friendster, if only for a year or two. But the thinking that social news would be really important was prescient. Microsoft would create this social news service by 2007, EPIC predicted. Well, the company did a major deal with Digg in early 08. How did *that* work out, eh?!

- Google will create a service called “Google Grid” – a smart prediction of cloud computing; with “subscriptions” to “editors” who add value to the grid. This presages Twitter and Tumblr, or the rise of social editors and supernodes, as I’ve written previously.

- Google and Amazon would join forces, with Amazon lending its recommendation smarts, and Google lending its grid computing. Oddly, Amazon is now the leader in cloud, with Google a close second. And so far, Google and Amazon haven’t become real partners, in fact, if anything they are poised to be mortal enemies given the fight over media distribution coming with Kindle, Android, Google TV, and Amazon’s streaming media ambitions.

Overall, what I find fascinating about EPIC is how it got the overarching trends right, in the main, but the timeline and the details, while supporting a compelling narrative, were utterly wrong. Yes, the cloud is coming, but man, it ain’t gonna take over the world in a mere five or six years! Yes, social news and social editing will be critical, but NO, the winners of the current day – Google, Amazon, and Microsoft – would NOT rule that world. Totally new and unpredictable startups – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr – own that space now. And in the meantime, a shooting star – Digg – came, flamed, and went!

All in all, I love EPIC 2014 just for the fact that it was made. Here and below is a link, again, to the video, this time on YouTube, which, of course, didn’t exist when EPIC was made.

I love the Internet.


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17 thoughts on “Remember Googlezon?

  1. Ciaran says:

    I’m a big fan of EPIC 2014 too, and also of its slightly younger brother, EPIC 2015. I can’t help thinking that you’re slightly too hard on it though, and think that it got a lot more of the important stuff right than it got wrong.

  2. Tumblr owns something? They registered tumblr.com, right? Did you hear that the company behind twitter.com also acquired twitter.co.uk?

    http://www.quora.com/What-advantages-might-there-be-if-twitter-com-were-to-roll-out-a-localized-version-of-twitter-com-for-the-UK-twitter-co-uk

    ;) nmw

  3. Gil Press says:

    This may not be the best example of long-term prediction. The most important statement in the video is the last one – “perhaps there was another way” – which reveals it to be just another desperate propaganda tool by the people who are scared by the prospect of the New York Times turning into a print-only “newsletter for the elite and the elderly.”

    Still, it points to some important dimensions of failed predictions, one of which is neglecting to consider issues of implementation. The relevant example here is “the Google grid,” which has been predicted (as utility computing, now called cloud computing) since the 1960s. Now that it is finally happening we can see that one last piece of the puzzle that did not exist in 2004 is server virtualization.

    Here’s an interesting discussion by Andrew Odlyzko of technology predictions
    http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~odlyzko/doc/intelligence.brute.force.txt

  4. Thanks you John, great article. I have has a recent resurgence with RSS due to Reeder for iphone and ipad. One issue I have always had is that Google stopped making Reader a great product. They need to buy up Reeder and get that interface nailed down. The ability to share thoughts with various social networks or save them for easy reading later is great. Also being able to quickly and easily go to the HTML version of a site is great. I dont necessarily need a new tab to open, just let me see a little bit.

  5. Contra Gil, I think this is a pretty good example of long-term prediction, because it highlights the primary motivation of predicting the future: changing it. In 2004, it was an open question whether or not the NY Times and other big media organizations would adapt to and embrace the internet; I think we can agree that our public discourse today would be poorer without them. This video served an important rhetorical purpose: a wakeup call to those organizations that things were changing, and fast. Don’t call this video desperate propaganda — call it successful.

  6. Nicholas Freeman says:

    Great article and thank you for bringing Epic 2014 to my attention as this was my first encounter with it. The film shows remarkable insight and obviously we are seeing some of its predictions come true with the advent of cloud computing technology.

    The one criticism of this video to be made, and I think you make it, is that these new technologies are not likely to allow the large corporations to monopolize the information industry. Quite the contrary, just as the technology allows virtually any individual to comment on news and be part of the discussion, so too will it allow new up-start companies to step in and gain prominence with cutting edge technology.
    Still, the overall warning to the established news industry that they had better find a way to stay relevant in an ever-changing word is worth heeding.

  7. Nicholas Freeman says:

    Great article and thank you for bringing Epic 2014 to my attention as this was my first encounter with it. The film shows remarkable insight and obviously we are seeing some of its predictions come true with the advent of cloud computing technology.

    The one criticism of this video to be made, and I think you make it, is that these new technologies are not likely to allow the large corporations to monopolize the information industry. Quite the contrary, just as the technology allows virtually any individual to comment on news and be part of the discussion, so too will it allow new up-start companies to step in and gain prominence with cutting edge technology.
    Still, the overall warning to the established news industry that they had better find a way to stay relevant in an ever-changing word is worth heeding.

  8. John says:

    Matt, great point: “because it highlights the primary motivation of predicting the future: changing it. “

  9. Teresa says:

    Hey, John. Why hasn’t LinkedIn done more to become a Facebook-for-professionals type of site? I have a FB account and have thought of creating a second one for my professional life. There are books, apps, blogs, etc., that I’d like to share with my business acquaintances and it would be so convenient to use FB to do that. But my family/friends on FB aren’t interested in those things. And there are things I share with family/friends that I don’t want to share with my business contacts. LinkedIn just doesn’t have the functionality and user-friendly GUI (is that still a term?) that FB does. Seems LinkedIn and FB would be getting together on this. Your thoughts?

  10. Andriana says:

    I thunk about quite the contrary, just as the technology allows virtually any individual to comment on news and be part of the discussion, so too will it allow new up-start companies to step in and gain prominence with cutting edge technology.

  11. Tom says:

    Speaking of Microsoft and the Social Web…

    Forget Digg, Friendster and the rest… They’ve got a gem that’s still hardly been tapped…

    X-box already has high penetration into homes and has so much potential it makes my head spin!

    Okay, it’s not a ‘mobile device’ (yet) but take a look at this Kinnect video…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DujMF_zJqPc&

    I don’t know about you… and its still early but this is gonna get close to obliterating physical distance as a barrier to social interaction. And this has implications in far more than gaming, selling stuff… and kids chatting about movies.

    We are living in interesting times.

  12. Well, it’s Yahoo and Bing teaming up this year. And eBay is losing money. Who’d have predicted that?

  13. Marcus Sedlar says:

    “Yes, social news and social editing will be critical, but NO, the winners of the current day – Google, Amazon, and Microsoft – would NOT rule that world. Totally new and unpredictable startups – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr – own that space now. “
    Agree! And there are already a couple of innovative products in that area such as tweetedtimes.com

  14. sewa mobil says:

    Nice article, thanks for the information.

  15. Nick Lamothe says:

    Now it’s time for us to predict ten years out.

    I’m wondering if value to off-line advertising will rise as most people focus on, and continue to clutter, the available web space. As advertisers drop in print, even if numbers are declining, those who do use it will have “prime real estate.”

  16. Bob Leonard says:

    classic analysis..!! Catching the trends is what predicting the future is, not knowing the who(s). Loved and still love 2014 and even though it may be a few years off on the scale, I think it is pretty accurate about the Times. Phil Meyer wrote a book in the mid 90s, The Vanishing Newspaper, that predicted the last newspaper would be printed in 2017… I believe that prediction might be closer…