Science fiction writer William Gibson recently tweeted a snippet with ten bleak predictions from a 25-year-old cover story in "Wired" magazine, calling it "perversely pessimistic at the time." The tweet went viral. But those "spoilers" were really just an appendage to the larger story, which predicted a "long boom" and the blessings and benefits of a digital society. ZEIT ONLINE spoke with one of the two authors, Peter Leyden, exactly a quarter century after the story was published.
ZEIT ONLINE: William Gibson posted these 10 spoilers from your story on Twitter and many people said, oh, that guy saw all these catastrophes coming 25 years ago! But of course that wasn't the point of your article.
Peter Leyden: The main article called The Long Boom, at 14,000 words, was telling a story of the world from 1980 to 2020. And of course what was interesting was the speculation on the next 25 years to get you to 2020. In the mid-90s, most people had no idea how a digital economy could work. We were wrapping our heads around the fall of the wall and the Soviet Union, how that was going to open up the global economy. And so that was the idea behind the story: not to say exactly what's going to play out, but to give a visceral feeling of what could potentially happen, to lay out a positive narrative and not some crazy, dystopian disaster.
ZEIT ONLINE: How did you come up with the ten "spoilers"?
Leyden: At the time, I was working with one of the world’s greatest scenario planners, Peter Schwartz. Anyone who works in scenarios knows you can't just perfectly predict the future. And so, to the readers of Wired at the time, we said: look, not everything is going to go perfectly. There will be a lot of bumps in the road. Here's 10 of them that we think would be the most problematic. William Gibson, as a sci-fi writer, has a more negative spin on what's going on in the world. He picked those out and said, all ten of them did come about in some way. But the bigger story is they still didn't stop the digital revolution, globalization, or the rise of China and all these other things.
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ZEIT ONLINE: Maybe the reason for Gibson’s tweet going viral is that a lot of people would say that the current situation is worse than they ever experienced in their lifetime. All this stuff comes together: the war, the pandemic, global warming, the Supreme Court decision on abortion …
Leyden: … we did not predict that one!
ZEIT ONLINE: To put it in perspective for our readers: you wrote your story before Google existed, before the human genome was decoded, ten years before the first smartphone.
Leyden: 25 years ago, in July of ‘97, Apple Computer begged Steve Jobs to come back to take over as CEO. They were about three months away from total bankruptcy. But we all know they later become the first trillion dollar company. This shows you how far-fetched our vision was at the time. Amazon was simply selling books online, and they were losing money with that. So when we told this Long Boom story at the time, people thought we’ve got to be crazy.
ZEIT ONLINE: And three years later, the dotcom bubble burst. Was that something that made you rethink the whole thing?
Leyden: We didn't say it wasn't going to have its ups and downs and crashes and booms and all that stuff that happens all time around new technologies. When we said The Long Boom, we were talking about it on several levels: one, we're talking about a fundamental technology boom. We predicted that this new computer technology was going to scale up and get more powerful, and get in the hands of everybody on the planet eventually. And we were connecting that with this new telecommunications infrastructure called the Internet. When you put those two things together, we said that this historical tech boom was going to open up an economic boom. Over time, these digital companies would become some of the most valuable companies in the world, and they would essentially dominate the global economy by the 2020s. And that has totally played out.