Aurora Magazine

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Every year The Economist looks ahead – this was their cover in 1998

The World in 1998

Julian Saunders looks back 25 years and concludes that what humans do with an invention is uncontrollable, but that old-fashioned virtues endure, especially when dealing with our customers.
Updated 16 Jan, 2024 03:01pm

No smartphones, no China-USA rivalry, no 9/11 and little talk of global warming. When Aurora was launched it was a different world.

The World in 1998 (The Economist’s annual attempt at futurology) is a time capsule of how brainy types saw the world (albeit through Western eyes) back then. So, I thought I would analyse it as a way to celebrate 25 years of peerless journalism at Aurora.

Commentators have often been convinced that change is speeding up. The early 19th century was understood by contemporaries to be a time of seismic change. The dynamic force? The invention of new “general-use technologies” like the railways and the factory system. Completely new phenomena then followed: the growth of suburbs, commuting to work and travelling to the seaside on holiday. Grimy industrial towns mushroomed that sucked in labour from the countryside.

The technology dynamic: Our equivalent general-use technologies are the internet and computer chips. Technology has a particular dynamic that makes prediction difficult. Think of it as waves that start small, gather pace and scale and then surge through society, bringing destruction and creation, and new winners and losers.

Bill Gates gets closest in 1998: The award for best effort at futurology went to Bill Gates who wrote a piece called The Web Lifestyle. His ideas were surprising and new at the time. There is almost no topic for which you cannot find fairly interesting material on the web. Want to buy a dog? Or sell a share? Or order a car? Use the internet. Reading the Gates piece today is like watching an artist sketch in outlines on a canvas. Some shapes can be seen, but there is little detail. The web in 1998 was text; within a decade it would carry images and video with the arrival of high-speed broadband. Gates noted that the true revolution had yet to come. Change will accelerate, he said, when general-use technologies become dramatically cheaper and better. We now know that they nourished a blossoming of free mass applications. Microsoft in 1998 sold software on physical discs. The company missed out on the free, social media revolution kicked off by the likes of Myspace. The revolution turned out to be downloadable with added viruses, not on a floppy disc.

The Digital Revolution and e-business: In 1998, an ad from IBM was also prescient. The future of business begins with e-business. Thousands of businesses have taken the first step to becoming an e-business by establishing a website to publish information. The second step is moving to self-service websites, where customers can do things like check their account status or trace a package. This is harder to implement but the potential return is great. Right in general but not in detail. Increased processing power and miniaturisation lead to the smartphone. Most people are now carrying a small supercomputer, and e-commerce can be conducted anywhere on the move.

The Green Revolution and cars: Some technological transformation has turned out to be much slower than predicted: 1998 will see the first real challenge to the hegemony of the conventional internal combustion engine. The alternative car of the future will be hybrid. Its engine will be electric but it will not depend on the battery alone. The simplest of these hybrids is coming onto the market in Japan. Hybrids were thought of as ‘interim tech’ on the way to the pure electric car revolution. There are still big barriers to mass adoption today: expensive cars, an underdeveloped second-hand market, early stage battery technology and a network of rechargers that is both patchy and unreliable. This revolution will rely on government intervention and China, which is starting to produce large volumes of cheap electric cars. Electric cars are still the opposite of affordable and easy – the reliable predictors of mass technology diffusion.

American politics as a game show: In 1998 The Economist was right about the direction of travel of American politics. Its political life in 1998 will be as trivial as a game show. Mr Clinton’s big idea was universal healthcare. That debacle cost the Democrats the Congress and into the ascendency swept Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolutionaries. Mr Gingrich’s big idea was small government, an aim he pursued with such zeal that for a while he actually forced the federal government to shut down. The small government versus big government fault line still runs through US politics, which has become even more tribal. Nobody imagined that a US president would be elected who was famous for fronting a game show. H.L. Mencken called it right when he wrote: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Seduced by the charms of New Labour: In 1998, The Economist was agog at the charisma of Tony Blair: The Queen is a virtuous woman in every way (yet) she is nevertheless devoid of flair and imagination. Her new prime minister once played in a rock band. It is hard to see Her Majesty on a lead guitar. Set in her ways since early childhood, the Queen has always reigned by the book – and the book is now out of date if not yet out of print. The Queen’s “stiff upper lip” looked out of touch. But when it came to “brand management” it turned out she had the better long-term vision. Commitment to duty and community proved enduring in a society discombobulated by rapid change. Blair’s New Labour now looks like a flashy, ephemeral project.

So, what have I learnt: You ain’t seen nothing yet. Our general-use technologies have been cheap and pervasive for less than 20 years. It took over 50 years for Britain to be heavily industrialised and railways to reach into the corners of the land.

Technologies overlap and interact in waves. The internal combustion engine is over 100 years old. Our addiction to it is destroying the planet today. Super-fast computers process huge volumes of data, fast and that technology enables affordable AI (the next big wave) which may or may not lead to a new invention that prevents more global warming.

What people do with an invention, however well-intentioned, is uncontrollable. Thomas Edison wanted the phonograph to help the blind. Alfred Nobel intended explosives to be used in the construction of railways and mines. The World Wide Web was a project for information sharing between academics. Early prophets believed better information would improve politics.

The best futurists are immersed in the tech. Like Bill Gates. In understanding AI, we should listen to the likes of Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of DeepMind. But these hyper-rational souls cannot foresee the future more than a few years out. Perhaps they should team up with science fiction writers. They might get closer to imagining our more distant futures.

Rapid change is very unsettling and creates a backlash. The 19th century Romantics hated the way industrialisation degraded the human spirit and recommended reconnection with the sublime comforts of nature. Many fear the way tech is inveigling itself into every facet of our lives. Some even want to go off grid. These modern romantics are the heirs of Wordsworth.

It’s a tough time for optimists. Ever since Robert Oppenheimer’s team invented the atom bomb, human invention has rushed ahead of our ability to cooperate internationally. It’s got worse.

Embrace tech or die. Mass diffusion and rampant proliferation are the default states of general-use technologies. So, experiment when the tech is young so you are ready for the coming waves of change. AI will get much cheaper and much better quite soon.

Our common humanity is immutable. Old-fashioned human virtues endure. We want to work for and buy from people who are trustworthy. As you embrace tech, don’t just analyse your data, find out how your customers and staff really feel and use these insights in your communications.

Julian Saunders has led account planning departments in agencies big and small, been CEO of a WPP creative agency, worked in a Google innovation team and on behaviour change campaigns for the UK government.