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Op-Ed : Technology and the Rear View Mirror Theory

Frank J. Batavick | CNBNewsnet

UnknownEarlier this year I attended an exhibit at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Titled “From Pen to Press: Experimentation and Innovation in the Age of Print,” the display focused on how the old world of hand-written manuscripts coped with the radical changes wrought by Guttenberg’s printing press. As with many innovations, mechanically printed books were considered a passing fancy. A German Benedictine abbot, Johannes Trithemius, wrote a treatise in 1492, “De laude Scriptorum Manualium” or “In Praise of Scribes,” in which he opined that, “Printed books are a fad.”

To gain acceptance, some of the first printed books tried to mimic traditional manuscripts by using vellum made of cured calf or sheep skin instead of paper. The publishers also had artists illuminate the capital letters at the beginning of each paragraph with colors or gold leaf, in the custom of manually transcribed books.

The above reminded me of media critic Marshall McLuhan’s rear-view mirror theory. He famously said, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” By that he meant inventors often based their designs on what they hoped to replace. The first autos looked like carriages and were even called horseless carriages. Gas lamps looked like oil lamps, computer keyboards kept the QWERTY letter arrangement of typewriters, etc.

Likewise, we continue to use outdated terms. We can trace glove compartments back to when early auto drivers wore gloves and needed a handy place to store them. The name for this dashboard space stuck, even though we now use the compartment for maps and sunglasses. And consider that we still talk in terms of horsepower when describing gasoline and even electric car engines. Horsepower represents the pulling power needed by a horse to lift 550 pounds one foot in one second. The first cars had 35 hp, thus the pulling power of 35 horses.

The human tendency to “march backwards into the future” has sometimes stymied innovation because of an inability to see the promise in a new invention. An engineer at Kodak, Steven Sasson, invented the first digital still camera in 1975. When he showed his device to management, it was fearful that this new technology would hollow-out its core business of photographic film and paper. Kodak’s lack of vision allowed Canon and Sony to jump into the digital camera market. The result? Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January 2012 and has since emerged as a greatly down-sized company.

There are a lot more examples. In 1876 an internal memo at Western Union stated, "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." British scientist William Thomson hit into a triple play in 1899 when he stated, "Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax." And when David Sarnoff, eventual founder of NBC, tried to convince his associates at General Electric to invest in radio, they charged, "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”

There is no denying that what Guttenberg’s printing press was to the 15th Century, the computer has been to the 20th and 21st centuries. However, some rather prominent people failed to see its promise. Even Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943 thought that “there is a world market for maybe five computers." The editor in charge of business books at Prentice Hall in 1957 offered loftily, “I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year." And Ken Olson, President, Chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation predicted that "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

Of course, the US Patent Office files are full of ideas that never saw the light of day commercially, so not all inventions become game-changers in the world. But it is fun to speculate on what will be the next big technology wave and how it will play against false assumptions of what is possible. Perhaps philosopher and writer George Santayana summed it up best when he stated, “We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.

Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ.  He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.