More than 20 years ago, AT&T ran a series of ads depicting the miraculous things information technology would allow us to do in the future.
"Have you ever borrowed a book from thousands of miles away?" the first ad asks. "Crossed the country without stopping for directions? Or sent someone a fax from the beach? You will. And the company that will bring it to you is AT&T."
Obviously, the future hasn't turned out exactly as AT&T anticipated — most of us avoid sending a fax whenever we can. But the basic technologies AT&T is describing here — e-books, turn-by-turn directions, sending documents via mobile devices — are all commonplace. So, too, are many of the futuristic capabilities depicted in other ads in the campaign: video conferencing, electronic tollbooths, electronic ticket-buying kiosks, on-demand videos. Indeed, many of today's technologies are better than the clunky versions depicted in these ads — we make video calls from smartphones, not phone booths.
Others, including smartwatches, realtime voice translation, MOOCs, and the internet of things, are just taking off now. Most of the remaining technologies — universal electronic medical records, wireless supermarket checkouts, efficient driver's license renewals, telemedicine — are technologically feasible but have been thwarted by logistical or bureaucratic obstacles.
Overall, the ads were remarkably accurate in predicting the cutting-edge technologies of the coming decades. But the ads were mostly wrong about one thing: the company that brought these technologies to the world was not AT&T. At least not on its own. AT&T does provide some of the infrastructure on which the world's communications flow. But the gadgets and software that brought these futuristic capabilities to consumers were created by a new generation of Silicon Valley companies that mostly didn't exist when these ads were made.