Perusing old notes for a new book project, I find signals in the past that seemed like noise to many people then, but were in fact the signal.
Bran Ferren, now the co-founder of Applied Minds, who had become the head of Imagineering for Disney along the way, was speaking to a CIA audience in the winter of 1998.
He was observing that the number of Web users had hit 100 million in four years and trying to get the audience of official government intelligence workers to think what this might mean.
Imagine, he said (he was then and would become more widely recognized and sought as an expert on imagining), trying to convince the Wright Brothers that in 85 years the industry would be kept alive by mileage incentives.(Newspapers, he said matter-of-factly, would eventually be banned, because too many trees would have to be cut down.)
The "computer revolution" had not even begun, he scoffed, and "the notion of information overload is ludicrous and absurd because humans are made for it." Our evolution was now happening in terms of sensibility and consciousness and you could choose to join actively in the process. (We since have evidence that our intake of information now through all current media is changing the way our brains are developing, and the way we seek meaning.)
If you were not on the Internet at this point, Ferren said, you were on the road to becoming an illiterate. You were missing a crucial opportunity to connect to something fluid and evolving where connectivity would be everything. You needed to start doing R&D in the kind of story-telling you do.
"Right now everyone is doing small r and big D," he went on, "You need to find the smart people and fund them, because it's the best idea we have for inventing the future."
The Internet would be the "single greatest enabling technology for you and your enemies," he said.
"There has never been a great teacher or a great leader who wasn't a great story-teller. Merge story-telling skills with technologists and the disseminators and you have a powerful tool - and an educational system - and if you can touch their hearts, you can open their minds."
His words at that time have a special resonance for me now in light of events in the Middle East. Some of us had done scenarios on that part of the world in the early 90s and at least one future saw the impact of youth and information in new, anti-authoritarian forms.
Did our Central Intelligence Agency not foresee the revolution coming there? Did they lack intelligence, or imagination? What were the chances that cultures living under autocratic or dictatorial rule, with large populations of unemployed youth, could come into the Internet-rich 21st century without unrest? Would it take inflation and food shortages to light their fuses, or would it be something else? Maybe their inevitable connections to the network that was springing up?
It was during the same period (early 1998) that James Barksdale, then CEO of Netscape, was trying to communicate the impacts of Moore's and Metcalfe's Laws on the communication society, as the price of computing power was collapsing by half every 18 months (Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel) and the power of networks was growing "by the square of the endpoints" (Robert Metcalfe, who invented the ethernet).
The Internet as understood then was growing point-to-point and end-to-end at twice the speed of any other network in history, Barksdale was saying. He predicted Internet commerce of $10 billion in the US by 2000 (actual number $152B online sales in US in 2010, up 12% year-on-year). And commerce was only one index of impact and influence.
"You never know where the endpoints will take you," Barksdale said then. "No one can understand the complexity."
It was a cautionary note not to underestimate what you had not yet imagined coming out of this technology. Just as Gutenberg did not know that newspaper would bring down presidents, we did not think - did we? - that the Internet would bring down regimes in the Middle East.
What would be the impacts of the technology and all the stories that would be told, or could be told, or could be made up and told by friend or foe, to friend or to foe, and propagated on the Internet as it exploded?
If the Wright Brothers could not imagine mileage incentives, could the CIA not imagine Muslim minds opening up to a real democratic urge? Had they or we (I mean, they are our Central Intelligence Agency, after all) grasped the power of story-telling online, and how to tell it?