The Future–August 1999 Style!

By  |  Monday, August 31, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Future of technologyWay back in August of 1999–hey, that was a decade ago, in a different century!–I was lucky enough to visit MIT’s Media Lab along with fellow members of the American Society of Business Press Editors. We got a bunch of demos of technology that was, literally, still in the lab. I remember the tour vividly, but had forgotten that I’d written it up for the ASBPE newsletter. But the ASBPE rediscovered my old story and has posted it on their blog.

How much of  the vision we saw in 1999 has become everyday reality? Quite a bit, actually. Let’s review.

1999: “The Lab is developing an inexpensive, flexible material that looks and acts like paper, but can display information that can be changed electronically, without the use of consumable materials. Its inventors believe that this medium could eventually be used to produce a computer for about $10.” The ten-buck computer still isn’t here yet, but E-Ink’s electronic paper–based on MIT’s research–is one of the things that makes a Kindle a Kindle.

1999: “The Lab has developed a reporter’s steno pad with a built-in digital audio recorder. As the user records an interview or other event and jots notes on it, the notes and audio are synchronized; later, the user can select any note on the page and listen immediately to the corresponding sound bite.” Livescribe’s  Pulse does this today, albeit in pen rather than steno-pad form.

1999: “Attendees saw a soap-opera video clip in which all of the items depicted — clothing, furniture, and more — had been electronically identified and cataloged. Using an electronic pointer, the viewer can pick any on-screen item and see its name, its price, and details on ordering it from J.C. Penney (which funded this project).” Product placement on TV is way more rife than it was a decade ago, but this technology still isn’t pervasive. But TiVo, among others, has experimented with the basic idea.

1999: “Silver Stringers is a… program that helps senior citizens report on news in their communities and publish it on the Web.” It’s nice to see that sites inspired by the Silver Stringers project are still going.

1999: “Not a media-related innovation per se, but any java-loving journalist will envy the Lab’s own coffee machine. Stick your own mug (with a special chip on the bottom) under the dripper, and the coffee brews to your exact preferences — while a radio plays your favorite station.” Still in the lab.

1999: “Because almost anyone can publish information on the Internet, [MIT researcher Walter]Bender believes that many consumers will become de facto journalists themselves — and therefore be increasingly demanding of the media….As people’s level of engagement rises, they’re not going to tolerate sloppy journalism.” Yup!

1999: “”Most news is going to be free online — the economics will be such that the bottom line is that if you have eyeballs, you have a vehicle for deriving revenue. But if you don’t have something that people are interested in, it doesn’t matter.” Bingo!

I haven’t been back to the Media Lab since I wrote this article, but it’s still doing cool stuff. And I’ll bet that the Media Lab circa August 2009 provides as accurate a rough draft of technology circa August 2019 as we’re going to get…


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5 Comments For This Post

  1. jack driscoll Says:

    And the SilverStringers are still thriving ( along with a sister publication in my hometown at jack driscoll

  2. Walter Bender Says:


    Happy to discuss my predictions for 2019 whenever you have a moment.


  3. tom B Says:

    E-ink may yet find a useful application if they can make very large, color displays with it– I’m thinking road signs, billboards.

  4. Martha Spizziri Says:


    We at ASBPE would be very interested to find out what your predictions are, too.

  5. Will Cady Says:

    Cool article! Always good to look at the technology being invented today to get an idea of what’s going to be happening in the realm of consumers tomorrow.

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  1. E-Ink Gets Flexible Says:

    […] all: News When I first saw an E-Ink display more than a decade ago at MIT’s Media Lab, it was in the form of a big, ad banner that was as flexible as a piece of paper. These days, E-Ink […]