Friday Book Review! The Signals Are Talking by Amy Webb

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There is “no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” “The personal computer will fall flat on its face.” With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to smirk at these quotes from 1977. However, the person responsible for both quotes was not some anti-technology Luddite. Kenneth Olsen was the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC, and one of the first people to conceive and build a computer meant to be used by just one person.

Olsen turned that insight into a company that by the 1980s would reach $14 billion in sales and employ 120,000 people. However, as Amy Webb, of the Future Today Institute, documents in her brilliant book The Signals Are Talking, “Olsen was shackled by his immediate frame of reference … Outside his view of the present, there was a revolution underfoot.” This revolution included, according to Webb,

  • The establishment of ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), a network of computers linking programmers in several universities, and the development of Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which made it possible to remote-access the network.
  • The appearance of personal computer models built by Atari and Commodore and a small computer built in a garage by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.
  • Programming advances that led to games created by programmers for computers; computer-generated graphics; a digital bulletin-board system to post messages.

These quiet but eventually significant events are examples of what Webb calls “signals” that foretell the future but often go unnoticed because they are on the fringe. From Olsen’s “mainstream” perch at the head of a multibillion dollar company, he never saw these signals on the fringe that would cause his company to disappear by the end of the 1990s…(click here to continue reading)