We Do, but AT&T Didn't
September 1, 2014 7:12 AM   Subscribe

It's been twenty years since AT&T's "You Will" ad campaign ran, let's see how their predictions did.

What's remarkable is that almost all of these not only exist but are in fairly common use. I only count two that are not technically mature (the voice-activated lock and the personal assistant) and a handful more that could easily be done technically, but for one reason or another just aren't common. The other remarkable thing is that, other than being one of the companies that provides the network backbone for most of these things, AT&T wasn't at the forefront of any of them.

And of course it's always fun to see the little details they got wrong, like the video call from a phone booth (with hair that was supposed to be futuristic but screams early 90's today) or the toll booth transponder that requires you to look away from the road to swipe a credit card in your car's console.

For extra fun, check out this Metafilter thread from the tenth anniversary of the ads, when many of these things were just starting to appear, but weren't yet widespread.
posted by firechicago (89 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
My go-to example for pretentious brand-pandering is from this series. "So where did jazz come from? Good question."
posted by infinitewindow at 7:24 AM on September 1, 2014 [13 favorites]


Lots of really great predictions, and what amazes me is how conservative they really were. Send a fax! From the beach! Go to a telephone booth to video conference!

It also amuses me that most of the AT&T scenarios show people at public kiosks, rather than on their own devices. I wonder if that was AT&T's vision? Hardware kiosks all over the place, rather than people carrying the means of communication/payment in their pockets?
posted by xingcat at 7:25 AM on September 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


I'm kind of surprised that Wal-Mart's RFID investments haven't resulted in that checking out a shopping cart all at once thing. Though my favorite example of that prediction is this IBM ad.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:27 AM on September 1, 2014 [9 favorites]


And of course now that we live in this future where we can work from a beach barefoot, we hate it.
posted by nev at 7:28 AM on September 1, 2014 [23 favorites]


I love how AT&T was making and selling cell phones and could not seem to place them anywhere in the future except on a brief clip of a Dick Tracy wrist radio.
posted by sonascope at 7:28 AM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Still missing the grocery cart check out thing, but yeah, very cool. Especially the prediction of YouTube in the last commercial.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:29 AM on September 1, 2014


Also that bit about renewing your driver's license from an ATM is hilariously pre-9/11.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:29 AM on September 1, 2014 [10 favorites]


Have you ever accurately predicted the future, but been completely incompetent and unable to capitalize on it? With AT&T, you will.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:30 AM on September 1, 2014 [95 favorites]


I'm kind of surprised that Wal-Mart's RFID investments haven't resulted in that checking out a shopping cart all at once thing.


I one day hope RFID enabled cash to be held in a huge bowl in the middle of the bank. Just grab what you need.
posted by wcfields at 7:37 AM on September 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think it's interesting how the future looks like Blade Runner in all of those ads.
posted by devinemissk at 7:41 AM on September 1, 2014 [20 favorites]


blue_beetle: I think AT&T has capitalized quite well on owning the subsidized network infrastructure that so much of this stuff relies on.
posted by idiopath at 7:42 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


They weren't really going out on a limb. I (and two others) invented the personal navigator in 1980, so the technology was already 14 years old when AT&T "predicted" its use. It was simply a question of bringing the cost down. Since our prototype for the personal navigator ran on the ultra-cheap TI-99 (priced so you could buy it as a toy for your children), even predicting that wasn't much of a stretch.
posted by ubiquity at 7:44 AM on September 1, 2014 [16 favorites]


This is interesting, what they have seem to have done quite a lot here (which resonates with some time spent in a Baby Bell Lab, working on focus groups a while back), is to take existing tasks and make them more computerized. But they often seem to have focused on static public terminals, and missed the wireless and mobile platforms, as well as other mobile devices (mp3 players, digital cameras, etc.), although some of these do seem to be available to business people in these ads.

They got some of the services right, but often missed the platform and ecosystem on which those services are delivered today.
posted by carter at 7:47 AM on September 1, 2014


Ubiquity: are you talking about the honda electric gyrocator? Or another system?
posted by leotrotsky at 7:50 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


AT&T might not bring you these things, but Tom Selleck will. Rawr!
posted by fungible at 7:55 AM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


I still marvel at those Qwest ads from the First Internet Bubble recorded forever on my VHS tapes of MST3K episodes where they're not advertising anything but an idea that, at some point ...digital jukeboxes will exist?
posted by The Whelk at 7:57 AM on September 1, 2014


Ever look down a mans rectum after clicking on a link for My Little Pony spoilers?

You will. The company that'll bring it to you: goatse.cx
posted by dr_dank at 8:00 AM on September 1, 2014 [31 favorites]


Pope Guilty: "Also that bit about renewing your driver's license from an ATM is hilariously pre-9/11."

Well, I did just order a replacement driver's license when my wallet was stolen but yeah, you still have to go down to the AAA office to get a new one.
posted by octothorpe at 8:03 AM on September 1, 2014


I still marvel at those Qwest ads

I always liked this one. I remember thinking about how impossible it seemed to me at the time. At this point, I just want Attack the Block to show up on Netflix streaming.
posted by cashman at 8:05 AM on September 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


have you ever been under constant and complete surveillance from your government, your boss, your supermarket, your insurance company and a zillion other people, including the snot-nosed hacker who lives down the street in his mother's basement?

you will
posted by pyramid termite at 8:05 AM on September 1, 2014 [30 favorites]


Wow. I remember seeing these years ago.

Looking back, what surprises me most is that we couldn't imagine any resolution greater than 240. If I'm going to touch my baby from a phone booth, I'd like it to not look like shit.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:08 AM on September 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Have you ever been cavity searched at the airport? YOU WILL
Have you ever had to change every single one of your passwords after your bank got hacked? YOU WILL
Have you ever been Rick Rolled? YOU WILL
Have you ever experienced a gradual degradation of your personal liberties in the name of collective security and waging perpetual warfare against multiple enemies? YOU WILL
posted by Renoroc at 8:15 AM on September 1, 2014 [22 favorites]


I just want to listen to "Solsbury Hill" now.
posted by thelonius at 8:16 AM on September 1, 2014 [7 favorites]


Have you ever used your phone to live stream your civil liberties being taken away to millions of followers? You will!
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:18 AM on September 1, 2014 [11 favorites]


Have you ever re-assembled your monopoly through corporate mergers, then used your cozy relationship with government regulators to avoid providing better service to your captive customers? YOU WILL.

It was a good ad campaign, praising plausible near-future innovations. The Wikipedia page has some more info on it. Director is David Fincher, who went on to make Seven and Fight Club and The Social Network, among others.
posted by Nelson at 8:21 AM on September 1, 2014 [13 favorites]


carter: "This is interesting, what they have seem to have done quite a lot here (which resonates with some time spent in a Baby Bell Lab)"

I think really that the "Bell Labs" is the key. It would not necessarily seem that "AT&T" itself would be bringing it to us, necessarily but Bell Labs would. Alas, in 1996 what with the creation of Lucent, "Bell Labs" didn't necessarily exist as it used to, which, I surmise, is one reason that AT&T didn't end up bringing it to us.
posted by symbioid at 8:22 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


"if you want a vision of the future, imagine a human face yakking into a phone - forever"
posted by pyramid termite at 8:24 AM on September 1, 2014 [14 favorites]


spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints: "Wow. I remember seeing these years ago.

Looking back, what surprises me most is that we couldn't imagine any resolution greater than 240. If I'm going to touch my baby from a phone booth, I'd like it to not look like shit.
"

Christ, in 2001 he had full fidelity video between Dr. Floyd and his daughter, and that was all the way back in 1969 and all the way in SPAAAAAAAAAAAACE!
posted by symbioid at 8:24 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


symboid: That's interesting, definitely something there in the case of Bell Labs. Mind you I was briefly in a lab of a Baby Bell, not Bell Labs or Lucent, and a bit later than this, where the emphasis was less pure research, and more on how could you make the soaring visions of the marketing department technically feasible. But the cutting edge stuff was interesting, although the approach was kind of "Here is a refrigerator, how can we make this a network terminal, and how would people use it?", or "Here is a TV, how can we use it to bring the computer into the living room, and how would people use it?", etc. Kind of "internet as appliance,' but the reference models were existing appliances.

Interestingly, they were also at the same time developing cell phone networks as fast as they could, but their mental model at the time seemed to be "How can we make cell phones like 'POTS in a walkie-talkie,' and make users subscribe to service plans for it, and make tons of money off it."

Off course hindsight is 20-20 and I also totally didn't get that a hybrid of the cell phone and the remote terminal might be one way to go.
posted by carter at 8:35 AM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


I just want to listen to "Solsbury Hill" now.

Yeah, I had been on Compuserve since the mid 1980s when these commercials came out, so I wasn't exactly floored by the tech-demo aspect since I fully expected the Internet to Change Everything in my Lifetime (not disappointed!), but I did always, always, always mentally replace the voiceover with my own wishful thinking: "Have you ever been sued by an English prog-rock superstar for ripping off one of his signature hits?"
posted by Mothlight at 8:37 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


They got some of the services right, but often missed the platform and ecosystem on which those services are delivered today.

I think really that the "Bell Labs" is the key. It would not necessarily seem that "AT&T" itself would be bringing it to us, necessarily but Bell Labs would. Alas, in 1996 what with the creation of Lucent, "Bell Labs" didn't necessarily exist as it used to, which, I surmise, is one reason that AT&T didn't end up bringing it to us.

1996 is actually important. First, AT&T was long known for inventing awesome stuff via Bell Labs and then burying that awesome stuff lest it come to market and compete with AT&T's core services. And AT&T could get away with that as long as it was the monopoly provider. But in 1996, Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which changed the regulatory paradigm for telecom and communications services and deregulated things just enough that innovations like widespread mobile wireless could come to market and flourish, leaving AT&T's vision of terminal-based centralized services in the dust.

Or, in other words, it's not at all surprising that AT&T got the services right but the platform wrong. They wanted to keep all the services under their control.
posted by devinemissk at 8:38 AM on September 1, 2014 [10 favorites]


Have you ever ground a virtual political axe in a usenet post about futurism? YOU WILL
posted by cmoj at 8:44 AM on September 1, 2014 [14 favorites]


Lots of really great predictions, and what amazes me is how conservative they really were. Send a fax! From the beach!

Yeah, I love how they're able to predict the touchscreen tablet, but not presage the death of the neccessity of faxing anything. And phone booths? Seriously -- I HAD an Nokia/AT&T cell phone in 1994. They couldn't see the future that was right in their own hands.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:49 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


What I find interesting is that everything is so voice- and video-centric, basically all real-time, synchronous, channelized communication; the old telco model. While in reality, what I think most people spend most of their day dealing with is largely text-based and asynchronous: SMS/MMS, instant messaging, email. There's the one mention of "fax from a beach" but other than that, email plays a hilariously small role in the ads compared to what it was even in 1996.

Also, videophones: they came up with what appears to be one of about two valid use cases for video chat, that of staring at your children / grandchildren / whatever from afar. (The other case, of course, is for gettin' nekkid with someone from afar.) But the whole idea of a conference call being substantially improved with the addition of everyone's smiling mugs? Nope.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:49 AM on September 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


Another classic from this era (and one of my favorites alongside the You Will series), starring an 11 year-old Anna Paquin, fresh from The Piano, on behalf of MCI in No More There. There are three others.
posted by kokaku at 8:53 AM on September 1, 2014


Have you ever had your nude selfies uploaded to something called 'iCloud' without you realising, which was then hacked into so that all of 4chan and then the rest of the world could see them?
posted by colie at 8:58 AM on September 1, 2014 [13 favorites]


What's really surprising to me about these kinds of old ads/predictions is how much of that amazing future tech I absolutely now take for granted and don't often realize it's all still really new.

I mean, I went to college in the first half of the 90s and email was still REALLY NEW, I've only carried a cell phone around with me for maybe 12 years or so....the iPhone--and all the tech that ubiquitous smartphones have brought with them--has only been with us since 2007, same with Youtube.

"The future" is still only recently arrived, no wonder we still don't know what to do with it.

As an aside, I laugh out loud when, during planning or mission development-type meetings in university academic departments, so many of my academic colleagues want to include verbiage/ideas like 'preparing our students for the 21st century,' and I'm like...dude....the 21st century is almost 15% over....we're IN IT, there is no more 'prepare' for it.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:09 AM on September 1, 2014 [11 favorites]


I remember dreaming of having instant access to virtually any movie, song, or video game I wanted. And now I have it, and I mostly just read Metafilter.

But the whole idea of a conference call being substantially improved with the addition of everyone's smiling mugs? Nope.

What's hilarious is that companies have trying to push video conferencing for over 50 years. Nobody wants it, but decade after decade, they keep trying to sell it as the vision of the future.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:17 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


And of course now that we live in this future where we can work from a beach barefoot, we hate it.

That wasn't our vision, it was AT&T's. Of course they wanted us to work everywhere, and if course we want nothing to do with it. The obvious implication was that the beach would replace the office, but instead you get the office AND have to work on vacation. Of course we hate it. No sane person wants that.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:20 AM on September 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


I remember being horrified at the idea of having a phone at the beach (i.e. on vacation) but well here I am, typing this on my phone while I sit on the deck of a rental house at the beach. The likelihood of anyone actually calling me on it is pretty low, though.
posted by rtha at 9:27 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


What's hilarious is that companies have trying to push video conferencing for over 50 years. Nobody wants it, but decade after decade, they keep trying to sell it as the vision of the future.

I'm reminded of the thing about this in Infinite Jest
posted by thelonius at 9:31 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wonder where I was. I mean, I was there, but I don't recall these ads at all.

I'd agree with LooseFilter that a lot of these changes that so many of us take for granted are still really new -- it's only in the last five years that we've been carrying around computers the size of a pocket device and are constantly tethered to them to the point of addiction. Also, unless you worked in the industry (as some in this thread appear to have done), in Silicon Valley or at Bell Labs or Xerox PARC or such, or unless you were super-confident in your lucid dreaming or sci-fi predictive talents, I would argue that 20 years ago seeing all these changes coming, and coming like a wave, would have been perhaps a bit of a stretch.

The first time I hopped onto an Internet BBS in a cafe in the Outer Sunset in SF in 1994 and dropped in a quarter for two or three minutes of message-sending with a stranger, I thought it was a cute game or a passing fad, not the trend that would define our futures, and in some cases plow them under. I do, however, recall clearly the addictive aspect: after the first couple of times, when someone else was in the cafe on that glass-covered terminal, I had a hard time tearing myself away from the wish that the other person would get off so I could use it.
posted by blucevalo at 9:31 AM on September 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Have you ever taken nude photos of yourself and stored them in a "cloud" that was then broken into by basement dwelling assholes thousands of miles away using simple methods invented decades ago? Damn right you will.
posted by Poldo at 10:02 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


They made an updated one a couple of years ago. I believe it was for a national conference and never aired on television.
posted by dances with hamsters at 10:05 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think really that the "Bell Labs" is the key. It would not necessarily seem that "AT&T" itself would be bringing it to us, necessarily but Bell Labs would. Alas, in 1996 what with the creation of Lucent, "Bell Labs" didn't necessarily exist as it used to, which, I surmise, is one reason that AT&T didn't end up bringing it to us.

What happened to structural investments in R&D infrastructure? The answer will astound you.

As astounding as it may seem, there's no clear argument that all of the investment in personal computers, much less cell phones and wireless networking actually changes much in the economy. Which puts capital investments in this direction in the territory of "robbing peter to pay paul" i.e. the large revenues of Xingular/AT&T or Verizon come from money that would have been spent in other parts of the economy.

So, basically, the argument that the deregulation of telecommunications freed technology from the stranglehold of Bell Labs is not self-evident. Further, it's hard to measure the vast changes, since the golden age of Bell Labs, in the way technology R&D is performed and funded, since it's largely a question of what might have happened instead of what has happened. We've spent a lot of money putting full-featured CPUs in everyone's pockets... is this actually better than the terminal/mainframe model wrt the economy? What else was possible... who knows?
posted by ennui.bz at 10:05 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


And of course it's always fun to see the little details they got wrong, like...the toll booth transponder that requires you to look away from the road to swipe a credit card in your car's console.

The credit card swipe just seems like a visual choice to get the idea of "paying" to scan for an early 90s audience in 1-2 seconds of screentime, not a technical proposal for how such a system would work.
posted by anazgnos at 10:09 AM on September 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


What's hilarious is that companies have trying to push video conferencing for over 50 years. Nobody wants it, but decade after decade, they keep trying to sell it as the vision of the future.


Huh? Video conferencing is a pretty standard corporate thing these days. I've easily been in hundreds of teleconferenced meetings over the last decade or so.
posted by octothorpe at 10:36 AM on September 1, 2014 [12 favorites]


Too Much Joy covered this pretty well.
posted by candyland at 10:53 AM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


The simple fact of the automobile has steered history with a heavy hand. Right now we are where Ford was when he put his assembly line together and made the automobile available to the general public. What new ideas may the "computer" generate? What will be the freeway, shopping mall, drive-in movie, or suburbs of the future? The geo-political impact of the automobile is perhaps without measure. What would the Middle East be like if the world hadn't turned to oil as a major power source?

So, what if a tele-conference can be handled with an avatar carrying a program representing your input? Let your icon get in touch with my icon. They'll work out the details, and send us a prospectus that represents the best result. Robots, bionic interfaces, interactive programs that run exoskeletons--all these are barely manifested. If a robot can park your car and regulate your heartbeat, what else can it do?

I'm no longer nimble enough for the hoverboard, so never mind. I'm working out the implications of the transporter right now. I can't decide if the me who arrives is the same me who left, or if it's just a copy. As you can see, the tool doesn't necessarily come up with human-oriented implications. Anyhow, I'm sure the capitalists among us will figure out how to generate funds for all this. After all, look what they did with the car. Or the telephone.
posted by mule98J at 10:57 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


I just moved to The Hague and discovered, at our local "XL" grocery store (read: about half the size of Jewel back home), that we basically have the shopping cart thing, which I hadn't seen in the States. Maybe some places have them but it was new by me. You check out a handheld scanner when you get to the shop, scan your things as you put them in your cart, then at the end you just pop the scanner in the self-checkout, do the pincard thing, and go. Seems kind of boring though, and I lose the chance to learn new vocabulary chatting with people in the checkout line, so I stick with the old-school lanes instead.

also I am kind of terrified of the machine yelling at me in Dutch that I have put something in the bagging area or have to remove something from the bagging area and all I can understand is "tasje" and then I wind up on a hidden camera show and it all spirals from there.
posted by sldownard at 10:57 AM on September 1, 2014 [8 favorites]


Let's not kid ourselves, this was a paid commercial for AT&T and "You Will" meant "You Will Pay Us" - each of those services presumes a metered element, and AT&T no doubt planned on owning and controlling the closed technology to make it work. They lost to open standards and the Internet.
posted by stbalbach at 11:00 AM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


What happened to structural investments in R&D infrastructure?

Google hired most of them. I mean that literally; Google picked up a lot of great Bell Labs people. Also Sun Labs, and DEC labs, and all the other 80s/90s systems labs. Google hired many of them, Microsoft also hired some, and a few at Amazon and now Facebook. And there's new generations coming straight from universities to the new systems research labs. It's really not that different from the old regime.

companies have trying to push video conferencing for over 50 years. Nobody wants it

I take it you've never seen the magic of a parent being able to connect to a child via FaceTime. It's nowhere near as good as being there in person but it's a hell of a lot better than the telephone.
posted by Nelson at 11:08 AM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


>> Also that bit about renewing your driver's license from an ATM is hilariously pre-9/11.
> Well, I did just order a replacement driver's license when my wallet was stolen but yeah, you still have to go down to the AAA office to get a new one.


Post-9/11 security is all about closing the bike path next to an NFL stadium and little to do with real security.

In California, you can renew on the web. I replaced a lost license by stopping at the DMV twice on the way to work. Once to pick up a DL-44 because I suffer from agora-grapho-phobia (the fear of filling out forms in public) and the forms are individually serialized, not for security. Then, with an appointment I made online, I skipped the line, waited 5 minutes, paid untraceable cash and gave a new thumbprint (which has been CA policy for long before 2001). I brought a passport just in case, but they didn't look at it.

A new license requires a birth certificate and social security card, same as it ever was. Moves to standardize license across states and anti-tampering measures have ramped up post-2001, but this is as much about underage drinking as thwarting terrorism.
posted by morganw at 11:09 AM on September 1, 2014


Pope Guilty posted that video of IBM talking about how awesome RFID chips would be and missed the best part about the video, whackjobs are convinced RFID is signaling the beginning of armageddon

"Did you know that the RFID chip transplant is going to be the 666. According to the book of Revelation,everyone including the police while be forced to wear this microchip transplant 666 to buy or sell. The world leader who is really the Antichrist will impose this law and control everything even a person's identity."

Just one of my favorite comments. I'd recommend the related videos, but I don't want youtube recommending me nutter videos til the end of time (which is apparently soon!)
posted by WeX Majors at 11:10 AM on September 1, 2014


Well, they sure were wrong about the very last prediction they made in every commercial, weren't they?
posted by koeselitz at 11:13 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


candyland> Too Much Joy covered this pretty well.

Incidentally, the lyrics in that song that are seemingly unrelated to the AT&T commercial, such as "There’s a lever in a locked house/To make Lagunita drain" and "We’re very whimsical/So our pond is named Lake Lake/It’s both the best that we could do/And as real as we can take" are references to Lake Lagunita on the Stanford University campus (a few of the Too Much Joy guys were Stanford alumni), which often remained unfilled due to drought.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 11:16 AM on September 1, 2014


hahahaha, turns out these guys couldnt predict the future! What jerks, hahaha.
posted by MoonOrb at 11:25 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


You check out a handheld scanner when you get to the shop, scan your things as you put them in your cart, then at the end you just pop the scanner in the self-checkout

I can't vouch for anywhere else, but I've definitely seen these in a few Stop & Shops on Long Island. I mostly fear them because I think I will weigh and scan my own produce wrong, but I used it once when I was just stopping in to buy paper towels or something and I kind of felt like a wizard.
posted by pemberkins at 11:37 AM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's funny these ads came up, I worked at a half-marathon this weekend shooting pictures, and a guy came up to me at the end to get his picture taken. He had his iPhone attached to the strap of his camelbak, and on the screen were his two kids, facetiming with him. He had them facetime with him for the entire run. He told me he couldn't bring them along in person, but they were what got him through the run. It was yet another one of those moments where I thought, sheesh, we live in the future. It's funny, too, because I know about facetime, but this just seemed like a really futuristic use of it. Wild stuff.
posted by malapropist at 11:50 AM on September 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Alright, so let's step through these.

What I notice here the ads' format of pairing a concept with an execution means that they kept correctly pegging things that would go online, but bungling the ways in which we'd execute them. So while we might be videoconferencing people goodnight, it's hard to give full marks for guessing we'd do it at a payphone. It's a cable-laying company's view of the future - synchronous and locked into the cable company's hardware - which mostly ignores both the personal-device and wireless revolutions, which were kind of hard to miss in 1994.

So if we grade it by the standards of execution as well as premise, here's what I get:

Ever borrowed a book... from thousands of miles away?
False. We access information remotely, but who borrows books?

Crossed the country... without stopping for directions?
True.

Sent someone a fax... from the beach?
True. By the time beach-front Internet came along, faxes were long gone. But let's call this one true, if we take "fax" as a crude metaphor.

Paid a toll... without slowing down?
True, although the ad depicts someone swiping a card within their car.

Bought concert tickets... from a cash machine?
False. From a cash machine?

Tucked your baby in... from a phone booth?
False. From a phone booth?

Ever opened doors... with the sound of your voice?
False. With my voice?

Carried your medical history... in your wallet?
False. In my wallet?

Attended a meeting... in your bare feet?
True. (Not wearing pants, even.)

Watched the movie you wanted to... the minute you wanted to?
True. (Notwithstanding Canadian Netflix.)

Learned special things... from faraway places?
GUYS IS THAT LEVAR BURTON?! THAT'S TOTALLY LEVAR BURTON!

Checked out of a supermarket... a whole cart at a time?
False. Not with a literal shopping cart.

Put your heads together... when you're not together?
True, I suppose.

Gotten a phone call... on your wrist?
True, I suppose.

Had a classmate... who's thousands of miles away?
False, in the sense that it never caught on.

Conducted business... in a language you don't understand?
False. This proved to be inadvisable, unless you're confident that the contract's language is rubbing the Pepsi dolphin.

Kept an eye on your home... when you're not at home?
True.

Renewed your driver's license... at a cash machine?
False. Again with the cash machines!

Fixed your car... with a television?
False. As if anyone can fix their own cars anymore.

Had an assistant... who lived in your computer?
Falseish. It looks like you're predicting the future! Can I help you with that?

TRUE: 8
FALSE: 11
I'M NOT KIDDING IT'S LEVAR BURTON: 1

posted by bicyclefish at 12:29 PM on September 1, 2014 [9 favorites]


Ever borrowed a book... from thousands of miles away?
False. We access information remotely, but who borrows books?

Thousands of people.
posted by nev at 12:34 PM on September 1, 2014 [7 favorites]


I regularly use my library's web interface for placing holds, FWIW.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:37 PM on September 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


Amazon Prime lets you borrow books on your Kindle.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200757120

I dispute the classmates one -- like answering a call on your wrist it turned out to be a bit less magical and popular than we expected but it totally happened.
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 12:50 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Fixed your car... with a television?
False. As if anyone can fix their own cars anymore.


Well...gonna give partial credit on this one, as I am currently troubleshooting an issue with a guitar amplifier by posting video of the issue (shot with my phone) to YouTube and taking suggestions for the issue's resolution from an online forum. So maybe not the literal future that AT&T predicted, but pretty damn close. I've done the same thing with car issues, too, albeit with a different online forum.
posted by mosk at 12:53 PM on September 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


Have you ever been expected to check in with work and send emails, even while on vacation? Have you ever had to replace the actual moments you used to spend in person with your kids with quick Facetime chats in between business flights?
Have you ever had to work at work and then work during your free time?
posted by Foam Pants at 12:55 PM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


"Cash machine" was what people understood as a digital kiosk back in the day. It was also AT&T subliminal for "this is going to a cash making machine" after AT&T charges for every transaction, targeted towards investors. I think these commercials played a part in the tech hysteria leading to the stock market bubble and collapse.
posted by stbalbach at 12:57 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


I only count two that are not technically mature (the voice-activated lock and the personal assistant)

Maybe not voice-activated, but we do have biometrics, which I think is pretty much the same category. And we've had Clippy for some time now, so....

I'd give then the "fix your car with a television" one, too. Just a few days ago YouTube showed me how to replace the cabin air filter on the Prius.
posted by univac at 1:05 PM on September 1, 2014


The great irony is that these were done by the old AT&T, immediately before it would go on a seven year run of pretty much all the worst mistakes made in the 1994-2001 tech wave that weren't Time Warner selling itself to AOL. (I don't include MCI as a "mistake" given that it was actually a fraud.)

In that time period, AT&T clung to its long-distance voice call and frame relay business as other players won the move to the public internet backbone, hugely overpaid for a cable business (which is mostly Comcast now), and gutted itself by spinning off its wireless business.

SBC bought the scraps that were left and renamed itself AT&T for brand recognition, eventually reacquiring the AT&T Wireless business and starting its own pay TV business via DSL over the legacy Baby Bell copper for last mile.
posted by MattD at 1:18 PM on September 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


I do wonder why RFID grocery check out isn't yet a thing. The endlessly infuriating "self serve" supermarket kiosks are in my opinion just a flagrant demonstration of corporate contempt for everyone and everything. For the customer, in wasted time and aggravation. For the employees, in a gesture of a deep (if still unfulfilled) desire to fire them all whenever possible. For their shareholders, because shrink going through the self-serve has got to be 10x shrink going through the register, between what's stolen on purpose and what's accidentally taken and not paid for.
posted by MattD at 1:21 PM on September 1, 2014


"Bula Vinaka, Beachside"
posted by sourwookie at 1:23 PM on September 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


"Bula Vinaka, Beachside"
Thanks, I've been waiting for that.
posted by detachd at 1:30 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


For their shareholders, because shrink going through the self-serve has got to be 10x shrink going through the register, between what's stolen on purpose and what's accidentally taken and not paid for.

I do wonder about that. I have never shoplifted (I was a boring teen), and yet when I go through the self-service checkout, I always wonder, what if...I just didn't scan this? The clerks are all underpaid, overworked, and looking the other way. I'm sure there are surveillance cameras. And I wouldn't do it anyway. But I bet that doesn't stop a lot of other folks. I am certainly absent-minded enough to just miss something in the cart, too, though I haven't so far.

I remember these commercials, which even at the time didn't seem that far-fetched, because yeah, cell phones were becoming ubiquitous, though still too expensive for newly-graduated me. In fact, I didn't doubt so much that these things would happen as that I would ever be able to afford them.
posted by emjaybee at 1:49 PM on September 1, 2014


Redbox did try to launch a service a few years ago to buy concert tickets from their kiosks but it never made it out of pilot. Too little too late I guess.
posted by bleep at 2:11 PM on September 1, 2014


I'd give then the "fix your car with a television" one, too. Just a few days ago YouTube showed me how to replace the cabin air filter on the Prius.

But that's saying that YouTube is the same as a video-television, and it's not: Getting someone on the video-phone to show you how to change your air-filter live is a very different proposition than pulling up a video on it from a library. The economics and incentives for the asynchronous library worked out; the live one-on-one assistance, not so much. (Unless Video On-Star is a thing now?)
posted by bicyclefish at 2:18 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Help I can't get my smoke machine to stop and all my device interactions are accompanied by sound effects.
posted by odinsdream at 2:32 PM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ever borrowed a book... from thousands of miles away?
False. We access information remotely, but who borrows books?
True. (Ok, from hundreds, not thousands of miles away.)

Plenty of people borrow books. My library is part of a regional network that allows me to search the print, video, audio, e-book, and audiobook catalogs of 144 libraries on the web. I can place holds, renew stuff I've borrowed, send e-books to my kindle, and pay late fees from my phone. I can sign up to be notified by SMS or e-mail when my holds arrive.
posted by usonian at 2:35 PM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


One of the easiest way to steal at a self-checkout is to run premium produce through as their cheap counterpart. No, these are not heirloom, organic hothouse tomatoes. They are just basic tomatoes. No, these are not expensive pine nuts, they are plain peanuts from the bulk bin. Thank you, AT&T.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:46 PM on September 1, 2014


The economics and incentives for the asynchronous library worked out; the live one-on-one assistance, not so much.

There was a commercial that used to play a few months ago on Hulu all the time that was for.. I don't remember what, but the premise was that you could volunteer to be on call, I guess, for school kids to video chat you and ask you questions. In the commercial a little girl videochats a lady and asks her how to find the area of a rectangle, and the lady tells her the formula and writes it on some kind of touchpad, and it's very stupid because she doesn't actually provide any level of value over just googling it. I'm not sure if the commercial was for a theoretical thing or an actual service.
posted by bleep at 3:15 PM on September 1, 2014


I've always assumed (without any merit to this assumption) that breakage in self-checkout was factored in and was still far cheaper than paying humans.
posted by nev at 4:40 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Send a fax! From the beach! Go to a telephone booth to video conference!

Keep in mind that these were contemporary commercials for a telephone company, in a time when telephone = physical thing connected to a wall. The purpose was to get people to use AT&T in 1994, when life was still conducted via fax and phone booth.

I'm sure that in a non-commercial context, tech experts would have already been surmising that things like fax machines and phone booths were eventually going to be obsolete. 1994 was only a couple years away from the cell phone boom, for example.
posted by Sara C. at 4:41 PM on September 1, 2014


The craziest thing about all these ads is that, for the most part, you can do every single one of these things from your cell phone.

Also:

Had a classmate... who's thousands of miles away?
False, in the sense that it never caught on.


What? Taking courses online is HUGE nowadays. Especially if you're willing to consider for-profit universities.

And even when I was an undergrad 10 years ago, my university provided online courses to students already enrolled at the physical campus. There wouldn't have been many students "thousands of miles away" unless it was due to a family emergency or maybe some kind of very specific semester abroad scenario, but even then it was possible.
posted by Sara C. at 4:51 PM on September 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


I just signed my daughter up for 6 online, fully accredited high school subjects after we had to move to rural Florida. Free, just like any public school, and she can email message and facetime the teacher anytime she needs to. I was amazed.
posted by southeastyetagain at 5:32 PM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Huh, the kid I know in Florida was required to take some basic History course as an Internet course because the school limited the number of high school classes, as a budget thing. And the online course was appallingly bad.
posted by Nelson at 5:45 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


As astounding as it may seem, there's no clear argument that all of the investment in personal computers, much less cell phones and wireless networking actually changes much in the economy.

I have never heard this. In fact, it runs completely against the grain of the last 20 years worth of business economic thought, at least so far as it has been received by me: there have been tremendous gains in worker productivity in the past few decades, and most of them depend, either wholly or in critical part, on core infrastructure investments, e.g. the Internet.

Although in some cases it's not the Internet per se, it's just cheap point-to-point bandwidth. The modern distributed office, with its exploitative tentacles scattered all over the country or the globe, typically depends on the internet but--in some terrible Brazil-meets-cstross-esque parallel universe where the OSI model won the day due to Vint Cerf getting run over by a bus in January 1982--would probably still exist in some form even we had to deal with X.200 instead of TCP/IP. (Or, even darker, where we had nothing but circuit-switched X.21/V.11 ...shiver.)

At the very least, networking and computerization have moved a lot of money, and hence power, around in the economy. They have destroyed low-skilled jobs and created new higher-skilled ones. Go watch The Secret of My Success sometime and see how it stands up today, keeping in mind that in a modern finance company there's no mail room down in the basement of the office tower anymore. (If it exists, it's probably an outsourced operation out in some anonymous curtain-wall building in the 'burbs, safely away from the important people in suits, where people with very little command of English run envelopes through slitting machines and then other people put the paper through high-speed scanners, before other people ensure it's cut into little pieces. There's very little moving up into the corner office if you're working there. It's probably not even the same company, for starters.)

And so too went the secretaries and the file clerks, who were the moving parts of a traditional paper-based office. I'm not sure who, exactly, their replacements are in the new economy.

If you were someone who was depending on a low-skilled job in the mailroom as your entry point to the working world, or a professional secretary who'd trained for years as to take legal dictation at 80WPM on a Selectric and was suddenly replaced by an "executive assistant" with no other skills besides Microsoft Word (at half the salary, naturally), you better damn believe that all that investment in networking and personal computers has changed much in the economy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:42 PM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Kadin, I can answer you where the jobs went in four letters: IT and HR. In sizable organizations IT departments are 10 times the size of the departments that in old days plugged in phones and made sure the mimeos and typewriters ran. HR departments are armies where once there was a squad for payroll and a maybe a platoon for personnel. They aren't designed for upward mobility but I'd bet there are as many former desktop support and HR admins in nice window offices as there ever were former mail room clerks and secretaries.
posted by MattD at 7:48 PM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Had a classmate... who's thousands of miles away?
Ever borrowed a book... from thousands of miles away?

True and True.
Every semester I have to register students for online library access in Asia (I'm in Denver) At one time not very long ago these students may have come to Denver to study and now do so over the internet (and we lose a little cultural diversity in the process). Also, with library catalogs online, I'm able to order books from nearly anywhere in the world (though mostly I order music).
posted by evilDoug at 9:59 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's important (and I see it was eventually covered) that the AT&T of today really isn't the Ma Bell AT&T of old, especially not the AT&T that had Bell Labs, which had been doing actual futurism in addition to ye old school pure research for decades. Funny how that worked out, of course, but many argue that it was exactly the breakup of the Bell System that made a lot of the innovation of the internet and dot-com era actually possible. To some extent the crossroads was covered in the classic early Wired article Netheads vs. Bellheads -- as Kadin240 said, "all real-time, synchronous, channelized communication; the old telco model". They really believed they were poised to transform the world using these services and they had the know-how to make it happen, and while it's true that there were some bad business decisions, it's probably the fact that the US went from one system covering 90% of call traffic and geography to seven separate systems and a number of competitors and the internet and the wireless market both making massive inroads on the old switched network model more than anything else. This isn't to say that the asynchronous services wouldn't have been invented or flourished, but the creaky war of competition might have looked a lot more like the current movie market looks in that not only is there a massive installed base of cable delivery reaching millions of viewers (viz. GoT), but there's also Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu duking it out for a completely different delivery model -- and an increasingly antiquated (and ignored by many) physical media delivery network that is marked by Netflix-by-Mail on one end and Amazon at sell-through pricing on the other.

I can imagine how much different the late 90s/early 00s would have looked if there had been all sorts of massive lock-in for these proposed services. I mean, in many ways it was bad enough as it was, but the biggest problem was solved by a massive (gold) rush to TCP/IP and the open internet, simply because the telephony system couldn't really deliver the way they'd imagined (and promised) in these ads.
posted by dhartung at 10:17 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Things like this are a real reminder of how damn gradual technical improvement is. I remember these ads from 1993, and if I'd been able to warp to today I would have been stunned at the change. But seeing it all tick by release by release and device by device is like living with someone and not noticing them age until you look at old photos.

(That said, the launch of the iPhone *was* a pretty big jump. Just not as big as it would have been from 1993)
posted by bonaldi at 2:15 PM on September 2, 2014


Also of note: This ad campaign was the origin of banner ads on the web.
posted by radwolf76 at 2:32 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


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