I recently read the article "AT&T: Internet to hit full capacity by 2010", which is pretty much summarized by the title and the opening line:
"U.S. telecommunications giant AT&T has claimed that, without investment, the Internet's current network architecture will reach the limits of its capacity by 2010."
You can read more in the article, although they digress into some net neutrality issues. However, this latest prediction reminds me of similar predictions throughout history that "the end is near", and I'd like to explore them further here.
The "Limits" of Physics
I can recall back in about the late 80's when experts were making similar predictions and warnings that we had reached the upper limit of how fast data could be transferred through phone lines via modems—9600 baud! These same experts claimed that we'd reached the limits of physics and it was just a "fact" that we needed to accept.
As we can now see (with the benefit of hindsight, of course) that entirely new materials and techniques, such as optical fibre, compression algorithms and other breakthroughs, were developed to get around some of the limits that existed for wire-based data transfer. Wikipedia has a good history of modems, bandwidth, and the inventions along the way.
It's interesting to note that these types of warnings and stories are usually accompanied by quotes from the experts and other "facts", which prove that they are "true" and inevitable. It reminds me of this quote from a great scene in the movie Men in Black:
"Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow."
BTW, you can find this quote and just about any other kind of movie-related trivia from the handy Internet Movie Database.
The "Limits" of Technology
Going much further back, dire warnings in the late 1800's said that we needed to seriously curtail the expanding use of horses, cows, and beasts of burden or else the planet would soon be covered in several feet of manure! The experts had "done the math" and this was an inevitable and irrefutable prediction. But ooops! We didn't allow for the invention of the internal combustion engine, electrical power, and other energy sources that significantly reduced our reliance on animal-based power. Of course, we also didn't anticipate the whole new series of problems and challenges of global warming that many might argue make the manure problem look like a good one!
I sometimes have the sense that some of the more dire predictions about global warming and other imminent disasters are similarly exaggerated and misdirected. Please do NOT misconstrue my comments here to mean that we have nothing to worry about or to work on. I want to champion quite the opposite reaction! To be sure, all of us have much to be concerned about. We need to be more diligent and work harder than ever to ensure the sustainability of ourselves and our environment so that we can ensure an ever brighter future for us all.
The "Limits" of Human Capacity, Foresight, and Imagination
History has shown that we are capable of doing some VERY stupid things and can exhibit great ignorance and lack of foresight. However, as illustrated by my prior examples, history also shows that we need to take into account our even greater human capacity for invention, discovery, creativity, innovation, and design.
I'm sure that many of you may have similar Chicken Little "the sky is falling" * stories, and I'd be most appreciative if you'd post these to your blogs or send comments here to help all of us learn from these historical examples.
I'm was in Mexico recently and I'm told that the story of Chicken Little (and the saying "the sky is falling") are well known there and translates to El Cielo Se Esta Cayendo. For those not familiar with this reference the previous link will give you the background.
In the end, I have huge faith in our collective powers for invention, creativity, innovation and designing solutions. What we need to watch out for is the flip side of this where we become smug, arrogant, or cynical based on what we "know for sure" today. I hope that examples such as this latest prediction about the limits of Internet capacity will only serve to help us balance these forces and inspire and motivate us all to work towards new ways to improve our lives and those of all others.
Rather than imagine what we'll know for sure tomorrow, imagine if ................ Not only is the sky NOT falling, it is the limit of what is possible.