Embracing the 'F' word

The world changes fast and many enterprises large and small fail to see the next wave or see it and dismiss it.

The new breed of Luddites, Facebook knockers, join an illustrious list of people who have tried to turn the tide, literally and figuratively, against progress.

One Melbourne café owner, for instance, asks anyone caught chatting about the social networking site to cease their conversation immediately. While slightly tongue-in-cheek, the restaurant owner does have a sign in his window warning patrons not to use the "F" word -- Facebook.

Let's not go into the civil liberty issues or freedom of speech; however it did get me thinking about other people in history who have unsuccessfully railed against progress or mis-predicted the impact that certain technologies would have on our society, such as the Duke of Wellington, renowned for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, who observed somewhat short-sightedly that "railroads would only encourage common people to move about needlessly".

The world changes fast and many enterprises large and small fail to see the next wave or see it and dismiss it. For example, in 1768, three Scottish princes decided to publish the sum of all human knowledge to that date. It came to three volumes and they called it the Encyclopedia Brittanica. In the 1920s the company was purchased by Sears Roebuck and moved to Chicago where good old American mass marketing drove the revenues of Encyclopedia Brittanica to US$1.3 billion by 1990.

However, during the 1985 to 1990 timeframe, CD-ROMs became prevalent and the ability to pack lots of information in a portable and uploadable item was attractive to many producers and buyers. Microsoft bought Funk and Wagnalls and published their product as Encarta. Those people at Encyclopedia Brittanica insisted that people still wanted 24 volumes on their bookshelves.

From 1990 to 1996, Encyclopedia revenue fell 85 percent to US$60 million. And then in 2001 along came Wikipedia -- which Jimmy Wales says is the sum of all human knowledge.

Some of my other favourites include Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, who famously said in 1943, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" and Bill Gates, who in 1981 told us "640k ought to be enough for anybody". Anyone else have some favourites?

One last thought: banning Facebook reminds me of "Mad" King George, who commanded the tide to recede as he stood on the beach in England, getting increasingly wet.

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