THROWBACK THURSDAY: When everyone says AT&T predicted the future

You might have seen this video at one point or other. In some form, it has popped up a lot over the last 20 years.

This is a series of commercials AT&T ran in the 1990s. At that time, the company was trying to keep from shrinking into obscurity. It had been broken up by federal regulators less than a decade earlier. The company was besieged by competition in the lucrative long-distance segment, and had been all but shut out of the equipment sales it once dominated. It was a hard time to be an AT&T fan.

The company came up with these “image spots” to say what was possible in the near future with AT&T technology. If you watch this video with no other knowledge, you’ll come away thinking they did a pretty good job describing life 30 years later. They talk about teleconferencing, tablets, smart watches, cellular data, downloading information from the internet, GPS, automated ticketing, and other tech that we take for granted today. In 1993, none of these things were possible and most folks didn’t even know they were on the horizon.

Was it really so far-fetched?

Over the years, many people have pointed out that the world of the AT&T commercials was very easy to predict in 1993. The World Wide Web was new, but it did exist. Cellular data was practically nonexistent in real life, but the standards had been created. In 1993, the same year that these commercials ran, the GPS satellite fleet as we know it first became operational. All these technologies were right on the horizon. In fact it’s a wonder that they took as long as they did before they became commonplace.

People also take issue with the tagline, that promises that AT&T technology will make it all possible. That may be an exaggeration, but it’s not really a bad one. AT&T operated (and still operates) a lot of the fiber that is used for the internet. AT&T operates a large part of the cell phone network today too, and provides internet service to a large part of the country.

No, AT&T doesn’t make tablets or GPS units (although assisted GPS does run on AT&T’s cellular network) or an online bookstore. Other companies make those things, and some of them didn’t even exist in 1993. All in all though, it’s fair to say that AT&T has had a pretty big impact on all of this tech.

What if these commercials were made today?

It’s hard to think of the 1990s as a time of optimism. I remember grunge records and Generation X snark and the malaise of the late Bush era. Those AT&T commercials sought to combat those feelings, not to capture the era’s true colors. I’m sure that a lot of folks who saw those commercials didn’t believe that future was coming.

If those commercials were made today, what would they say? Perhaps they might talk about “the metaverse” or some other virtual shared experience. Perhaps they would talk about a future without traffic or car accidents. Maybe it would be something even more far-fetched, like the world Star Trek pitched to us 50 years ago.

Just like in 1993, it’s sometimes hard to think that our best years are ahead of us. But just like 1993, it’s possible that we’re on the forefront of a whole revolution that we barely even understand today. Let’s hope so!

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.