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Flying cars, meals in pill form, robot overlords — many attempts to predict the future turn out predictably wrong. Not so with a National Science Foundation study in 1982 that foresaw, with a prescience that feels like time travel, the rise of networked computing and its ensuing challenges to society.

The report is summarized in this fun-to-read June 14, 1982, New York Times article: “Study Says Technology Could Transform Society ” (hat tip to my Bloomberg Businessweek colleague Elizabeth Dwoskin ). The piece explores how one-way and two-way electronic communication could revolutionize how people work and play, how buildings and cities are designed and how children learn (or don’t).

Sustainability is a tool companies and investors are using to sharpen their bets on the future. It’s touched by the futurist enterprise, to extrapolate the plausible evolution of large-scale trends. As with similar enterprises, sustainability also produces a lot of bunk predictions.

Noteworthy for non-sustainability practitioners who are trying to make sense of sustainability is this prediction from the New York Times story:

A new profession of information ''brokers'' and ''managers'' will emerge, serving as ''gatekeepers,'' monitoring politicians and corporations and selectively releasing information to interested parties.

A large profession of information “brokers” — larger than you would guess if you don’t see it every day -— has evolved to manage corporate image and information. For example, it’s standard practice these days for major companies to hire major p.r. firms, who contact journalists just to put them in touch with corporate p.r. people. It’s kind of insane.

Communication is critical to corporate sustainability, in which companies undertake initiatives such as carbon-pollution reduction or governance reform with hopes to win a brighter halo for their brands. But while sustainability is supposed to promote transparency and dialog, all the p.r. “gatekeeping” has the opposite effect.

The National Science Foundation nailed it, and lots of other things, just as Ronald Reagan was settling into his first term in the White House, and the Commodore 64 8-bit home computer was being unveiled.

I couldn’t immediately find a copy of the report on the Web.

Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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