AT&T's 1993 "You Will" ads, the rightest wrong things ever predicted about the internet

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But for most people, they weren’t actually very off. Most people aren’t that weird. We’ve seen the growth of corporate monoliths grabbing large chunks of people’s lives. Instead of families staying in touch over long distances, they’re isolated while in the same house. Monopolism and surveillance are far from rooted out; they are quite prevalent and entrenched.


Directed by David Fincher!

Interesting that some of these predictions are only just now becoming mainstream, though none by AT&T. Apple’s pushing for standards in making health records accessible on your phone; Disney’s adding the ability to open your door with your voice in several of their WDW hotels; you can control your house remotely with an Echo Dot and a few add-ons.


To be fair, depicting “hardware hackers creating free/open laptops from the bootloader up to root out monopolism and surveillance” might have been hard to show clearly in a 30-second ad.


That is really jarring how “You Will” was so right, “And the company that’ll bring it to you is AT&T” was sooooooooo wrong, other than being a broadband provider. ATT ended up making NONE of the products.


I dunno, it was basically just cribbing what a lot of people had been suggesting for years (or even decades in many cases) that networked home computing would bring to the table.

As it turns out, it’s a hell of a lot harder to build this stuff than it is to predict it.

As an example: 1930s FaceTime


What always makes me upset about commercials like this was the idea that information services couldn’t be just a thing that everyone had a basic PC do for them instead of centralizing the hosting of such things. It just feels wrong to have everything bottled up in the core part of the network and not at the edges where people exist.


Back when they were a new thing, I predicted that youtube and the ubiquity of cell phone cameras would put an end to police brutality, because the silent majority would have their collective noses rubbed in what was really going on all over the world, and (at least in the USA) good people everywhere would rise up in indignation and demand accountability and reform.

The opposite actually happened. I was a whole lot more wrong than AT&T.


To be fair, there was that brief period of time when every airport seemed to have an AT&T video phone. Though I never saw anyone actually using them as a video phone (I only used them for their modem jacks (to date this: with my Psion 5mx!))


You seem to be laboring under the mistaken impression that these ads were created to predict the future, rather than to sell a brand.


Cool little contemporaneous Too Much Joy song inspired by these commercials:


We noticed AT&T’s presumption at the time, and worked it into a Yamara strip in Dragon in 1994:

‘If people weren’t in their living rooms staring at a dozen car ads per hour, how would they know they needed to buy a car?’

…And here we are.


Well the secret is that the average person is fine with police brutality and imperialism so long as it doesn’t happen to them. And all the Internet did was make it easier to access for those who find graphic violence satisfying when it’s not staged.


Who is narrating? Such a familiar voice. My best guess is Tom Selleck. Does anyone know?


Usenet users had a lot of fun mocking those ads at the time. I remember Kibo’s version was something like “Have you ever flown your Gyrocopter through the Transatlantic Tunnel? YOU WILL.”


Of course, another question is, “Which AT&T?” There have been three versions:

  • The original one (a.k.a. the Bell System) that took vertical integration to an extreme and even managed to invest vast sums into R&D
  • The neutered version resulting from the 1984 Bell System breakup (which made the ads)
  • The current incarnation, where one of the surviving Baby Bells (SBC) bought up what was left of the old AT&T

And even though the first one brought us a vast variety of technological breakthroughs, they were sometimes just as happy to stifle technology if they thought it threatened their bottom line. The internet as we know it would have never gotten off the ground at all, or at least would have remained a university/defense research lab curiosity, were it not for that critical period between the Bell System breakup and its quasi-reconstitution in the form of Verizon and the New AT&T.

SBC, for those who remember the dialup BBS scene, was the company that wanted to surcharge analog modem users for the privilege of using modems.

AT&T Version 2 dropped the ball big-time when, after buying up cable networks left and right, ended up selling them to Comcast.


AT&T presented some of these “future technologies” back in the mid-80s at their display at EPCOT Center, “WorldKey”. I vividly remember getting to make restaurant reservations via a “video phone” (a monitor with a video camera linked to guest services).


It was a more optimistic time, back there at The End of History and the start of the Dotcom Boom. The idea of a future of endless peace and technological progress was a very compelling one, including for SF-reading and Usenet posting weirdos like me. The years 1993-2000 in North America and Europe were a particularly good time to live if you had the social and/or economic capital to enjoy it and it’s only natural that AT&T wanted to latch its brand to that zeitgeist.


Bingo. These weren’t predictions; they were pitches.


Bell tried mightily to get Picturephone off the ground starting in the 1960s and 1970s, but it had few takers. They had an exhibit set up at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry with a couple of them. But the analog bandwidth needed for video channels made the service prohibitively expensive to provide to the public. Digital carrier systems existed even then (T1 dates to 1962), but fiber optics were really what was needed.

It wasn’t until smartphones became a thing that video and the phone became wedded together, and even then nobody I know does video chat.