Bold visions, bad ideas: 10 attempts to reinvent the world that flopped

Every startup founder dreams of changing the world, and sometimes it works. But more often, even the best ideas run into resistance and obstacles from unexpected sources.

The best laid schemes of mice and men... Often go awry

The radicals behind the French Revolution wanted to remake the world in vision of their new, rational, modern ideology. One of the greatest legacies of this tendency was the metric system, which replaced the old confusing inches and pounds and feet with logical factors of ten.

Lesser known is the attempt to duplicate the feat with time: the French Revolutionary Calendar, with its ten-day weeks and ten-hour days. This seemed eminently reasonable, but conflicted too much with custom and the rhythms of people's lives, and was eventually dropped by Napoleon.

Many tech visionaries similarly sought to completely remake the world. Sometimes it works, but, as in the case of these 10 failures, often it doesn't.

Artificial intelligence

From the dawn of the computer era, the idea that machines would soon learn to reason like humans became commonplace. ENIAC, the very first primitive electronic computer, was heralded as a "giant brain" in the press in 1946. And a team of AI visionaries at Dartmouth in the 1950s, with few concrete goals and gobs of government money, promised that true thinking machines were just around the corner.

What followed were a series of "AI winters" that came as the research failed to live up to its promises. While AI boosters like Ray Kurzweil point out that much of their research has found its way into everyday applications like voice-recognizing phone systems, autonomous thinking machines have failed to remake the world.

Manned space travel

Sci-fi fans of 1955 wouldn't have been surprised to learn that humans would walk on the moon in the 1960s and live in orbiting labs for months at a time in the 1970s. But they'd probably be shocked to hear that in 2014 there would be only six humans in space, huddled in a single outpost.

To learn why manned space travel didn't transform our species, consider the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. An ambitious Air Force plan to use Gemini hardware to build a manned orbiting spy platform, it was abandoned when it became clear that automated satellites could do the job more safely and cheaply. This would turn out to be true of just about any space application you could name.

Supersonic passenger flight

The Concorde was the fastest and most beautiful commercial jet ever built -- but more than 50 years after its first flight, nobody's tried to build another supersonic passenger jet. Why didn't it change the world of commercial flight forever?

Well, between noisy engines and sonic booms, supersonic planes are so loud they can only be used over water, and their range essentially limited them to transatlantic flights. And they're expensive enough to operate that they'll only be for high-rollers, whereas air travel has become much more democratic since 1969. It turns out most people aren't willing to pay thousands extra just to shave a few hours off the New York to London route.

Virtual reality

Sci-fi of the 1990s seemed convinced that a virtual reality, delivered via headsets and powered gloves, would transform the way we interacted with computers, with the nascent Internet and with each other. Some worried all of humanity would eventually retreat into virtual worlds. Gaming companies tried to deliver real-life equivalents of such experiences, but in real life nobody was biting.

There were a host of reasons why: the hardware was underpowered and overpriced, and the pro-level applications, like medical assistants, were spurned by the pros. Today we have things like the Wii and the Kinect, but they're pale imitations of the transformation we worried about.

Paperless office

In 1980, the Economist published a briefing called "Towards A Paperless Office." In 2012, they noted that since that time, the use of paper had skyrocketed. Computers and digital communication were supposed to eliminate the need for all that tree-killing paper and transform the way our offices looked and functioned.

But the one tech advance nobody considered was the laser printer, soon ensconced in every workplace. Once it became ridiculously easy to produce more paper documents, since we all had access to a private professional printing press, people started doing so with reckless abandon.

Swatch Internet Time

The French Revolutionary calendar reborn! In 1998, Swiss watchmaker Swatch introduced the concept of Swatch Internet Time, which combined a pointless restructuring of traditional timekeeping with hilarious early-Internet symbol mishmoshes: Each day would be divided into 1000 .beats (yes, dot-beats), and the number of beats after midnight in Switzerland would be written after an @ symbol (years before Twitter).

Swatches all over the world would display the same universal time, representing the global unity brought about by the Internet. While some Swatches did have a secondary display that showed time in .beats, obviously nobody used this system, and it quickly faded. Swatch's Internet Time website is remarkably up to date, though.


Back when the Segway was only being whispered about, known in secret as "Ginger" and "It," a quote made the rounds, variously attributed to Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos: "cities will be built around this device." In fact, both men turned out to be significantly more skeptical when shown a preview.

Jobs in particular declared that the design "sucked," and, more importantly, that he wouldn't use it to get to a grocery story seven minutes from his house. The real problem for a thing that aimed to revolutionize transportation was that it was at home neither on the sidewalk or the road -- cities would have to be rebuilt for it, which, it turns out, nobody was keen to do.

Municipal Wi-Fi

As more and more Americans started putting wireless routers into their homes in the mid '00s, city governments began to dream: why not just blanket a whole town with magical wireless Internet connectivity? Turning whole cities into hotspots seemed like a futuristic proposition that would change the world with limitless Internet connectivity.

But the devil, as usual, ended up in the details, with the problem of blanketing many miles with Wi-Fi turning out to be much more difficult than covering a single home, and cities unwilling to shoulder the costs. And by the '10s, most of the people who'd be interested in such connectivity had smartphones with 4G access that would far outpace the speeds of municipal Wi-Fi networks anyway.

QR codes

Has any technology format risen and fallen faster than QR codes? As smartphones rose to prominence, people wanted to be able to connect humans to specific Internet sites right out there in the real world. The QR code, already in use as a 2D barcode in shipping and manufacturing contexts, was visualized as a sort of meatspace hyperlink, and by 2010 people began to breathlessly wonder if they would truly change the world.

It soon became clear that, while smartphones really were world-changing, nobody was using QR codes; there were lots of other methods of mobile and location-based discovery that didn't involve awkwardly taking pictures of, in one memorable formulation, "robot barf."

NFC and "mobile wallets"

Technology has transformed how we spend money, helping us pay our bills right out of our bank accounts online. Near-field communications and "mobile wallets" have promised for years to shake up the last remaining old-school transactions, those that take place in person at stores. Instead of buying your groceries with cash or credit card, you can do it with your phone!

The problem is that in the developed world, paying with your phone isn't more convenient, so nobody bothers. (In places like Kenya, where traditional commerce infrastructure is weak, mobile payments do quite well.) Just about the only people excited about mobile payments in the US are thrilled about all the jobs they'll kill.

Related: 16 products that Microsoft has killed off