Welcome to the Future

I found the future on a street corner in Brooklyn, in front of an abandoned porno theater. It came from a homeless guy selling old magazines: I bought the January 1980 issue of Playboy for only two dollars–a buck less than the cover price. It was every bit as kitschy as I had hoped for, with an article on “Playboy’s Pajama Parties,” a Fotomat ad for Drive-Thru Movies (rent a videotape for only $7.95 to $13.95!), and a big preview of Star Trek: The Motion Picture that included this line: “Movies have often spawned TV series, but no television epic has ever been turned into a blockbuster movie.” But best of all was a long article entitled “80 Ways the Eighties Will Change Your Life.”

With capsule description after capsule description of the technological wonders to come, the article felt like a Sears-Roebuck catalog selling the Millennial Good Life. As I paged through, many of the promised innovations were old news. The US Postal Service now uses electronic scanners to read addresses; the myopic wear disposable soft contact lenses. And cable TV certainly came to life (the article quaintly referred to ESPN as Entertainment and Sports Programming Network). But just as many remained fantasies: wine in vending machines, memory pills, and synthetic blood made from egg yolks and starch.

I began thinking: At the beginning of the ’80s, all of this stuff seemed pretty much equally plausible (or implausible, depending on your point of view). How will the predictions of today look in twenty years? Realizing that I had no real way to determine that, I changed tacks: Who else has made predictions about the world of today? Was anyone right? If they were wrong, were they wrong in consistent ways that we can learn from?

Futurists fall out of print quickly, replaced by history books. My Brooklyn street corner had more porn magazines, but no more visions of the dawn of the twenty-first century. But in second-hand bookstores and libraries, and flipping through late-night reruns on TV, I discovered that the future is a place where Earth is an irradiated, arid lump of coal. It’s also a place where humanity prospers, with colonies on other planets and eternal life available for all. Furthermore, it’s a place where Paris has electric streetlamps and fax machines–and accountants who write with quill pens. The future, in short, is a strange, shifting land. No two guides describe it in the same way; nobody has a wholly accurate map. Yet we will all inevitably travel there, if we can just stay alive.

As I read through volume after volume, the motives of the predictors were laid clear, no matter whether they called themselves oracles or business analysts. Some did it for financial gain, others because they believed they had received divine word. Some used predictions as persuasion, hoping that if they they outlined the world they wanted to live in, others would do the work necessary to make it happen. Others did just the opposite, using predictions as warnings. Some were science-fiction authors just trying to tell a good story. Whenever anybody got something right, it felt downright spooky; more often, however, I wondered how they could ever have so misconceived the direction the world was going in.

Most of the futurists I read focused on the rise and fall of governments, and especially, the progress of technology and the sciences. The future of art and literature got short shrift, as did sex and religion. At first, I thought this was because too many of the predictors considered their readership to be drawn from the business community. But that didn’t wash: an accurate prediction of fashion trends, or societal attitudes towards sex, would be immensely valuable to any savvy investor or corporate type. Would-be prophets avoid arts and entertainment because they seem too difficult to pin down, too trend-driven. Science provides the illusion that progress occurs in an orderly fashion: Mendel’s pea-plants to the discovery of DNA to the Human Genome Project to a cure for cancer, all in a tidy line.

Futurists truly cleave from the world, I discovered, by dividing it into the expected and the unexpected, and then pretty much ignoring the unexpected. Arthur C. Clarke in his 1963 Profiles of the Future nailed this phenomenon pretty well, designating Roentgen’s 1895 discovery of X-rays as the first unpredictable discovery, one that suggested that the world may not work as anticipated. “X-rays–the very name reflects the bafflement of scientists and laymen alike–could travel through solid matter, like light through a sheet of glass. No one had ever imagined or predicted such a thing….” Galileo could have imagined a helicopter or a steam turbine–in fact, he did–but would have been quite baffled by a radar installation or a nuclear reactor or countless other technological advancements since 1895. Unexpected scientific achievements from electronics to carbon-dating have turned the twentieth century upside down, over and over.

In contrast, this was Clarke’s selected list of expected innovations: automobiles; flying machines; steam engines; submarines; spaceships; telephones; robots; death rays; transmutation; artificial life; immortality; invisibility; levitation; teleportation; communication with dead; observing the past, the future; telepathy. Obviously, some already exist, while some others will probably never be achieved.

Even progress that is expected can happen in unexpected ways. For example, countless science-fiction writers wrote about men traveling to the moon. Jules Verne even anticipated that the launch would be in southern Florida, selecting a site very near Cape Canaveral in his novel From the Earth to the Moon (although he chose a cannon as his method of escaping the Earth’s orbit). What writers didn’t envision was the US government being the organization behind the moon mission; almost everyone had assumed that private enterprise would take the lead.

I learned the standard stratagems of those wanting to be called prophets: make your predictions vague enough that they can be interpreted in a variety of ways, or make so many of them that some are accurate by sheer luck. Your typical Tarot-card reader makes a living off the former technique; your typical stock-market TV analyst makes a living off the latter. The other popular technique was to make predictions for so far in the future that nobody ever remembers to check on you. The human attention span being what it is, in practice this means anything more than two years away. Finally, after reading one erroneous prophet too many, I decided to round up people who had made concrete, definable predictions about the dawn of the twenty-first century and to grade them on the most fundamental level: What did they get right?

I had to exclude some people. The mystically inclined favor Nostradamus, and claim he predicted Hitler by name. Well, in fact, he called the guy “Hister,” and his poetry is too vague to call accurate or inaccurate: he was out. And Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, despite its name, is not really a futurist tract–it’s a work of sociology. Toffler carefully avoids bald predictions, although he had an uncanny talent for identifying emergent social trends that would be the predominant facts of life a quarter-century later. In 1970, he was already pointing to the rise of temp employees, divorce’s atom-smasher effect on the nuclear family, the glorification of the subculture, and the sensation of information overload. When Toffler turned to outlining the future, he came up with some clunkers–massive exploration and exploitation of the oceans, complete control of the weather–but was generally canny enough to fudge the timeline on when these marvels might arrive.

As I immersed myself in futurism, I waded through promise after promise of electric cars, unified world government, and videophones. (For decades, certain favorite predictions have been coming along Real Soon Now.) But before I burned out on days of future past, I resolved to grade leniently. If a prediction seemed to be mostly correct, even if it mangled some details, I gave the futurist credit. If they correctly described the effects of a technology but misunderstood the mechanism of it, that was accurate enough for me. So H.G. Wells, for example, described a Permanent Death Gas that was the ultimate weapon of World War II, killed people for miles around, and left land utterly destroyed. Although he thought it would be a gas, that was close enough to the atomic bomb for me.

Working backwards chronologically through the nine futurists who made my final cut:

John Naisbitt, Megatrends
Date: 1982
Accuracy rate: 60%
Best predictions: The decline of Japan; the home computer explosion
Worst predictions: People won’t use home offices; people won’t shop online

In many ways, Naisbitt’s book restated Alvin Toffler’s themes, just giving them a futurist spin to make them a little sexier. So although he was fully correct in predicting the rise and acceleration of the information society, saying so a full decade after Future Shock fails to impress. Nevertheless, he nailed many societal trends, which is no mean feat.

Naisbitt realized that the rise of cable would mean a long, slow decline for network TV: “ABC, CBS, and NBC will be the Life, Look, and Post of the 1980s.” He also correctly anticipated that the space shuttle would push forward the global communications network much more than it would space exploration. Aside from a few odd lapses, like thinking that people would never want to shop via computer, Naisbitt’s failures mostly came from the advocacy fallacy, or believing that the future would turn out in much the way that one wants it to: the computer will smash corporate hierarchies, the American people will turn to long-term thinking over quarterly reports.

David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, and Irving Wallace, “A Chronology of the Future,” in The Book of Predictions
Date: 1981
Accuracy rate: 19%
Best predictions: Overthrow of the Soviet Union’s communist government circa 1990; courtroom proceedings will be televised and popular.
Worst predictions: US capital moves from D.C. to Minneapolis; “A male astronaut in outer space shoots and kills a crewmate in an argument over a woman.”

The People’s Almanac editors put together a five-hundred-page compendium of predictions, soliciting experts on every sphere of life from environmentalism to linguistics to recreational drugs. (It also included chapters on famous seers, plus psychics outlining the future of celebrities like Jackie Onassis, Muhammad Ali, and Johnny Carson.) The editors synthesized their favorite predictions into “A Chronology of the Future,” urging their readers, “In the light of the recent past, there is no reason to disbelieve the advent of new miracles, advances, changes in the next 20 years. Open your mind. Make way for tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, they chose their favorite predictions willy-nilly, with seemingly no regard for their likelihood, producing howler after howler: 1987 alone was supposed to bring “A bottle of hard liquor costs $125,” “A woman priest is ordained in the Roman Catholic Church,” and “The British sport of cricket becomes a national sport in the U.S.”

Making matters worse was that many of the experts consulted for predictions indulged in the advocacy fallacy. For example, while the book’s four sex experts correctly anticipated the rise of condom use to prevent disease and the rise of homosexuals as a political force, they also offered visions of the sexual future plucked straight from their personal wish lists: The male “sex drive” would be a thing of the past and sex would be redefined so that intercourse fell out of favor. Or alternatively, gender would become so irrelevant that birth certificates would no longer name a newborn child’s sex. Of course, they completely missed what proved to be the most salient fact about sex between then and now–the AIDS epidemic. The few predictions they did get right seem like irrelevant details in the face of an overwhelming number of deaths. More evidence, if you needed it, that the future cannot be plotted like a parabola.

So the Wallechinksy/Wallace/Wallace hit rate may be taken as a floor for predictions: a random collection of plausible-sounding statements about the future will be right roughly one time in five, and even produce some spookily correct results, like those here about a computer being able to defeat a human chess champion, or the demise of the then-invincible Soviet Union. That doesn’t mean we have to regard the successes as anything other than good luck.

Richard Rhodes, “80 Ways the Eighties Will Change Your Life”
Date: 1980
Accuracy rate: 49%
Best predictions: the rise of the personal computer, organ transplants
Worst predictions: all alcohol fortified with vitamins, quadrophonic FM

The Playboy article smartly restricted itself to the immediate future, and to capsule descriptions of technology and consumer goods that already seemed to be on the way. So the readers got previews of innovations such as faster color film, computer-controlled car engines, widespread organ transplantation, and sugar snap peas. Even the Internet–although not by that name.

The bad news? Fully forty-one of the eighty next-generation products still haven’t arrived, or at least not in anything resembling the form that was expected. They include such staples of futurism as the home holograph system and the fully automated house, but also a few wackier things like the attache case with a clock, calculator, and telephone built in (obviously, technologically possible, but never an object of consumer demand). Vaporware isn’t a new phenomenon, obviously.

Even with what seems like a can’t-miss prediction–the return of Halley’s Comet in 1986–Rhodes managed to fluff it, promising “Halley’s comet will spark fads, songs, and names for the baby.”

Gene Roddenberry and collaborators, Star Trek (the original series)
Date: 1966-69
Accuracy rate: 50%
Best predictions: 3.5″ storage units for computer data; lightweight mobile communicators
Worst predictions: the Eugenics Wars of 1992; interstellar sleeper-ship technology by 1996

The original Star Trek was set in the 23rd century, so even if we leave aside such improbabilities as the galactic predominance of oxygen-breathing bipeds and the continued popularity of velour, it’s near-impossible to judge what remains. Photon torpedoes, transporters, and warp speed may be feasible 300 years from now, or they may not. I judged particularly leniently here, giving Roddenberry credit for the innovations that seemed far-distant but already exist: Modern mobile phones are every bit as light and portable as Kirk’s flip-open communicator, and Spock’s computer “tapes” look uncannily like a modern diskette.

Still, nothing predicted by Trek for the end of the twentieth century came to pass. To wit: no genetic superman rose to power, assuming control of the Earth from South Asia to the Middle East. Unless I was seriously deficient with my newspaper reading, I’m pretty sure the world was not racked by the Eugenics Wars in 1993. And by 1996, said superman and his followers could not leave Earth for another star on a sleeper ship, because that technology is still far away.

Most futurists have their best hit rate in the decade immediately following publication. Within ten years, you have a good chance of extrapolating events from the current state of affairs. Beyond that, there’s too much chance for unexpected technology (or wars, or plagues) to make the world go in a perpendicular direction. So it’s almost certain that the world three hundred years from now will look nothing like anything we can imagine. It certainly won’t resemble this particularly 1960s American vision of the Jason-and-the-Argonauts myth.

Odd footnote: the “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” episode correctly predicted that the Apollo 11 moon mission would be launched on a Wednesday.

Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future
Date: 1963
Accuracy rate: 39%
Best predictions: Global library, subnuclear structure
Worst predictions: Cyborgs, fusion power

Clarke began this book with the statement “It is impossible to predict the future.” What he attempted to do instead was outline, in seventeen different chapters, seventeen different directions in which future research and technology might head, and the consequences of various inventions of the future. For the most part, he successfully navigated between what he identified as the Scylla and Charbydis of prophecy: the failure of nerve (not properly extrapolating from what already exists) and the failure of imagination (not factoring in the unexpected developments of the future). And since he was wise enough not to commit to concrete dates in those seventeen chapters, it’s nigh-impossible to grade his predictions, except to say that they still seem plausible.

In an appendix, however, he offered a “Chart of the Future,” and it is this frivolous exercise that I took advantage of. While Clarke correctly predicted translating software and personal radios, we still don’t have “wireless” energy or fluency in cetacean languages. Nevertheless, Clarke’s multiple visions of our future still seem much more cogent than most of the other futurists I read; he was just off on the time frame, which, as he admitted in his introduction, was not his strong point. I’ll give him a few more decades.

Robert A. Heinlein, “Where To?”
Date: 1950
Accuracy rate: 37%
Best predictions: decline of Freudian psychoanalysis; “Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure.”
Worst predictions: The housing shortage will be alleviated by new technology; intelligent life will be found on Mars.

In his fiction, Heinlein predicted the waterbed and remote-control waldoes; in both cases, nobody had ever described them before, meaning that prediction became a close cousin to invention. This essay, however, written at the midpoint of the twentieth century, was a nonfictional outline of what he thought the next fifty years would be like. To Heinlein’s credit (and my relief), his nineteen predictions were succinct and straightforward: e.g., “Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision.” And when he annotated them in 1965, and again in 1980, he graded himself honestly (“This prediction is trivial and timid. Most of it has already come true and the telephone system will hand you the rest on a custom basis if you pay for it.”)

Heinlein’s passion was outer space. So he had two separate predictions for interplanetary travel, one for intelligent life on Mars, and one for controlling gravity. He also was clearly alarmed about global population growth, with two predictions on world hunger. (In 1980, he commented, “In 1950 I was too pessimistic concerning population. Now I suspect that the controlling parameter is oil.” Given that the US had gone through various energy crises for the previous decade, this was not an entirely novel insight.)

Heinlein’s crankiest prediction: “The cult of the phony in art will disappear. So-called ‘modern art’ will be discussed only by psychiatrists.” Again, he fell victim to his own prejudices.

What did he get right? Most perceptively, the sexual revolution. Also, two negative predictions, which are always easier–that there would be no world government and that mankind would not exterminate itself. Not that anyone would be around to chastise him on that last point if he were wrong.

H.G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come
Date: 1933
Accuracy rate: 50%
Best predictions: World War II; the Cold War
Worst predictions: 1968’s Great London Landslide; 1985’s Revolt of the Sea Pirates

Wells went to some length to portray this novel as an accurate history of the future, with a fifteen-page introduction detailing how an esteemed friend of his had transcribed it from a book seen in his dreams. Wells claimed he was sharing it only because the first few years’ worth had already proven to be accurate. The book, in fact, does read very much like a future textbook, which is not to its credit.

Wells was uncannily accurate in predicting the near future–that is, World War II. He said it would begin with a German incursion into Poland in 1940 (off by only a few months–it was September 1939). He named Hitler, air warfare, the entrance of Japan, and even the Cold War that would follow. After about 1950, however, his crystal ball completely clouded over: he saw a world completely Balkanized into city-states and ruled by pilots, who controlled commerce. The twentieth century according to Wells ends with this pilotocracy turning into a socialist world-state. Wells could read current events accurately enough to guess at the politics of the following decade; after that, he was on uncertain ground, and the advocacy fallacy prevailed once again.

David Goodman Croly, Glimpses of the Future
Date: 1888
Accuracy rate: 75%
Best predictions: World War I; the Russian Revolution; women’s rights
Worst predictions: a new U.S. constitution; the U.S. conquering Canada, Mexico, and Central America

David Goodman Croly (1829-1889) is the greatest prophet you’ve never heard of. A former newspaper editor, he wrote a column of business, political, and social predictions for the New York Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide. He made his reputation by predicting the Panic of 1873 two years in advance, even specifying the first bank and first railroad to fail. He collected his columns in an 1888 book, done as a series of quasi-Platonic dialogues between his Sir Oracle persona and a crew of questioners (a Journalist, a Utopian, etc.). Much of it is rambling recommendations on the politics of his time, but he also made fifty-three concrete predictions “to be read now and judged in the year 2000.” They were mostly quite explicit: e.g., “Aerial navigation will solve the mystery of the poles, and eventually there will be no ‘dark region’ on any of the continents.” An astonishing forty of them are correct. What makes them even more impressive is that their scope extends far beyond the following decade or two, and outlines much of the twentieth century, despite our fundamental societal shifts and Clarke’s list of unexpected innovations.

Groove to Croly’s hit parade: World War I (instigated by Germany), the rise of the USA as an international power, England losing India by 1950, divorce becoming socially respectable, the rise of Russia in the Eastern hemisphere, women’s suffrage and admission to colleges, the rise of the metric system internationally, New York incorporating Brooklyn and building subways, travel by air, electricity ascendant over steam engines, mechanical reproduction of art, the electric light turning night into day, art and entertainment inspiring the devotion traditionally reserved for religion, movies, low-fat potato chips, and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Okay, not those last two. But Croly’s description of the future is the sound of the twentieth century.

His errors were scattered: he saw citizens rising up against corporate power, he envisioned another country’s naval fleet occupying a great American city, he thought there would be one global currency. His only consistent blind spot was on racial issues: writing only a few years after the end of the US Civil War, he saw a decline in miscegenation leading to more marked physical differences between blacks and whites, and a program in the West Indies to coerce the freed slaves to work. But although he was a big fan of eugenics (“stirpiculture”) to improve humanity, he didn’t think it would prevail; the Third Reich aside, he was correct.

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century
Date: 1863
Accuracy rate: 48%
Best predictions: the electric chair, the calculator, the fax machine
Worst predictions: Chinese as a lingua franca, the popularity of boiled horse meat, no traffic jams in Paris

This Verne novel, written relatively early in his career, was reportedly rejected by his editor because he felt that its vision of the future was too implausible. And in fact, although Verne correctly latched onto the idea that science and technology would rise in importance, the 1960 Paris he extrapolated from that assumption doesn’t feel like the modern world we know. Technical manuals and science textbooks are the bestsellers; all novels and literature have fallen out of print.

Where Verne got it right was in forecasting the technology of the future: electric power in every home, automobiles, amplified music, even wood-based paper. “[F]orests no longer served for firewood, but for printing.” With only a few exceptions–the compressed-air industry, balloons acting as lightning rods–every invention he described is on the scene today. Yet everything was seen through an odd 19th-century prism. For example, Verne described the fax machine and its use with some precision: “[it] permitted transmission of the facsimile of any form of writing or illustration, whether manuscript or print, and letters of credit or contracts could now be signed at a distance of five thousand leagues.” But all this is done over the telegraph wire, for he did not anticipate the telephone, let alone communications satellites. And in the bank that he described using this fax machine, the cashiers write with quill pens. Verne correctly described an amazing number of the trees from a great distance, but completely misapprehended the shape of the forest.

In his essay, Heinlein sneered, “Predictions of gadgets is a parlor trick anyone can learn; but only a fool would attempt to predict details of future history (except as fiction, so labeled); there are too many unknowns and no techniques for integrating them even if they were known.” If I learned anything from poking around how the future used to be, it’s that the chance of being a fool never stopped anybody from taking a chance at being a prophet. For all his bluster and his tone of utter certainty, Heinlein got more of his predictions wrong than right. Put it this way–he was no Croly.

So I think I’m ready to make my own predictions for the future, knowing that the keys are confidence and avoiding the advocacy fallacy. I can tell you with utter certainty that this is what the 21st century holds:

1. We’ll have electric cars, a male birth control pill, videophones, and home holography systems.
2. Rising oceans will make most coastal cities unlivable.
3. Humans will walk on Mars, and on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
4. The human lifespan will double, at least.
5. The American two-party system will collapse; political parties will have explicit corporate alliances.
6. Nuclear weapons will be used in a Sino-Soviet conflict.
7. We will bioengineer animals with the ability of human speech. They will have their own sitcoms.
8. South Africa will emerge as a major world power.
9. Teledildonics will be more popular than flesh-on-flesh sex.
10. Humanity will not exterminate itself.

You can check on me in a hundred years if you like, but don’t worry–I’m absolutely right.

Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally written circa 2000; previously unpublished.