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Home / Media  /
The Future Prediction Syndome
Predicting The Future

Predicting the future is like sleeping.  Anyone can do it, but most of us doing it tend to exaggerate. 


"There are ominous signs that the earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production – with serious political implications for just about every nation on earth. The drop in food output could begin quite soon, perhaps only ten years from now."

Sound like a prescient prediction for our own future?  It's a little late for that. These few sentences opened up a nine paragraph story which appeared in Newsweek's April 28, 1975 issue, and it remains, four decades on, the article for which author Peter Gwynne is most famous because of what he went on to say later in the story:

"The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the earth's climate seems to be cooling down . . . [Meteorologists] are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century."

Like most erring prognosticators, Gwynne now back pedals on his previous story with the usual justifications.  "The vast majority of climatologists now assure us that Earth's atmosphere is not cooling. Rather, it's warming up . . . Climatology has evolved since 1975. The certainty that our atmosphere is indeed warming stems from a series of rigorous observations and theoretical concepts that fit into computer models . . . These capabilities were primitive and non-existent in 1975."

Gwynne has nada to say about his predictions that food production and agricultural productivity would decline. Cereal production rose from about 350 kg per person in 1975 to around 375 kg ten years later. By 2005, it had fallen to 1975 levels. Meat production, on the other hand, rose per person from around 28 kg in 1975 to 32 kg in 1985 and passed 40 kg in 2004.  

All this doom and gloom makes me recount a book I read all the way back in 1991, The Population Bomb, written by a Stanford professor named Paul Ehrlich in 1968. The only thing he got right was that the world's population did continue to rise, but one didn't require the pedigree of a Stanford professorship to predict that trend.  Ehrlich's predictions of food shortages and mass starvation throughout the 1970's and 1980's are laughable now. 

In 1967, the Philco-Ford Corporation produced a short film entitled 1999 AD. I think it's apposite I first saw the film in the very year it was supposed to predict. It was fascinating to see a 1960's take on what life would be like in the turn of the century. Computers, naturally, controlled the home, but looked more like microfiche machines – remember those at your local library before the 1990's? – with insanely large text. The wife pushes magic buttons on a contraption in the kitchen and meals are created out of thin air after she consults the computer for the ideal lunch.

1999 AD is a good example of overprediction.  People always imagine a future infinitely more advanced by taking the slightest innovation or trend from the present and extrapolating it exponentially. From the past, the year 2000 in particular always had an extra magical sound to it. The new millennium. The new century. It didn't matter if the predictions for 2000 were being made from 1967 or from 1952.  Even with 2000 now fourteen years in our past, 2000 still  conjures up a futuristic aura of near utopia.  In an article written in the early Fifties called Cheer Up! World Will Be Wonderful Fifty Years From Now, writer Henry Nicholas predicted that by 2000 "cures for most of the diseases of man will have been discovered." Interplanetary space travel would be commonplace, huge space stations the size of the moon would orbit the earth, overpopulation issues would be solved, most of us would be living lives of leisure. 1999 AD doesn't deal with the space issues, but it does portray the family of the future having oodles of free time, an altogether misplaced prediction when today's Americans in the same economic class as the 1999 AD trio work longer days with both spouses on the job, enjoy less vacation time, and retire at later ages. 

Back To The Future II, produced twenty-two years after 1999 AD, doesn't make so many bold futuristic claims when Marty McFly travels to the future of 2015.  Director Bob Zemeckis shows us handheld computers, wall-mounted widescreen televisions, and video conferencing but none of these were tremendous leaps in 1989. Computers had shrunken down from the size of rooms in the 1960's to devices that actually fit onto a desktop by the early 1980's. Predicting larger television sizes was also a no brainer. TV's had already grown in size from an average of 14" in the 1950's to 19"-21" in the 1970's. By 1980, the largest TV sets were 45", though I don't know anyone who actually owned one.  Video conferencing systems had already been in use for quite some time. They were pricey, costing $80,000 in 1986 with a $100/hour line fee, but that was already a significant drop in cost from the systems which were on offer just four years earlier. 

In 1999 AD, we see a husband video conferencing with his wife elsewhere in the house and later, the mother doing the same to her son. Video conferencing was first introduced at the World's Fair in New York in 1964, so it's easy to imagine the filmmakers of 1967, just like Zemeckis in 1989, thinking this technology would be ubiquitous in the future. This is another classic example of overprediction, whereby just because something is technologically possible and economically feasible automatically means it will be adopted en masse. In other words, just because we can do something doesn't mean we WILL do it. When 1999 really did roll in, the webcam communication from room to room we see in 1999 AD was already possible, albeit with grainer images, but people just didn't have a need to communicate that way. Even by 2014, the preferred way to get in touch with someone else in the same home is to shout to them. Or if the house is too large for that to work, call them on a cell phone. We don't use video to do it because video is a more intimate way to communicate. You video call your parents, a sibling, a spouse for a longer, more involved discussion. You don't video conference the pizza deliveryman or Junior to tell him dinner his ready. 

Back To The Future II makes the same overprediction mistakes when it shows the McFly family sitting around the kitchen table watching TV on eyeglassware. By the late 1950's manufacturers were already trying to compete with each other to produce the world's smallest TV sets. By 1966, Motorola had produced a 1" mini-TV prototype. If the demand had been there, by 1989 TV manufacturers could have produced a type of mini television to be worn like glasses. So why in 2015 would there be demand for such a device when there wasn't in the past? Several years before 2015, people have shown a willingness to wear eyeglassware to operate personal computer-like devices (i.e. Google Glass), but this is a completely different application, and one Back To The Future II doesn't even cover superficially.  Ditto for mobile phones. The first mobile phone call was placed by a Motorola researcher in 1973. A 1989 prediction of smaller pocket-sized mobile phones wouldn't have been considered revolutionary.  Cell phones aren't seen once in Zemeckis' version of 2015 while today they remain an item nearly all of us have with us all the time. 

Predicting 100 years into the future is a crapshoot. The people of 1900 expected that by 2000 we'd all be in flying cars and living like the Jetsons. The problem with predicting so far in advance is that a few major technological advances can dramatically alter a future landscape so much as to distort the predicting year's visions from the eventual future reality.  In 1900, John Elfreth Watkins, Jr predicted the U.S. population would be 350-500m by 2000. He was assuming the population would continue to explode as it had in his time. He didn't account for urbanization, smaller families, and other countries becoming attractive immigration destinations. The first modern electrical air conditioning unit was invented by Willis Carrier in 1902. If you were predicting the future from the year 1900 and didn't factor in this one invention, you would have missed out on the redistribution of the population from colder to warmer zones. Without widespread air-conditioning, would the deserts of Las Vegas have been turned into casinos, would retirees from the northern U.S. have been able to relocate to states with milder winters like Arizona and Florida? Would hot and humid countries like Thailand have been able to economically develop as quickly? 

A futuristic thinker of 1900 may have anticipated air conditioning and a worldwide interconnected computer network. He may have also anticipated interplanetary space travel and cities in the ocean. When none of the things you're predicting have manifested yet, it's difficult, even if you're later proven right on the mark with your predictions (like Elfreth Watkins was with many of his own), to pinpoint them at precise points on the timeline. How do you know interplanetary travel or cities under the ocean are 100 years away or 200 years away? 

So what you wind up with in distant year predictions is a futurized version of the world of the prediction year. Some paintings put together by various French artists between 1899-1910, depicting what the year 2000 would be like, still look very much like the late ninetenth century, but with a few Jules Verne-like gadgets tossed in.  None of these labor-saving devices materialized in similar form in the real future because we found completely new ways of doing things unthought of in the prediction year or found different problems to focus our energies on.

Predictions thirty to forty years in the future should be much easier to make and hold up as more accurate, as we've seen in the cases of Back To The Future II and 1999 AD, where both got more of the future right.  These predictions, however, besides a typical habit to drift into overprediction, usually fail to take into account basic human nature, which doesn't change, and societal trends, which do.  In 1999 AD, for example, we see a father, a mother, and a son with nothing but time on their hands. When lunch hour arrives, it's just assumed that anyone from the future would or should be able to have their lunch magically materialize. But that doesn't take into account that many of us actually enjoy preparing our food or to eat something composed of the freshest ingredients. This was as true in 1950 as it was in 1980 as it was in 2010 and I expect will be in 2040. There are those among us who cannot cook or dread doing so and we're more apt to stick frozen food into a microwave. In 1967, the same year 1999 AD was produced, Amana introduced the first microwave ovens into home kitchens, and when you think about it, not much has really changed in that department in the last five decades.

What has changed immeasurably is the role of women in the home and workplace, yet this goes completely ignored in the 1960's prediction of 1999. The mother here acts just like any other stereotypical housewife from the 1960's, stuck in the kitchen, deferential to the husband.  If you were trying to predict the future accurately, wouldn't it make sense to think about the technology after you'd accounted for the way you thought societal dynamics and habits would shift? If a crystal ball gazer in 1952 grasped just this one concept, that women would gradually achieve parity with men in the workforce and men would be freer to take on more of the roles women traditionally monopolized (like be the child rearers), then it would have been easier to foretell that other disenfranchised groups (homosexuals, minorities) would eventually be brought more into the mainstream, that single parenting would be more acceptable, that more of us  would marry people of other races and colors. If you could see the coming of multinationalism and globalism, you could predict the rapid homogenization of the world, a McDonald's from continent to continent.

As an exercise in future prediction, try to imagine you're back in 1985, when the first Back To The Future came out, trying to predict what 2015 would be like.  From our present vantage point, we have a pretty clear idea what 2015 looks like, and guess what? It's not a whole lot different from 1985 if you discount the clothes fashions and hairstyles and fads. In 1985, we still had TV's. We still went to cinemas. We still went to restaurants. We still called people on the telephones. We still had desktop computers. We still listened to music on portable music players. We still drove from place to place in cars and flew longer distances in planes. 

The TV's are larger now, have more pixels, cost less. Cinemas have more sophisticated stereophonic sound and show 3D films. Restaurants have options to order online. Telephones are not limited to landlines; the more common variety are handheld computers we carry in our pockets.  Desktops have expanded into laptops and have more RAM and more hard drive space and are interconnected via networks. Music players are now smaller, play digital formats, and store massive songs libraries. Cars are more fuel efficient. Planes fly further, cheaper.

But overall, our core experiences remain the same.  And in another thirty years, those core experiences won't dramatically change either. We'll still watch passive entertainment on screens we could compare to past TV watching experiences. We'll still talk on cellular phones but they will all be inexpensive and powerful smart phones. We'll still drive around in cars, but they'll be electric. 

Talk to most people and ask them what thirty to forty years into the future will be like and, as usual, they'll be talking about colonies on Mars, teleportation, genetically modified fruits that look like a fusion of a dragon fruit, papaya, and guava. 

People always expect the distant tomorrow a generation hence to be so dramatically different. We can't help but be disappointed when that future just turns out to be a more refined and productive view of the present.


If you liked reading this, consider:
 The Purposeless Spectacle Of Presidential Elections Part I
 The Right Time To Jump Ship
 The Complete Article Index