Thursday, March 15, 2007

Getting the Future Wrong

At the local public library the staff often puts out older copies of periodicals on a display stand near the front entrance; these are copies the library no long wants, and anyone can take them as their own. Today I picked up the July, 1976 edition of "National Geographic," which contained a feature article about five noted thinkers predicting the immediate future. Not surprisingly, every last one of the "experts" was wrong, and not just about some things, but they were wrong in every prediction they made. Gerald Piel, the publisher of "Scientific American" states that soon growth will disappear from the world economy, suburbia will also soon be gone, and population growth--along with poverty--will quickly join the saber tooth tiger and the mastodon in the museum of natural history. Richard F. Babcock, a Chicago attorney and "an authority on planning and housing law," avers the state is going to regulate all private property and the suburbs are going to be black and the cities will be lily white: "the Johannesburgizing" of America, he calls it. Sci-fi author Issac Asimov says, yes, we will soon live in a steady-state society in which all inovations and growth will be regulated, however, that won't be such a big deal because we all going to soon live on the moon. City planner Edmund N. Bacon tells the world we cannot own nature, and everyone will have a four day week and they won't be using petroleum much longer. Dear old Buckminster Fuller is more gaseous than the others and mostly spouts nonsense, but does say we in the U.S. will soon share our power grid with China and the USSR; getting along with the Soviets, he adds, will the key to success in the 21st century. (I have a special place in my heart for Bucky Fuller. One of my favorite college memories was going to one of his free-form "lectures" and listening for three hours while he explained how lucky the universe was to have him in it and his student audience smoked pot until he made sense to them. After he was done, the kids asked him questions about their sex lives. He, of course, had answers.)
It would be easy to make fun of those who predict the future and are so foolish as to put their predictions in print for everyone to find years later. But it would be overkill. We all express ideas about the future, usually after the last of the wine is gone and we are feeling very wise. We, of course, are as wrong as the experts are, but most of us share our foolishness only with friends and family, and our loved ones are too kind to bring up the stupid things we have said. The question is--the two questions, in fact--why do we insisist on doing it and why are we always so wrong about the future will be.
At the 1930 World's Fair, the exhibition "The World of Tomorrow" showed an animated film about the Nirvana that would exist in far away 1960, when people would ride about in radio controled cars, when everyone would eat one vitamin pill in place dinner and another to make up for breakfast, and poverty, crime, pollution and disease would be distant memories. Houses in 1960 would clean themselves, and robots would fight our wars, except that there would be no more wars, not ever. The same film did predict we would have a television in every home, but the film's creators went too far and said the innovation would make us smarter.
The two most famous novels written about the future in the past century--Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World--were not meant to be predictions and were in fact novels about tendencies that were current during the authors' lifetimes. Yet we want them to be blueprints for what is to come. As horrible as both Orwell's and Huxley's visions are, we actually take comfort in believing they are showing us the truth, for we find it better to "know" the future rather than to forge ahead into the darkness without a guide. Once humans placed their trust in something greater than themselves, but we have become as gods ourselves, and we want to see where we are going and are willing to believe that some among us can act as scouts. To think otherwise would be to doubt the modern world.

1 comment:

R. C. A. O'Neal said...

The greatest difficulty with predicting the future is not that we don't know what is going to happen, but that emotions cloud our judgement so that we see the future we desire or fear, rather than the future that is to be.