Friday, June 15, 2007

Futurism's Past Littered With Faulty Forecasts

John W. Schoen over at MSNBC recently wrote an interesting piece about paleo-futurism. An excerpt appears below but you can read the entire story here.

To make a bold prediction about the future, you have to think outside the box. But as the history of these predictions shows, when you try to stare too deeply into the future, it’s all too easy to end up way outside the ballpark.

History, in fact, is littered with Big Ideas that went nowhere. From the paperless office to teleportation; flying cars and undersea cities, predicting the future can be a perilous business. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

See also:
Is Futurism Dead? (New York Times, 1982)


Unknown said...

Interesting story, thanks.

I frequently wonder if the future doesn't shape itself according to our expectations. Don't scientists get inspired as well, from stories like Jules Verne and Tin-tin's voyage to the moon - the latter also written before the actual landings? As well as Star-trek and Greg Bear's book on where he sees evolution going, Darwin's Radio?

I really wonder if there is a dynamic there and as I said before on your blog, the key is not the imagination coming true, but the imagining itself?

Chris said...

Of course. It's become a cliche to talk about how Star Trek influenced generations of engineers, programmers and space scientists, but it's true. Even when futurism's dead wrong, it still provides useful inspiration. The only thing that can kill futurism in my opinion, is the current culture of Singularitarianism, which forbids any "what ifs" - the Singularity WILL happen, it's only a matter of quibbling about the date. Once you strangle the tendency to ask what if (especially, "what if we're wrong"), then you're out of the realm of speculation and into the realm of ideology.

Anonymous said...

The paperless office did arrive. Not exactly as visualized. And unequally.

As a very young man I began office work with an in basket and an out basket. It was not uncommon to have a foot of papers incoming. The out basket never got that high because couriers quickly took my 'outs' to other workers 'in'.

Perhaps 200 people sat at desks doing the same thing. The filing cabinets covered an acre.

Anonymous said...

continuation: The predictions that fail are those that serve no purpose. There are a curious few who might like an undersea city but most people see no need.

Another cause is overplanning. Most people don't like monolithic uniformity and detailed direction of their life.


The oldest among us often live in totally planned communities. For a fee they are relieved of decisions and chores they can no longer handle. More planning has come to serve a purpose for them at their stage of life.

Unknown said...

I've noticed a lot of writing about the paleo-future lately, probably because many of us have had the experience of reading or watching a story from the mid 20th Century that takes place in that mysterious, remote future of the early 21st Century. We compare the vision with the often banal reality, and ask, "What the hell were they thinking back then?"

Despite some interesting advances in information technology, communications and biology (all easily foreseen by futurists 30-40 years ago), in many respects daily life in developed countries hasn't changed that much since my teen years in the 1970's. For example, I visited the dentist the other day because one of my teeth has started to break up, and he told me that I'll probably need a root canal and a crown, unless I choose to get the decayed tooth extracted. Boy, both options really look "futuristic," don't they? Why can't I get a new tooth grown in place, like I've seen forecasted in Popular Science for years along with fusion power and flying cars?

Scott Haley said...

Dentists do have some amazing technology today. They have lasers for drilling teeth and special plastic that hardens when its exposed to a certain frequency of light.