A Short History of Predicting the Future

, A Short History of Predicting the Future, The Habari News New York
, A Short History of Predicting the Future, The Habari News New York

This article is part of our latest DealBook special report on the trends that will shape the coming decades.

In 1982, The New York Times promised its readers “A Glimpse of the Year 2000,” rounding up predictions from a range of professional futurists. The forecast was mixed.

“We’ll be living in similar houses, except they’ll be unquestionably smaller and more clustered,” suggested Roy Amara, head of the Institute for the Future. Birthrates will fall, he said, and inflation will get worse. Workers, he said, “will want intellectual and psychological fulfillment, not just financial reward.”

Nothing too risky there. Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute got a little weirder. Inflation will soon be zero, he predicted, and per capita income will double. There will be no energy problems, and robots will tackle menial chores. Oh, and expect lots of “family experimentation,” including group marriages.

A futurist at SRI International imagined computerized, voice-controlled homes, predicted the dominance of high-tech industries over capital-intensive manufacturing, and mused about an unending fast food boom.

A “freelance futurist” named Hazel Henderson predicted a more “human scale society,” in which we’d realize that it doesn’t make much sense for a Floridian “to buy Wonder Bread baked in Illinois” and that, soon, “we will share capital goods like lawn mowers and freezers and houses.”

Barbara Hubbard, “an independent futurist,” kept it simple: “We are going to cultivate the stars.”

Most of the predictions did not pan out — at least not quite. By the year 2000, our houses had not gotten smaller, although urban migration was underway. Gas was temporarily cheap, but energy was as problematic as ever. Globalization continued apace, staple foods became international travelers, and the stars remained mostly unbothered.

It wasn’t a total miss: The computer-driven knowledge economy was flying high while American manufacturing was in collapse. And the sharing economy was coming, sort of, but not quite yet.

But in retrospect, the 1982 predictions said less about the future than about what sorts of stories people wanted to hear, and tell, in the present. A postwar boom in institutionalized future studies, fueled by a sense of American scientific and technological dominance, was beginning to give way to predictions more firmly planted in the private sector. A new futurology was taking shape, and it spoke fluently the language of markets.

The futurists’ obsession with ripped-from-the-headlines issues like inflation inadvertently offer a glimpse of the coming merger between futurology and, well, investment advice. If you want to hear someone guess what’s coming next, the writer of The Times article notes, you can “go ask your local futurist.”

The new futurists were keenly aware of their audience, who wanted not just guesses but present-day advice. Popular futurology in the era of globalization and information technology was largely about local extrapolation of trends that were understood to be inevitable. When would computing change your industry? How about outsourcing? When would the Dow hit 36,000?

So, what happened to the futurists? Some self-identified futurists still walk and talk and write among us, from perches at major corporations, in books for sale at the airport, and on Twitter and Medium and LinkedIn.

They don’t just speak the language of markets now, but the language of marketing and self-help, too, offering optimistic visions of the future that make sure to include the anxious median reader (“The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives”) or, better yet, instruct in the ways of forecasting (“Non Obvious Megatrends: How to See What Others Miss and Predict the Future”).

Some venture capitalists are unusually compelling when they talk about their books about the future. Mainstream politicians engage, from time to time, in flights of predictive fantasy. Popular sci-fi entertainment has veered into despondent gloom, as if it’s worried it will lose its appeal as reality nips at its heels, serving up almost competitively vivid depictions of resonant apocalypses to viewers (who, to be fair, are probably watching from home to avoid Covid-19).

In the news, predictions and forecasting models are integral to the way the media talks about the pandemic and climate change, two of the defining stories of the day. Neither tells a particularly encouraging story about the role of prediction outside the context of financial speculation. People will invest based on forecasts. Whether they’ll alter other behaviors to avert predicted disaster is another story.

Most visibly, perhaps, we have the tech titans, many of whom are students of futurologies past. They’re taking turns as futurists, no longer content to launch new products — or even spaceships — without also sharing their own broad forecasts for humankind’s life beyond Earth, or at least inside the metaverse.

Their visions are bold but often familiar, like branded rereleases of science fiction classics. Tech titan predictions are both compelling and so profoundly biased that they should probably be understood as something else: threats to competitors, promises to investors, positive affirmations for the titans themselves.

Maybe they’ll be right. Maybe they’ll make sure they’re right. Maybe they’ll make someone else right, a few years later than expected. Or maybe they’ll suffer the same fate that most futurists do, eventually, encountering the risk that makes big predictions interesting and worth making in the first place. Maybe, in other words, they’ll be wrong.