So, this is our last in a triptych of blog posts exploring the psychology of how we imagine the future.
The first, published two days ago, sheds light on the psychological and social processes of thinking about what is to come.
Yesterday we zoomed in on the mistakes that creep into this process, and illustrated how these fallacies distort our vision of the future.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at a futuristic vision of 2001 as imagined in 1900, and explore what the author got right, why most of his recommendations missed the mark, and how all of this can inform our current imaginations of the future in a hundred years’ time.
Off we go…
What can we learn from old predictions of the future?
In December of 1900, The Ladies’ Home Journal published 29 predictions of what the United States would look like a hundred years later. John Elfreth Watkins Jr. gathered these imaginations of the future by interviewing ‘the most learned and conservative minds in America (…), the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning’.
Surprisingly, some of his visions of the future hit remarkably close, but many others missed the mark.
To illustrate how the psychological and social processes involved in predicting the future actually shape what futures we can imagine, we’ll take a look at his predictions and, based on this analysis, evaluate one forecast of the future.
Mr. Watkins’ visions of his future and our recent past
1. Bull’s Eye: Extrapolating and identifying needs
In several cases, Mr Watkins’ experts correctly identified various futuristic, technological solutions that would serve a public need within a hundred years.
They predicted that ‘automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known’ (#6) and that ‘children will ride in automobile sleighs in winter’, which obviously refers to snowmobiles. Similarly, they correctly forecasted that trains would radically increase in speed (#5) and that ‘fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea will bring delicious fruits from the tropics and southern temperate zone within a few days’ to consumers in the United States (#25).
In all these cases, it’s clear that he addressed an obvious problem of his time with reference to existing technology to imagine how his ancestors might live in a more comfortable future.
The predictions that Mr. Watkins made by extrapolating observable trends also came pretty close to reality a hundred years later. His experts correctly forecasted that the United States would grow, even though they overestimated by how much and wrongly predicted Nicaragua, Mexico and ‘many of the South and Central American republics to be voted in the Union (of States) by their own people’ (#1).
They also correctly predicted that the average American would be taller, even though they drastically underestimated the improvements in life-expectancy, predicting that an average American man ‘will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at present’ instead of the actual 74.1 years the average American lived in 2000.
2. Right outcome, wrong means
In many cases however, while Watkins’ experts identified a current problem that would indeed be solved within a hundred years, they failed to correctly predict how it would be solved because they based their predictions on their current context and technology.
For example, they saw the need for automatic cooling and heating of households but falsely predicted that this would be achieved through ‘hot and cold air [that] will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house (…) [like] the temperature of the bath’ (#21).
Similarly, they noted the need for home delivery of store purchases (Amazon) and food (pizza deliveries), but believed that these deliveries would travel via pneumatic tubes (#22 and #23). Curiously, in their imagination of the future, lacking plastic plates, ‘dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishment where they will be washed’, and ‘purchasing one’s own food will be an extravagance’ (#23).
The experts correctly predicted that their ancestors would be able to share photographs, live music, conversations and videos across long distances at enormous speed in full color (#9, #10 and #18). Not yet able to conceive the ability of a future technology, the internet, to transmit all kinds of media in seconds across continents, they believed that telegraphy and telephony would make this possible.
3. The difficulty of changing existing complex systems
Some of their predictions failed to take into account how hard it is to overturn established systems, infrastructures and traditions of language in favour of new ones.
For instance, they incorrectly predicted that C, X and Q would be eliminated from the English alphabet because they are unnecessary and that spelling by sound would be adopted instead (#16), that large cities would be free of traffic which would take place underground (#4), and that pneumatic tubes would be used to deliver food and store purchases (#22 and #23).
All these predictions failed because they didn’t consider how complex and costly it would be to change the existing, established systems of infrastructure and communication.
4. Economic, social, political and ecological variables
As with most people who imagine the future, Mr. Watkins’ experts found it easier to conceive of physical and technological changes, than the synchronous changes and consequences of shifting social, political, economic and ecological interests.
Predicting a change of mind (or politics) is tricky for two reasons:
- it requires the change to be feasible and theoretically possible (as with most technologies) and
- it requires an understanding that serendipity, complexity and variability will shape future events in unexpected ways
One of the predictions made, was that ‘a penny will pay the fare’ for the ‘trip from [the] suburban home to [the] office [that] will require a few minutes only’ (#2), which, while technically possible, might not be in the economic interests of the business providing the transport system. Similarly, they underestimated the willingness of their peers to embrace aeroplanes, and predicted that such a technology wouldn’t gain traction (#7).
Another fascinating prediction suggested that we’d accept genetically modified food and agricultural methods, with ‘strawberries as large as apples [and] cranberries, gooseberries and currants [that] will be as large as oranges’ (#26). But while theoretically possible, the prediction failed to take into account the possibility of resistance to such technological advances, and the variety of stakeholders at play.
Most prominently though, the experts predicted the United States of the future would feature a very European version of education, social welfare and health care when positing that ‘university education will be free to every man and woman (…,) poor students will be given free board, free clothing and free books if ambitious (…)[and] medical inspectors regularly visiting the public schools will furnish poor children free eyeglasses, free dentistry and free medical attention of every kind’ (#17). Such a future would have been possible (and may still be) if the political, economic and social interests had been sufficiently aligned to make it happen.
All of these examples highlight the difficulty in accurately forecasting complex issues.
5. Truly new inventions and discontinuous change
As with all forecasts past and present, Watkins and his team had a very hard time imagining truly discontinuous change that didn’t elaborate on something they already knew. As explained in the first blog post of this series, the scenarios we can imagine depend on what private memories and cultural ideas we can use to reassemble into a vision of the future. That which has never been experienced or thought of before, is almost impossible to conceive of.
This failure to make a leap into unknown territory affects both Watkins’ predictions of social movements such as the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement and modern feminism, as well as predictions of technical innovations that transcend forms of technology known to his experts.
Computation, nuclear energy and space travel were such discontinuous change that they didn’t think of it at the time because they had no precedent to base such an imagination on. They also failed to predict the pull of human laziness that would void prediction (#3), that ‘a man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling’.
Summary and insights
What can we take away from this analysis of Mr. Watkins’ experts’ view of the future?
- Extrapolating current trends and identifying unsolved needs can provide a good starting point for imaginations of the future.
- When thinking about solutions for current needs, it’s worth considering that unknown technologies of the future (rather than advancements on current technology) might be the way to go. Discontinuous change, which is really hard to predict, might account for great change between now and then.
- Changing complex systems is difficult. Less elaborate solutions might dominate those that require a shift in existing infrastructures.
- Economic, social, political and ecological interests, changes and consequences matter.
Using these insights to imagine the future
In 2014, Andrea Caumont and Aaron Smith at the Pew Research Center published an article based on a research paper and survey of 1001 adults, to ‘understand public attitudes about a variety of scientific and technological changes being discussed today’ and explore Americans’ comfort levels with these changes and the general ‘public mood about the long-term future’.
Their main findings were that:
- ‘The American public anticipates that the coming half-century will be a period of profound scientific change, as inventions that were once confined to the realm of science fiction come into common usage’
- ‘Overall, most Americans anticipate that the technological developments of the coming half century will have a net positive impact on society. Some 59% are optimistic that coming technological and scientific changes will make life in the future better, while 30% think these changes will lead to a future in which people are worse off than they are today.’
- ‘Many Americans pair their long-term optimism with high expectations for the inventions of the next half century. Fully eight in ten (81%) expect that within the next 50 years people needing new organs will have them custom grown in a lab, and half (51%) expect that computers will be able to create art that is indistinguishable from that produced by humans.’
- The respondents were resistant to the following technologies:
- ‘66% think it would be a change for the worse if prospective parents could alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring’.
- ‘65% think it would be a change for the worse if lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health.’
- ‘63% think it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace.’
- ‘Demographically, (…) technological optimists are more likely to be men than women, and more likely to be college graduates than to have not completed college. Indeed, men with a college degree have an especially sunny outlook: 79% of this group expects that technology will have a mostly positive impact on life in the future, while just 14% expects that impact to be mostly negative.’
- Some of the technological changes that were discussed in the report are drones in American airspace, devices like google glass that feed information into our field of vision, time travel, self-driving cars, personal robot servants, genetic modification of children, controlling the weather, long-term space colonies and teleportation.
It’s intriguing to consider what could be added to this research to achieve a fuller picture. Even though they checked for attitudes likely to be influenced by such conversations, the authors did not explicitly address the political and social consequences that could arise from the implementation of these technologies:
- How do self-driving cars change the transportation sector?
- How do conversations change with wearable tech?
- How do personal robot servants change employment?
The predictions focussed on what technology could become, rather than finding new uses for existing technology or new solutions to existential problems such as poverty, climate change, diseases or limited resources. Most predictions are elaborative in nature, i.e. they explore how existing technology could be developed in the future.
Two of the exciting predictions from the research, time travel and teleportation, are part of a tradition of imagination and science fiction fantasies, but they’re also discontinuous: the technology needed to achieve these goals doesn’t exist yet.
Tapping into social attitudes and culture
- What current needs and desires exist globally?
- What economic, social, political and ecological interests, changes and consequences might kick off a change or might be triggered by it?
- What are the economic, social or political interests that support or suffocate the invention, spread and use of new technology?
- What does the picture of the future look like from another perspective?
- What small technological innovations are necessary to build a new technology? Is there evidence of any of these smaller sub-innovations happening in the near future?
- Does new technology rely on the use of old or new systems of infrastructure?
- Does new tech work centrally or locally distributed?
If you want to make better predictions
- Remember that what makes an imagination of the future good or bad depends on the question you are asking. Thus, determining the criterion important to you (e.g. creativity, accuracy, likelihood, multiple perspectives or elaborateness) is important before evaluating a prediction.
- Mr. Watkins refers to expert opinions for his predictions, and some research suggests that involving teams of super-forecasters might lead to better forecasts.
- A century is a long timespan to transverse. Imaginations of the future closer to the present are more likely to match the experience of this future.
- Thinking about the future from various perspectives other than one’s own and gathering input from a variety of sources can improve predictions of the future.
Let’s wrap it up
Over the past three days, we’ve dived deep into the psychological and social processes, common mistakes and prominent examples of transcending the here and now to catch a glimpse at the future.
- What are your experiences with forecasting the world to come?
- What have you learnt on your time travels to the future?
If you want to share your stories or enjoyed this new format, please let us know in the comment section!
If you’ve read all three posts and still want more, here are a few resources that will give you a glimpse at the futurist and forecasting communities on the web:
A homepage dedicated to collecting year by year predictions from the past to the year 10.000 A.D. if you want to put your new knowledge to good use and dissect some predictions of the future and an HBR article on ‘What Research Tells us About Making Accurate Predictions’ that can help you to do so.
The News from the Future homepage, dedicated to updating you on what has happened in 2020 and beyond.
The Blog of the Magazine of Forecasts, Trends, and Ideas about the Future, “the Futurist”, by the World Future Society with daily updates about new forecasts of the future.
Christopher Barnatt’s homepage explainingthefuture.com with insights on future technologies, trends, mindsets and challenges.
Arias, E. (2000). United States Life Table, 2000. National Vital Statistics Reports (51)3. Retrieved from: cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr51/nvsr51_03.pdf
Caumont, A & Smith, A. (2014). From Teleportation to Robot Servants: American Predictions and Dreams for the Future. Retrieved from: pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/17/from-teleportation-to-robot-servants-americans-predictions-and-dreams-for-the-future/
Pew Research Center (2014). “U.S. Views of Technology and the Future” Available at: pewinternet.org/2014/04/17/us-views-of-technology-and-the-future/
Robert, R. (2015). Philip Tetlock on Superforecasting. Retrieved from: econtalk.org/archives/2015/12/philip_tetlock.html
Watkins JR, J.E.(1900). What May Happen In The Next Hundred Years. The Ladies’ Home Journal (XVIII:1) p. 8, retrieved from personal.psu.edu/staff/t/w/twa101/whatmayhappen.pdf and yorktownhistory.org/wp-content/archives/homepages/1900_predictions.htm
Zarnowitz, V. (1967). Time Span of Forecasts and Predictive Accuracy in An Appraisal of Short-Term Economic Forecasts. Retrieved from: nber.org/chapters/c0940.pdf