Why Do We Think So Much of the Future?

It is impossible to predict, but that doesn't stop us from trying.

Posted Aug 09, 2018

It is impossible to predict the future, we all know, yet many of us still try to do it in one way or another. We love to hear correct predictions, even though most who attempt it tend to get it wrong. It hasn’t helped that more than one charlatan has hung out a futurist shingle, interested only in telling people what they want (or don’t want) to hear to make a buck. Whether populated by those with alleged special powers—soothsayers, oracles, crystal ball gazers, clairvoyants, palm readers, dream interpreters, stargazers, and the occasional witch—or professional futurists with reams of “data” up their sleeves, the field has always been viewed as a bit shady, some considering the whole enterprise plain quackery.  

“To talk about history, you have to have your facts in order, but to talk about the future, all you have to do is say you work in research,” complained George F. Mechlin in 1983, a typical sentiment among the more skeptical. A dozen years later, David Bouchier griped that, “financial advisers, think tanks, opinion polls, market researchers, the Federal Reserve and the CIA all specialize in getting the future completely wrong at enormous cost.” He was of the opinion that, ”only mothers really know the future.”  

“But the world pays no attention to mothers,” Bouchier grumbled, “the world wants to hear the bad news from a genuine prophet with a long white beard.”

Even some genuine prophets, long white beard notwithstanding, ultimately regretted their career choice and felt they might be better off with a “real” job. “How did I ever get into the predicting business?” asked one of the best, Isaac Asimov, at the top of his game in the mid-1960s. He was convinced that “predicting the future is a hopeless, thankless task, with ridicule to begin with and, all too often, scorn to end with.”

While he had a legitimate point, Asimov was actually overestimating how much the public (especially Americans) have looked back to see if prognosticators were right or wrong. Although futurists have indeed often received little respect from critics, they have on occasion received the credit they richly deserve. “We desperately need prophets, even false ones, to help us narrow the infinity of plausible futures down to one or at least to a manageable handful,” thought Lev Grossman in 2004, a refreshing take on those treading in tomorrow’s waters. “They are our advance scouts, infiltrating the undiscovered country, stealing over the border to bring back priceless reconnaissance maps of the world to come,” Grossman continued, an all-too-rare expression of appreciation for futurists. 

The ambivalence surrounding futurists and the field itself reflects the fact that its history has been a polarized one, with the world of tomorrow often imagined in utopian or dystopian language and imagery. If not a Rousseau-like peaceful kingdom where we all will one day life happily ever after, the future is frequently a place of impending catastrophe or, just as often, one in which the individual will be crushed under the foot of a totalitarian regime.  

The future has served as an opportunity to both vent our worst fears and air our greatest hopes, the most profound of the latter being that we’ll live on after our bodies die. The notion of an afterlife—the core of many religions—is futurism in its purest form, with tomorrow conceived not as a place made much better by the next great invention or much worse by an alien invasion but as an alternative universe with its own rules. Futurism has always carried with it a sense of mystery, the ability to know the unknown deemed limited to those with special (and, sometimes, evil) powers. Prophets were, centuries ago, considered divinely anointed in some way, the strange art seen as common to members of certain families who possessed a predisposition for it. 

This off-the-beaten-track aspect of futurism can be most readily seen within science fiction, the primary launching pad of twisted tomorrows over the last century. The standard tools of the sci-fi trade have served as some of the most familiar tropes of futurism, not just as an entertaining diversion but a way to safely contain the darkest sides of our imaginations. Mad scientists, master races, mutation, barbarism, and disembodied heads are just a few scenarios of future-gone-bad, most of these narratives not much more meaningful than those found in your typical horror movie of the week.  

The granddaddy of dystopia, however, is the creation of machines more intelligent or powerful than ourselves, this one reflecting our real-life (and, according to some current futurists, justifiable) fear of technology run amuck. Not surprisingly, then, the robot or automatic man has been a ubiquitous figure in futurism, both appealing to our quest for perfection and acknowledging the threat that we may lose the essence of what makes us human.  

The elephant in the futuristic room, however, has undoubtedly been our on-again, off-again relationship with science and technology. Since the Renaissance, in fact, science and technology have dominated our visions of tomorrow, our common dream to, as one mid-20th century futurist put it, go where no man has been gone before. Flying machines have been, of course, a staple of futurism, this despite the sensible argument within much of the day’s scientific community that they would never get off the ground (the internal combustion engine was never really anticipated, even by the genius of the millennium, da Vinci). Time machines also have been commonplace in narratives of the future, these too believed by most to defy the laws of the physical universe (though travel through time, at least backwards, is considered hypothetically possible by some string theorists). 

Overall, however, the actual pace of technology has almost always surpassed that expected by those peering in to the future, the quantum leaps made possible by a new discovery being impossible to anticipate. In his 1898 The Sleeper Awakes, for example, H.G. Wells nailed a number of technologies that were to be (radio, movies, air conditioning) but underestimated how quickly they would appear—about 40 years instead of his projected 200. Wells, who British “alternate history” novelist Harry Harrison credits with having created almost all themes of science fiction in his own “scientific romances,” was off by almost a century when it came to man’s landing on the moon, analogous perhaps to how futurists of the 20th century missed the rapid evolution of information technology by a country mile.  

Even more than overshooting technological achievements, however, it has been futurists’ failure to anticipate major social change, most egregiously the women’s rights and civil rights movements of the 20th century, that has most seriously and justifiably damaged the reputation of the field. The bias towards predicting technological versus social progress has been and continues to be the Achilles heel of futurism, with the next wave of gadgets and gizmos easier to see coming than a cultural tsunami. It is, Arnold Toynbee argued, ideas, not technology, that have stirred the biggest changes in history, something that more futurists could and should have taken to heart.

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