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Futurism’s past is littered with faulty forecasts

To make a bold prediction about the future, you have to think outside the box. But as the history of these predictions shows, it’s all too easy for those who try to stare deep into the future to end up way outside the ballpark. By's John W. Schoen.
Jetpacks never got off the ground for a few very simple reasons: “They consume fuel really fast; the fuel is expensive; it's volatile; they shoot superheated steam, and they're deafeningly loud,” said Dan Wilson, editor to Popular Mechanics magazine and author of “Where’s My Jetpack?” David Bebber / Corbis file

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.

Popularized by 19th-century novelists like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, predictions of social and technological trends many years hence have entertained and fascinated generations. Along the way, these forecasters have logged their share of hits and misses. Time travel and manned-exploration of the Earth’s core remain the realm of fiction. (On the other hand, Verne got it right about men walking on the moon; Wells correctly foresaw that recorded video would one day be commonplace.)

Some of the boldest predictions are also the oldest. In “Looking Backward,” an 1888 utopian novel, author Edward Bellamy wrote of a man who awoke, Rip Van Winkle-style, in the year 2000 to find himself in a society that had banned war, eliminated wealth disparity and organized its workforce around individuals’ talents and abilities. The book also predicted the widespread use of credit cards and a world in which music would be available to all — anytime, anywhere.

Today, with uncertainty about the future widespread and the pace of change apparently accelerating, the demand for predictions has never been greater. But that hasn’t made it any easier to get them right. A lot depends on how far into the future you want to look.

“Between now and the next three years you can be damn close," said Joel Barker, an author and futurist who advises companies on technology trends and paradigm shifts. "Because the stuff is in the labs, and it's coming out and you’ve got to have certain capacity in manufacturing to do that. When you’re looking five to 10 years out, you really have to look at very raw stuff. That’s when I look at raw science and very early technology.”

Some predictions don’t unfold exactly as planned but, upon further inspection, it turns out they come close enough. The 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey," based on a 1951 short story by Arthur C. Clarke, depicts a 21st-century road warrior Dad, on a quick business trip to the moon, checking in with his young daughter via AT&T Picturephone. Alas, the Picturephone, first demonstrated by AT&T in the 1960s, is today about as common as a phone booth. But Internet telephony, combined with cheap Web cams, has brought videoconferencing to anyone with a PC and a high-speed Internet connection.

“Part of the reason people get ticked off with futurists is we that don’t give the exact description of how it’s going to happen,” said Barker. “Quite often, you have basically technology choke points and you can’t get to that breakthrough until you get through the chokepoint. The transistor was that way: lightweight portable radios then became portable telephones.”

In fact, many apparently faulty predictions turn out to be dead on — if you’re willing to stretch the original idea a little. Dick Tracy, the hero of a long-running comic strip, wowed readers in 1946 with two-way wrist-watch radio that, when upgraded with video in the 1960s, became a symbol of overreaching futurism. Today, the strip’s creator, the late Chester Gould, would no doubt smile today at the sight of people walking down crowded city sidewalks, apparently talking to themselves, wearing Blue-tooth-enabled appendages tucked in their ears. Gould got the wrist radio right; he just missed the body part it would be attached to.  

Still, some predictions that founder and sink show little sign of ever floating.

It’s one thing to capture the imagination with an inspiring demonstration of a new invention. But it’s another to roll it out for widespread use, said Dan Wilson, editor to Popular Mechanics magazine and author of “Where’s My Jetpack?”

“A lot of time the real problem is that they don’t scale,” he said. “They’re all really great inventions as long as you’re the only one who has one — like flying cars. There’d be real problems if everyone had one of these.”

Sometimes, an innovation comes along that inspires grand forecasts despite inherent drawbacks that are just too difficult to overcome — no matter how compelling the idea.

Take the case of jetpacks, first popularized by an artist’s imaginings on the 1928 cover of the magazine Amazing Stories. By 1961, Bell Aerosystems had created a Rocket Belt that worked. But though the device got off the ground, the idea never did — for a few very simple reasons.

“They consume fuel really fast; the fuel is expensive; it's volatile; they shoot superheated steam, and they're deafeningly loud,” said Wilson.

Many perfectly good ideas turn out to be lousy predictions. In 1900, the Ladies Home Journal figured that by year 2000, the letters ‘c,’ ‘x,’ and ‘q’ would be banished from English alphabet, according to Laura Lee, author of "Bad Predictions."

“They figured we’d be a lot more logical, and we’d simplify our spelling,” she said. “Everything would be phonetic, so you wouldn’t need those letters.

On the other hand, adherence to orthodoxy can be hazardous for forecasters. A century ago, the use of pneumatic tubes to deliver office mail prompted confident forecasts of citywide networks of tubes shuttling packages and pneumatic trains whisking passengers long distances. The arrival of electricity brought accurate predictions of high-speed, electrified trains. But with the horse-and-buggy era still in full swing, few believed that personal automated transportation would revolutionize everyday travel.  

“The thing that people tend to do is to project out whatever is happening at the moment,” said Lee. “And they fail to take into account that something else is going to come up that is new and exciting that they haven’t even thought of.”

The faultiest predictions, said Lee, are often those concerning things that will never happen: Cars will never replace horses, personal computers will appeal only to hobbyists, and the Internet is just a passing fad.

But if you’re talking about the future, never say never. The end of the Cold War, for example, eased 1950s-era fears of global thermonuclear war. But those gloomy forecasts have been revived by the recent proliferation of atomic weapons by new players like Iran and North Korea.

“There’s a big difference between ‘It hasn’t happened yet’ and ‘It never will happen,’” said Wilson.

And, much like weather forecasting, people who spend time trying to see into the future say your track record depends on where you’re trying to look. A weatherman in relentlessly sunny Los Angeles, for example, has an easier job than one in stormy New England. That’s what makes it so tough to forecast what will happen in over the next few decades in, say, the energy sector.

“It’s a highly turbulent situation with tremendous pressure to come up with novel ideas,” said Wilson. “When you have a situation where everything is running smoothly there’s no pressure to change.”

No accounting for taste
Sometimes a prediction makes perfect sense and technology cooperates, but public sentiment changes. When astronauts in the 1960s squirted their paste-based dinner from a tube, for example, the next logical step was the “food pill.”

“Every time these predictions are made they're made with the current cultural zeitgeist,” said Wilson. “Part of that in the '50s was Man over Nature: ‘We are going to conquer nature. We’re going to take every natural function of the human body and conquer it and figure out exactly why we need food. We can make our own food. We’re in control.’”

Today, modern food processing has delivered on its promise of simplicity and convenience, with ingredients engineered to satisfy nutritional requirements and prevent spoilage. But after 50 years of modern food-processing technology (including the near-ubiquitous presence of corn fructose), the idea of a 1960s-era Space Age food pill has been supplanted by public demand for naturally grown foods.

Still, when measuring the success or failures of past predictions, you have to take a long view, said Barker. Owners of the first generation of 1970s-era DiscoVision laser disc players may have a hard time finding the huge platters originally used to record video programming. But anyone who watches a DVD today owes a debt of gratitude to those pioneering early adopters.

“Sometimes people make the mistake of saying, 'That failed.’ No it didn’t. It evolved,” he said. “One of the things we sometimes forget there is there’s an evolutionary period in there just like there is with good old Darwin where it failed. But it actually sets the stage for the next attempt which is in fact much more successful.”

Tracking technological evolution can be fairly straight forward. When it comes to predicting human behavior, the process gets much more complicated. In the end, there’s no accounting for taste.

“I don’t believe that we're ever going to get really good at predicting future technology,” said Wilson. “There are too many missing variables. Human beings are very unpredictable; we’re not very good at predicting what we want.”

Even Smell-o-Vision, a technology used to add an olfactory dimension to movies, seemed like a good idea when it was introduced for the first — and last — time in 1960.

Still, measuring the success or failure of predictions misses the point, say some of those involved in making and tracking them. The most useful predictions are the ones that spur people to build a better mousetrap, said Wilson.

“If you don’t stir the pot, you don’t get new ideas,” he said. “People have to take shots at these things. You get your perpetual motion machine about every 20 years; somebody says: ‘I’ve finally done it.’ Well, good for them. Because, if nothing else, people have to rethink it, take a look at it and say, ‘Well, that didn’t work either. But, boy, you made me think about that.' "