The future just won’t stay still. We imagine we can predict it and that we can mitigate the power of the radically unknown. Almost always, events prove us wrong. Then we forget these mistakes and go on making predictions with undiminished confidence.
What will our world look like in 25 years? We are not the first to ask this question. In 1955, Fortune magazine published The Fabulous Future: America in 1980, which brought together some of the most influential Americans to speculate on the world to come.
Contributors included John von Neumann, the physicist who also invented game theory and early cybernetics; David Sarnoff, chairman of RCA, and Crawford Grennewalt, president of DuPont, both then synonymous with technological progress; presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson; Chief Justice Earl Warren; AFL-CIO President George Meany; Treasury Secretary George Humphrey; Harvard President Nathan Pusey; and others. Their contributions both reflected and shaped the wisdom of the times.
Their predictions weren’t entirely off base. The pace of technological change did speed up, polio was conquered, and “calculating machines” were invented. But in detail and in broad conception, they were almost comically off the mark. Atomic power was to solve our problems. Von Neumann predicted that because of it “energy would be free—just like the unmetered air.” Sarnoff foresaw nuclear-powered ships, aircraft, and automobiles and the end of fossil fuels. What’s more, we would alter weather and climate, and, of course, foresee the results of each intervention.
Society would also improve. The workweek would continue to shorten and we would soon worry not about creating jobs but about how to spend all our leisure time. Economic recessions and war would have disappeared. As television improved, nations would grow less hostile.
Almost as remarkable is what was not foreseen. Not even von Neumann, who did so much to lay the groundwork for it, anticipated the Information Revolution. Neither did anyone imagine the biological revolution or nanotechnology. Islamism was not mentioned, and authors assumed that time would always be on the side of the Soviet Union.
Understandably enough, the writers tended to draw straight lines from the present. In their view, past predictions had proven wrong out of insufficient optimism, not because of radically contingent events altering the whole direction of change.
Have we grown any smarter? It is easy enough to disparage the wisdom of our predecessors. Somehow history’s most enlightened people are always ourselves. If extrapolating from the past shows anything, it shows the hazard of extrapolating from the past.
And yet, we cannot not predict. We have to allocate our resources somehow, and every plan contains a prediction.
So it is with trepidation that we decided to risk a new volume: The Fabulous Future? America and the World in 2040. But instead of first corralling famous people and letting them speculate on whatever struck them, we identified experts in particular fields and asked them to address what they worked on. The result turned out to be less optimistic and less U.S.-centric. And most of the contributors were both a lot less self-confident and also less likely to give in to the flattering belief that this, of all times, is the most critical one in world history.
What will the world look like in 25 years? One of the gloomier forecasts is economist Robert Gordon’s: Economic growth will slow from a 2 percent annual rate to 0.8%, and for the first time in many generations, a large number of Americans would achieve lower levels of material well-being than their parents. On the other hand, another economist, Richard Easterlin, suggests that personal happiness, largely unrelated to economic growth, may still improve. Yet, while life expectancy will increase, demographer Eileen Crimmins warns that this will unfortunately mean just more years of infirmity, not something that is associated with great happiness.
It is no surprise that technology will shape our future. Political scientist and ambassador Robert Gallucci worries that technological change may create unexpected vulnerabilities among nations, as small countries acquire ways of wreaking havoc. And then there are the possible and highly destructive events called black swans: a new plague, the disintegration of China, or the detonation of nuclear bombs in major cities that could make slow economic growth the least of our problems.
Technology could also make freedom seem as quaint as combat in The Iliad. Privacy is on its way out, civil libertarian Wendy Kaminer foresees, and what does democracy mean in a world of constant surveillance? Chemist Mark Ratner suggests the possibility of reading minds from the outside, thus depriving us of the very basis of our humanness. The telescreen in 1984 will look primitive.
On the other hand, Ratner sees technology helping us conquer poverty and other social problems, while author Eboo Patel predicts a time of increased respect for religions in the United States. The head of IBM research, John Kelly, suggests we are entering an age of insight and new ways of fueling innovation, while Mark Tercek and Jimmie Powell of the Nature Conservancy express optimism about cooperation and technology addressing environmental issues through the private sector.
In a world shaped by knowledge, much depends on higher education. With a few rough spots, the two of us believe it will thrive and perhaps counter headwinds to growth expected by Gordon, while a better informed citizenry will protect personal liberty. A resurgence in the humanities will allow us to empathize with people unlike ourselves. Well, one can hope.
Will we ever address climate change, individual rights, and other issues if we never hear about them? Author and media entrepreneur Arianna Huffington points to a revolution in communication technology as a way to uncover the truth. On the other hand, it is becoming easier to perpetrate the latest big lie. According to sociologist Barry Glassner, focusing on the wrong fears has a long history. While particular worries will change, the methods employed to exaggerate dangers will remain. No wonder, as Kaminer argues, so many of us are scared to the point where we trade civil liberties for anything called “national security.”
The optimistic contributors to this volume are still in the majority. But will the better world they foresee arrive?
Almost 40 years ago, one of us studied econometric forecasting with Lawrence Klein, who won the 1980 Nobel Prize for creating models predicting economic trends. One day Klein joked that the secret to successful forecasting is either to go very short, simply assuming that tomorrow will look very much like today, or to go very long, far enough in the future that when your bad predictions come to roost, you are but a distant memory.
Sage advice, which the authors in our volume have recklessly ignored. We suppose that if this book is still around in 2040, readers will mock predictions that proved wildly wrong, while marveling at the few that, probably by sheer chance, turned out right.
In any case, our most confident prediction is that people will learn less about how their world was shaped and more about how ours felt: our greatest fears and loftiest aspirations; what seemed obvious about the future and what decisive events never even occurred to us. Our predictions will document who we were. That, we expect, will be our lasting contribution.
Gary Saul Morson is the Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities and Morton Schapiro is professor of economics and president of Northwestern University.