It’s funny how every new gadget, however trivial, comes wrapped in the idea that it is the Way Of The Future.
The other week it was smart suitcases that text you from the luggage conveyor in airports. That, I admit, has a pretty good chance of taking off.
But what about all the other stuff that – supposedly – was going to re-define our lives? Everything from the cashless society to paperless offices to food pills to the death of the cinema to flying cars?
Flying cars especially. Every few years, somebody builds one and we’re told – yet again – that soon we’ll all be using them. It’s inevitable. The idea that they’re an automatic next step has never gone away, it’s just a matter of waiting, get with the program.
Actually, they won’t happen – and for sound engineering reasons, quite apart from the practical nightmare of having a population of half-trained pilots screeching about the skies.
Indeed, none of the grand expectations about The Future have ever come to pass in the way pundits claimed – and yet our faith in those predictions sails through failure after failure with undiminished zeal. Why?
Sometimes these predictions flow from disastrous failures of comprehension. Food pills were hyped in the 1920s as ‘future food’ because of the discovery that the essential vitamins and minerals we need could be crunched down into them. What that missed was the fact that we still need bulk to get the calorific value – a fact known at the time, and pointed out by dieticians even as pop-sci enthusiasts were extoling a food pill-filled future. Later, amid the hype of the Space Race, ‘space food’ became the future – pre-packaged pap squeezed out of toothpaste tubes that we’d inevitably all be eating in the World of Tomorrow.
Those predictions were silly even at the time. But for the most part these predictions emerge from apparently rational analysis. Take the paperless office, in which the computer screen was meant to replace hard copy. Not only did it never happen, but desktop workstations and multi-function printers have radically multiplied the amount of paper being produced. People don’t like reading big documents on screen, it seems.
That, of course, highlights the issue – a lot of these predictions pivot on flawed assumptions.
To me those flaws derive from several issues in combination. One of them is the obvious one: marketing. Somebody invents something and naturally wants it to sell, so of course it’s hyped as the Inevitable Next Big Thing which will Replace Whatever We’ve Got Now.
Another ingredient – which explains why that sort of hype gets so much traction – is that we’re conditioned to find ‘progress’ credible. Western society, particularly, pivots on concepts of ‘progress’ – directional change to an end point in which the new automatically supplants the old. Often the new is attributed magical powers, if only because its limits aren’t known and therefore it seems to cure whatever is wrong with the current stuff. Back in the 1980s I used to get lambasted all the time by plaintive cries of ‘but it’s high tech!’ when the first real desktop computers didn’t replicate whatever the ‘Hollywood’ computers had done the night before on Star Trek.
Into this is mixed a classic human cognitive flaw, the recency effect – in which the latest ‘thing’ gains disproportionate value and importance, even if it isn’t by any abstract measure. Any immediate or recent trend often tends to be seen as the way things will always be in future. Back in the 1960s, for instance, the monolithic sums spent on the ‘space race’ provoked quite credible projections involving Mars missions and moon bases by the year 2000. If spending had continued at the 1960s rate, all of that was credible. But it didn’t – NASA’s budget was being slashed even before Apollo 11. (Damn.)
Add to that a fair helping of the usual failure to understand how society actually adopts things – which isn’t the way most people imagine – and the scene is set for one epic ‘way of the future’ prediction fail after another.
As for how ‘the future’ really works? It’s a product of the interaction between society and technology, and usually – as we saw with the information revolution – the outcome usually erupts out of left field. I mean, the only person to predict the social revolution that would follow having a connected computer in every home was Sir Arthur C. Clarke – and he did that decades before it happened, largely on the back of his invention of the communications satellite.
By 1963 he was envisaging pretty much the social change driven by communications technology that we’ve actually seen since the early 2000s. And he soon figured that computers would be the vehicle for it. Here he is, nailing today’s world, back in 1974:
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015