Why we can’t predict the future, except a bit

I never cease to be amazed at the number of ‘predictions’ about some new device or trend that will ‘be our future’, like the cashless society or flying cars. They never are, of course, but we never let go of the fantasy that they will be. They will be. Not this time, but next time.

The "Star Witch" sans fuel tanks.
The “Star Witch” sans fuel tanks.

Part of the reason for that, as far as I can tell, is that a lot of predictions are based on a cognitive flaw – the ‘recency effect’ – in which whatever just happened looms large and is taken to be the way things will always be in future.

Case in point? Back in the late 1970s I recall a Brit TV drama – Quartermass – set in the ‘near future’, in which urban society was dislocated by gangs, including one known as the ‘Badders’.

The name, the show explained, came from the Baader Meinhof gang who (briefly) terrorised Germany at the turn of the 1970s.

Anybody remember them now? I thought not.

The reality is that Baader Meinhof were transient, tinpot and less than a footnote to history (they and every other German lunatic gang stands in the shade of Germany’s biggest ever lunatic gang, the one led by Adolf Hitler). But back in the seventies, Baader Meinhof  were portrayed as so important they would give their name to every anarchic act and group in the world thereafter. Uh… OK. It’s a good example of the ‘recency effect’ coupled with a failure to think through what was happening. The show was riffing on the emergence of punk and social anarchy in the UK, but the writers hadn’t fully thought through just how transient that might be.

Prediction failures also happen when it comes to technology – apart from virtually no flying cars, we also don’t have the atomic Mars rockets were supposed to have had by now. Along with the moonbases, single-stage-to-orbit shuttles and the rest that were all going to happen by 2001 as far as pundits in 1965 were concerned. And unlike social trend, all those things were perfectly possible to make by conscious effort. We could have had it, if space funding had continued at mid-1960s Apollo rates and if funding had been available for a couple of technical breakthroughs such as plug-nozzle rocket motors (eminently do-able with cash and time).

Project Deimos departs Earth orbit with one of Bono's colossal ROMBUS boosters. Public domain, NASA.
The future,1964 style. ‘Project Deimos’ departs Earth orbit using one of Phillip Bono’s gigantic ROMBUS boosters – his proposal for a follow-on to Apollo. Public domain, NASA.

Yet the signs were there, back in 1965, that funding was transient. While everybody was bedazzled with the technical achievements of Apollo, the fact that the whole floated on Cold War politics was forgotten. But that’s what controlled the funding, and as soon as the ‘race’ was over, the funding dried up.

The other main problem with prediction is the supposition of ‘progress’ – that ‘advanced’ and ‘new’ will automatically or naturally replace the old. And sometimes, a new device is invented that does that. But usually, new inventions do something not-quite-the-same. Mix that with the human condition – individually and as groups – which futurists notoriously fail to consider, and the results are usually wildly different from what anybody expected.

On the basis of all this, you’d think that we can’t predict the future – anything we say will turn out to be hilariously dated or wildly wrong. Or both. Mostly on the back of that ‘recency’ flaw.

But actually, I think it IS possible to make predictions of a certain kind. I think it’s possible to be accurate about those predictions.

Would anybody care to hazard a guess as to what I’m on about? I’ve dropped a hint in this post.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


8 thoughts on “Why we can’t predict the future, except a bit

  1. ISIS?

    When an organisation like it arises, and it’s convenient for some pollies to ramp up the fear, it gets to project a huge shadow across our news services. Chicken Little is alive and well in the race for eyeballs and permission for change.

  2. Hmm, sort sort of space colony?
    This post coincides nicely as I just started reading PKDs The Unteleported Man and his future from the 60s is actually now, and is so far off reality.

    I think we overestimate our future products because those that are cutting edge now always seem bafflingly amazing, and the recency effect is a great way of labelling that phenomenon.

    Optimism also clouds judgement. Since the computers and internet, technology has slowed down. Innovation and invention is generally underfunded and with a fractured globe, economically troubled, I think progress will slow further in most areas of society. Then, the population issue…

    1. I agree – in fact technology isn’t a steady upward climb, it’s a series of steps and plateaux. Look at the way jetliners transformed travel in the late 1950s – well, we’re not going any faster or further now. If anything, today’s are a shade slower (591 mph cruise on the Boeing 707 vs 567 mph on the Dreamliner). But if the 1950s jump from piston-to-jet had been a steady upwards curve – well, we’d have those orbital airliners now. As you say, recency and optimism cloud judgement… It was nicely lampooned in the original Ben Edlund ‘Tick’ (the cartoon) – the episode with the Desir-o-vac, when Arthur couldn’t figure how a 1950s machine could do so much: https://youtu.be/fjzue1I17Bk?t=9m19s

  3. Hmm…thought provoking post.🙂 I don’t think computers are going away any time soon. 3D printers. VR and AR, although I still think both have a way to go before they really hit – like the difference between early mobile phones that were the size of bricks and the whiz bang wonders we have now. All things to do with entertainment should be a safe bet. And convenience. Can’t think of anything else just off the top of my head.

  4. We aren’t going to stop predicting the future anytime soon – not as long as we can imagine and anticipate. It’s part of being human.

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