I’m fascinated with how our world changes over a relatively short time. Technology, infrastructure, culture and fashion just can’t stay put for long. Humans are so amazing because they have a habit of completely reinventing their habitat every generation or so.
Undoubtedly this is also a big reason why we are so troubled. Every generation is faced with an environment for which their parents could not prepare them because it never existed before. Old-fashioned values don’t always work so well when the world is continually being fashioned by the new. “Always eat everything on your plate” may not be such great advice when today’s average portion size is triple what it was in 1950.
I guess what is most interesting to me is that the human being — the animal itself — stays more or less the same, but its tools and toys and general way of life change so completely. I wasn’t around before 1980, but even in that short time, technology has completely revolutionized our lifestyles, with some interesting complications. For example, who in 1991 could have predicted that by age 28 I would be spending twelve hours a week and writing on a “blog”?
Imagine this for a moment: Some midsummer evening in 1983 in the middle of a Tears For Fears concert, amidst an explosion of electricity and smoke, a time machine appears out of thin air.
As the stunned crowd backs away, a young man stumbles out, wearing a T-shirt that says “Bonnaroo 2009” and blue rubber shoes with holes in them. He has plugs in his ears, with slender white threads that hang from them and disappear into his pocket.
“I’ve come from the future,” he announces ominously, “and I’ve seen what happens to you.”
“You, with the Flock of Seagulls haircut, you’ll work as a team leader for one of the biggest companies in the world, called ‘Google.’ Don’t laugh, it’s true. On the weekends you’ll take Qi Gong classes, and you will only drink fair trade coffee from Ethiopia.”
“You, with the blue tights and yellow legwarmers, you’ll make a living as a ‘life coach’, and will also be ‘blogging’ part time. You’ll spend your spare moments tweeting your friends with a blackberry, and you’ll develop a red bull addiction for which you will require an intervention.”
“You, with the Motorhead t-shirt, you’ll die in when your smart car collides with a Saturn.”
“And gas will be three bucks a gallon.” Gasps and boos.
How could they have guessed? It’s only twenty-some years down the road, but it doesn’t even make sense to our young Gen-Xers. Their predictions, if they were brash enough to make any, could only consist of different versions of what they already knew. Faster tape decks?
How could we possibly know what lies ahead in twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred years? People make predictions all the time but most of them are going to be way off the mark.
Even “way off the mark” is going to be an understatement in most cases. Nobody has the information required to make a close prediction, because most of that information doesn’t even exist yet.
Predictions From 100 Years Ago
This week I came across an incredible relic from the dawn of the twentieth century. It came courtesy of my favorite invention ever, the internet, via another impossible-to-predict innovation called StumbleUpon.
In the December, 1900 issue of the magazine The Ladies Home Journal, there was an article by a man named John Watkins Jr, entitled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.”
He proceeded to make twenty-nine confident and detailed predictions about life in the year 2000.
Naturally, most were completely out to lunch:
- The city house will practically be no more. Building in blocks will be illegal. The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare.
- There will be no street cars in our large cities. Underground or overhead streets will teem with capacious automobile passenger coaches and freight with cushioned wheels. Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises.
- No mosquitoes nor flies. Insect screens will be unnecessary. Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated. Boards of health will have destroyed all mosquito haunts and breeding-grounds, drained all stagnant pools, filled in all swamp-lands, and chemically treated all still-water streams.
- Strawberries as large as apples will be eaten by our great-great-grandchildren for their Christmas dinners a hundred years hence. Raspberries and blackberries will be as large. One will suffice for the fruit course of each person.
Some were actually pretty close (kind of):
- Hot and cold air from spigots. Hot or cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house as we now turn on hot or cold water from spigots to regulate the temperature of the bath. Rising early to build the furnace fire will be a task of the olden times.
- The American will be taller by from one to two inches. His increase of stature will result from better health, due to vast reforms in medicine, sanitation, food and athletics. He will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at present – for he will reside in the suburbs.
- Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of today. They will purchase materials in tremendous wholesale quantities and sell the cooked foods at a price much lower than the cost of individual cooking. Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons. The meal being over, the dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishments where they will be washed. [Hah! -D.]
- The piano will be capable of changing its tone from cheerful to sad. Many devices will add to the emotional effect of music.
And some were eerily correct:
- Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. By an automatic signal they will connect with any circuit in their locality without the intervention of a “hello girl”.
- Automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known. There will be, as already exist today, automobile hearses, automobile police patrols, automobile ambulances, automobile street sweepers. The horse in harness will be as scarce, if, indeed, not even scarcer, then as the yoked ox is today.
- The living body will to all medical purposes be transparent. Not only will it be possible for a physician to actually see a living, throbbing heart inside the chest, but he will be able to magnify and photograph any part of it. This work will be done with rays of invisible light.
- Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later. Even to-day photographs are being telegraphed over short distances. Photographs will reproduce all of Nature’s colors.
- Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span. American audiences in their theatres will view upon huge curtains before them the coronations of kings in Europe or the progress of battles in the Orient. The instrument bringing these distant scenes to the very doors of people will be connected with a giant telephone apparatus transmitting each incidental sound in its appropriate place.
The full article is here.
I guess the bottom line is that predictions, if hit-and-miss, will always be mostly miss. The information necessary to make an accurate prediction just isn’t there most of the time, and that’s because human minds everywhere are constantly generating new ideas out of thin air, rather than just refining and extending old ideas.
As imaginative and clever as we are, we just don’t have a freaking clue where technology is taking us and our lifestyles. Your kids will be (and may be already) adopting an utterly different lifestyle than you, because the environment in which they grow up is already different than yours was. They’ll be working jobs that don’t exist yet, in industries that are currently just a pipe dream, at companies that sound like nonsense words, for bosses who just graduated the third grade.
We can’t even predict the outcomes of next-day football games, when we know who will be playing, how good they are, how many points they typically score, and what happened last time when they played. Any sports fan knows there are just too many factors, even with known rules and participants.
Do you care to take a stab about predicting what life will be like 100 years hence? Could you even be close?
What about twenty years? One? Next week?
I would bet money it will be mostly surprises for all of us, across the board.
I think this is a good thing. It makes fear rather ridiculous, because fear is really just a prediction, and it seems that we can’t make a dependable prediction to save our lives.
The things you really should be fearing will probably never cross your mind at all. So take comfort in that, if you can :)
Photo by presquilien