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NOVA ScienceNOW

Past Predictions: Expert Q&A

  • Posted 11.08.12
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Matt Novak has spent more than five years writing a blog that examines, as he puts it, “the future that never was.” Have we learned anything from past predictions that were completely wrong? What types of predictions are more likely to be right? And have we gotten any better or worse at making predictions? If your question isn’t answered here, try watching the NOVA scienceNOW program, “Can We Predict the Future?”

Matt Novak

Matt Novak

Matt Novak, author of the Paleofuture blog for Smithsonian Magazine.

Full Bio

Photo credit: Courtesy Chloe Rice

Matt Novak

Matt Novak writes the Paleofuture blog for Smithsonian Magazine, The Paleofuturist column for the BBC, and the Retrofuturism column for The Daily. He also writes about old inventions for Pacific Standard. Matt has written for Slate, The Verge, GOOD, Wall Street Journal, TheAtlantic.com, FWD and is the editor of Paleofuture Magazine. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Q: The technological advancement of the era informs predictions of the future. What were predictions about the future like before the industrial revolution? Or did pre-industrial revolution people tend not to engage in this sort of speculation? Ally, Tempe

Matt Novak: People have always thought about the future, but you're absolutely right that the industrial revolution changed the way we talk about tomorrow. In 1788 Ben Franklin wrote that he was so excited about the inventions of the day and the rapid progress of the era that he wished it had been his destiny to be born two or three centuries later. But revolutionary politic change was much more par for the course than predicting what kind of rocking chair they might have in a few years.

Many aspects of modern futurism are closely tied to the rise of consumer culture and selling goods to a burgeoning middle class. Twentieth century futurism's ties to consumerism are precisely why so many of the retro-futuristic clichés like flying cars and jetpacks are purely technological. Futurism that tends to challenge social or political norms is less prominent. Essentially those futures are just in front of fewer eyeballs because they're not ideas being used to sell widgets.

Q: In science-fiction films and TV since the mid-1960's, what things, conditions and/or circumstances do you think will eventually actually happen....and how long will it take for them to come to pass? Larry, Tampa

Novak: One of the technological predictions from the past 50 years that we're now seeing realized in some form is driverless cars. They were a promise of the 1950s and '60s that up until very recently seemed impractical. But today just about every major car company is developing the technology. In over 300,000 miles of testing, Google's driverless car has yet to have a single accident. Nevada and California are now licensing driverless vehicles but it will be interesting to see how long it takes for them to become mainstream. Just because something is possible doesn't mean it's practical or that consumers will rush out to get one. 3D-TV is a perfect example of a technology that was introduced as big box retailers and TV manufacturers needed a product that was high-tech to compete with the commoditization of HD-TV sets. Driverless cars, for all we know, might meet the same fate as the 3D-TV.

Q: I feel like predictions should be getting more accurate. Do you think this opens up the possibility of knowing too much and not having a sense of wonder? When do you think we will reach a peak in the accuracy of our predictions? Michael R. Espelin, CT

Novak: Looking at the last 100 years of predictions, I don't see any real evidence that we've gotten any more accurate at predicting the future. The field of future studies is still young. It only started to be taken seriously as an academic field and pursuit in the late 1960s, so I'm not sure if we'll ever get better at predicting the future. That would require a prediction on the future of prediction that I'm not equipped to make. The trouble with predictions, of course, is that they're always a product of their time. This is why I study past visions of the future. Predictions of the past 200 years give us each generation's greatest hopes and darkest fears. There may be no more pure a barometer by which to judge a society than their predictions for the future—and the way in which they work toward or away from that vision.

Q: In thinking of the future we often think of glitzier technology. Will there actually be a time when we think of other qualities? Such as a quieter environment? More self-directed time? A life stratified with opportunities of discovery? Mark Pearce, Warrensburg, MO

Novak: Those sound like perfectly splendid futures to me. The problem with those futures is that they're a bit too reasonable to get much attention. Think of most futurists as angsty teenagers. Few people grow up believing that their generation will have a minimal impact on the world. Futurism is driven by spectacle and that typically means spewing hyperbole about how tomorrow will be the best day that ever was or that tomorrow will lead to humanity's downfall. They see no other (or rather, can sell no other) future.

The clash of techno-utopians and doomsday prophets is what makes futurism entertaining but it's also what makes the field exhausting. Incremental change—building a world that is say five percent quieter or louder or five percent cleaner or dirtier than it is today—is a perfectly reasonable alternative to the dreams of extremists. But a five percent change doesn't sell books or widgets. And five percent change is antithetical to the rambunctious nature of the world's youth, the people with the most tomorrows yet to burn through. I'm not altogether opposed to the extremist's dream, because as that hokey saying goes, shoot for the moon and even if you don't make it you'll wind up in the stars. What they forget to mention is that you better bring your spacesuit if you want to avoid suffocating and dying a grisly death.

Q: I'm a teacher and am curious about how technology will continue to advance and change in education. A recent NYT Op-ed about the decline of student attention span blamed overuse of technology as the cause. Can technology also be the remedy? How? James H. Workman, LaGrange, IL

Novak: One of my favorite images of informational and technological overload is from the film documentary adaptation of Alvin Toffler's 1970 book, "Future Shock." We see books being printed and an ominous Orson Welles voice-over warning us that too many books are being printed today for any one person to ever possibly read. The image seems so quaint today, but I think it speaks to our tremendous ability as humans to adapt (and often just reject) the "overload" of modern society. Yes, there is far too much information in the world. I was walking through the stacks of the L.A. City Library this weekend thinking what a wondrous problem it was to have. As far as the attention spans of youth—a national crisis if you're to believe every American parent of the last 200 years—our supposed dwindling reserves don't concern me. Now their rock and rolls and dubsteps, on the other hand…

Q: If we look at the fossil record, virtually all species die out eventually. What, if any, do you think will be our demise, and what will replace us? Vince Boston, Bellingham, WA

Novak: This question is way above my pay grade, but if I've learned anything in studying predictions, it's usually the thing that's most cataclysmic is the thing that no one saw coming. Climate change? Giant asteroid? Killer virus? Godzilla? I really don't know. Whatever ultimately wipes us out, I hope we're replaced by a super-intelligent species of koala or something because that just sounds adorable.

Q: Do you find anyone (author or futurist) that does a particularly good job of removing the bias of present technology when predicting the path of advancement? The vital things like interface technology always seem especially tied to current tech. Kevin Hughes, Seattle

Novak: It's difficult to remove our own biases when we're making predictions for the future, but it can be even more difficult sometimes when we're analyzing the accuracy of past predictions. Quite often I get comments on a particular piece of old futurism where one person will think it's the most prescient prediction of all time while another will think it's way off the mark. When it comes to technology there are far too many unknown unknowns for me to suggest anyone who's good at removing bias—at least for the future.

Q: Having learned that visions of the future usually turn out to be wrong and that our present hopes will likely be misplaced too, does that make you sad? Paro, Paris

Novak: Inaccurate predictions don't make me sad at all. In fact, they give me a strange feeling of optimism that as long as no one knows for certain what's in store, the future is ours for the shaping.

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