we are crashed futures all the time. Every ad, every political campaign, every quarterly budget is a promise or threat of what tomorrow might look like. And sometimes it can feel like this future is happening, whether we like it or not, that we’re just on our way. But the future has not yet arrived. In fact, we have the right to vote, and we must make the most of this voice. But how? Over the past eight years, I have made over 180 episodes of a podcast about the future called Vision of the future. Here, in a three-part series, are collected the important things I’ve learned about how to think about what’s possible tomorrow. (This is part 2. Read part 1and come back soon for part 3.)
It’s easy and it is often quite hilarious to laugh at past predictions about the future. In a 1905 book One Hundred Years From Here: The Expectations of an Optimist, author T. Baron Russell predicted the demise of the ladder. “The plan to climb to the top of a small house, climbing on every occasion up what appeared to be a wooden mound covered with a carpet of dubious cleanliness, would of course be abandoned,” he writes. “It is doubtful that stairs will be built at all in two or three decades.” There are hundreds of lists on the Internet full of false predictions – from Time magazine confidently states that distance shopping will never be successful to New York Times claiming that a rocket could never leave Earth’s orbit.
It’s also easy, though perhaps less fun, to feel like we ourselves are right now on the cusp of something worth predicting. And if you believe the people who hold microphones and give speeches, or participate in podcasts, or tweet viral tweets, we really are on the verge of something revolutionary. What this revolution is changing – maybe the apocalypse, or the singularity, or the war, or the cure for Alzheimer’s disease. It really doesn’t matter which rock we’re leaning on. The important thing is that we are always half a step away from what is on the other side.
But we? Can we really know if we are in a moment of change? Some historians and philosophers argue that it is impossible to know if the people of the future will care about our present events, because we do not know what will happen next. Others say no, it is absolutely possible to know at a given moment if an event is historical. “Most of us have experienced this in our lives – unfortunately lately, maybe too regularly – when things happen in the world and we think, wow, this is a big deal,” says Matt ConnellyColumbia University historian and book author Declassification mechanism. Americans think of things like airstrikes on the Twin Towers or the January 6 Uprising. “Moments where you pretty quickly think to yourself, ‘I’m going to tell my kids about this.'”
But such big events rarely happen. And for each of them there are smaller events that only in hindsight turn out to be critical. When Van Leeuwenhoek showed people the first microscope, no one cared. When Boris Yeltsin chose a man named Vladimir Putin as his successor in August 1999, most people—even in Russia– I did not think that it would be a globally historical choice. When Alexander Graham Bell introduced his new invention, the telephone, to Western Union in 1876, the company ridiculed him and named the device little more than a toy.
So which side is the right one in this debate? And how would you understand it at all? That is what Connelly set out to do in 2019 in an article titled “History Prediction“.
Tracking past predictions to see if they turn out to be correct is difficult. One way to find out how good (or bad) our predictions are is to start polling people now about current events, and then wait 30 years, go back and see if those polls were right. But no one is doing it, says Connelly, because it’s impossible to get funding for this experiment.