Toward the Year 2018

Earlier this month, my wife and I spent some time with her parents as they downsized out of their home of 46 years. Among their books, we came across a collection of future forecasts titled “Toward the Year 2018”.

It was a serious effort by respected professors, consultants and executives, many with advisory roles in Washington, to look forward 50 years to where we are today.

Overall, it is humbling how much was not foreseeable to them.

They saw the great potential for exponentially improving communications and computing to bring knowledge to our fingertips and connect everyone in the world.

They marveled at the likelihood that we might get monthly statistics on traffic delays: They did not foresee us getting instantaneous traffic avoidance advice by talking to our smart phones. Nor did they have a glimmer of the enormous changes that automation would wreak in many industries.

They foresaw correctly that improvements in agricultural productivity would keep the world from starving, even though they overestimated population. Yet, they completely missed the emergence of biotechnology and life sciences.

They projected American energy independence, but got the mix of power sources wrong. They thought nuclear would continue to expand and did not foresee the enormous reductions in the cost of solar panels.

There were some speculative bloopers – the possibility of anti-gravity cars and the likely replacement of bullets with ray-guns – but the systematic error that they seemed to make was overestimating our likely progress in understanding complex human and natural phenomena.

They guessed that with increased computing power, we would learn how to control weather systems. By learning how storms start, we could make rain and perhaps even send hurricanes at enemy naval fleets.

They thought that better economics and behavioral science would allow us to completely eliminate boom and bust business cycles and to choose our rates of economic growth.

They thought that better understanding of the brain would have a profound impact on educational technology – “rates of teaching and learning will be accelerated and absorption increased”.

Where they made guesses about how complex systems would evolve, they could only project trends. They thought the gap between rich and poor nations would grow. They projected that real per capita world production would increase by a factor of 5 while it has actually grown by a factor of more like 20.

They did not foresee the economic transformation of China and the rapid growth of Asian economies other than Japan. They did not imagine that some Asian and European countries would surpass the U.S. in per capita output

They overestimated economic growth within the United States – their low-end projection was actually about twice what we achieved (even though GNP has quadrupled).

They speculated that 1 family in 12 would live like millionaires in the United States – by that they meant earning more than $50,000 in 1965 dollars. That equates to earning roughly $400,000 in 2017 dollars, a level that only roughly 1% achieve today.

They underestimated inequality within the U.S. On the low end, they thought only 7.1% of the households would be making less than $47,000 in 2017, while, in fact, over 40% of U.S. households are below that level.

Unsurprisingly, they did not foresee the breakup of the Soviet empire, the Arab Spring, the rise of populist, anti-immigrant politicians in western democracies or any of the other major political developments of the past fifty years. They thought the world was entering a period of “general political and economic stability”.

These were the best and the brightest of their time. The take away: The future is complex and unknowable. But, surely there is no healthy alternative to hope.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

35 replies on “Toward the Year 2018”

  1. What a great find Will.
    And what a great thing to learn from in that it teaches us a lot about how much we can actually expect from the future based on what we think we know now.
    For me, it points out how easy it is to make assumptions on what we may think of as fact now when in actuality we may be making assumptions based on more assumptions.
    Those who question are seekers. Only seekers can find the truth.
    Thanks Will for keeping your eyes open.

  2. Once again, Yogi Berra was right — “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

  3. Thanks for this, Will. Yes, it’s humbling how much was outside of the awareness even of the best and brightest.

  4. Thanks for sharing that Will. Very interesting. Makes me think about how I view the direction we’re going and where I’m missing the mark. Insightful and, yes, humbling.

  5. Re “They thought that better understanding of the brain would have a profound impact on educational technology – “rates of teaching and learning will be accelerated and absorption increased”.”

    They didn’t imagine, for example, that we still wouldn’t have managed to change school starting times to what has been known for decades about circadian rhythm in children.

  6. I am reminded of the futurists of 1970 (could it have been Alvin Toffler in “Future Shock”?) who predicted that technology would make work so easy that a major problem we would have would be dealing with too much leisure time . . . .

  7. Your book does indeed capture the popular zeitgeist as I remember it. I think we have gotten a lot less confident and more pessimistic since. If you were to ask a representative cross-section of today’s “best and brightest” about the next 50 years I suspect they would come up nothing but nightmares. Maybe not. Maybe those predictions will turn out just as far from the mark. Hope so.

  8. This shows how advancements get off track. With each advancement come a host of problems promoted by greed: Personal and corporate greed causes greater disparity between rich and average Americans. Now, corporations have too much power and no sense of national duty. Those at the top keep taking higher and higher salaries so that they must seek cheaper and cheaper workers to balance the books. Tech advances are used for evil purposes of disrupting systems/countries and scamming for profit. Agrifarming expands crop production (not to stop hunger but to increase profits) by using chemicals toxic to humans and GMO’s (safe?). Energy corporations are destroying our national parks and lands to frack and make even more profit (poisoning our water and crops). Pharmas charge whatever they want for drugs without any oversight. I could go on and on. Fifty years ago, there was optimism and prosperity, and a sense of nationalism. It was certainly a kinder, gentler time when people didn’t anticipate the problems of a growing complex society obsessed by greed.

    1. All great points, Cheryl. I’ve come to see “advances” in tech as inexorable, but the kinds you mention are indeed driven by greed and want of hegemony. As Douglas Rushkoff notes (say in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus) our economic operating system has bugs that cause companies’ priorities to be warped and even good things are done for the wrong reasons. Worker-owned companies, co-ops, and B-corps are some of the ways to address those bugs. We need a lot more of them because global capitalism isn’t about to fix its algorithms to the benefit of non-investor stakeholders, nor is the US Government.

  9. My take away is not one of hope. Climate change seems irreversible, an unintentional nuclear war has a good chance of breaking out, and the United States seems on a path of social and economic decline.

  10. I wish I had hope.
    The very fact there was even the possibility of someone like Donald Trump becoming president leaves me without hope.
    The existence at all of KKK and other hate groups within this country, or this world, leaves me without hope.
    The growing influence and outright control of governments by corporations leaves me without hope.
    That greed, irresponsibility and violent nature still rules our lives leaves me without hope.
    That we no longer have accepted and irrefutable facts leaves me without hope.
    That we have no desire to fix problems within our legal system because too many powerful people would be inconvenienced if we did leaves me without hope.

    Maybe science and poetry could rule in a new world to come, but will humanity live long enough to see it?

  11. Not finding,immediately, anything about radioactive waste now stored in megatons at all nuclear reactors and weapons production facilities such as Haniford, Washington, I would name the unnamed and in done: safe nuclear waste storage. We now know it is an oxymoron.

  12. Saint Augustine offered that time is. Three-fold present: the past as present memory, the present as current perceptions, the future as current anticipation. Translation: those who predict the future are almost always wrong!

  13. Disruptive change (dissolution if the USSR) and disruptive innovation (digital photography washing away Polaroid) are hard to plan for or predict… but will (always) happen. We (individuals, institutions, and states) should cultivate the surfer skill of identifying wave formation in time to harness the energy (ride the wave rather than be wiped out by it).

    “The Death of Common Sense (Phillip K Howard) is an interesting read on the reverse of vision (governing with a rear-view mirror) Note: book has few good ideas, but great case studies.

  14. On a tangent for readers of this tread, should you find yourselves downsizing and needing to have books picked up, please consider contacting More Than Words. More Than Words is a Boston nonprofit social enterprise that empowers youth who are in the foster care system, court involved, homeless, or out of school to take charge of their lives by taking charge of a business.
    And now back to the future.

    1. Jim, thank you for mentioning this.

      More Than Words is a great organization. I’ve visited their facility in Boston, where they save a lot of good books from oblivion and at the same time give youth a good basic skill building experience.

  15. And on point, I think being negative is not an option. There has been such amazing change since the book was written and there will be even more going forward. Fission energy, genetic discovery, AI and new materials, will make our future much brighter than the progress humankind as made to date. Optimism is the only option, we have survived worse than Trump, the American experiment is still the beacon for humanity.

  16. Will, You say that surely there is no healthy alternative to hope. I completely agree.
    And, I would add: Faith, Hope and Love; these three; but the greatest of these is love.
    Oh, if that were only true!

  17. This is such fun to read! Thanks for sharing it. I particularly like your last line. You are so right.

  18. Another prediction that I recall from that period is that machines
    would do most of the work that
    humans then did; THUS freeing humans
    to enjoy the finer things in life—-
    music, poetry, art, sports etc.—–
    as they wouldn’t need to work
    long hours, if at all.

    Why was (the conclusion part of) this prediction wrong?

  19. thank you for sharing. I am 43, I love this articles and reading it made me feel young again.

  20. Very interesting, thank you for sharing.

    You are one of the few persons in politics whose integrity I trust.

  21. They have seminars at the statehouse about there racist political process each time i asked biased brownsberger to put my name its either to late or already full therefore he is intensionally making sure i get the emails first biased he needs a component apparently he looking out for those his own race

  22. Next thing people should know is they dont want voter ID because most of them get illegal votes,folks needs to check things there selves mass registry of motor vehicles 6 was arrested falsifying documents ID reigistering people to vote drivers license,they dont mention that but mention what they think people want to hear means there hiding something or collecting illegal votes them selves

  23. No statehouse should be fulled with folks that dont enforce all laws state and federal and the compliance of the U.S laws should not be in compliance with the laws of another country

  24. Wages are always going to be low until they stop cheap labor and the state and city stop voting them selves pay raises but denying people working for mcdonalds aa 15$ pay raise

  25. Any time legislators block another persons free speech or freedom of the press tells the real story about them

  26. They surely did not predict the catastrophic floods predicted by Al Gore and which he continues his rant in a new movie. To wit —
    By Valerie Richardson – The Washington Times – Tuesday, August 22, 2017

    It was a tough weekend for Al Gore. Not only did “An Inconvenient Sequel” continue its nosedive at the box office, but the climate change documentary also drew a scathing rebuttal from a leading climate scientist.

    Climatologist Roy W. Spencer, principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, released Saturday an 81-page e-book on Amazon titled “An Inconvenient Deception: How Al Gore Distorts Climate Science and Energy Policy.”

    “After viewing Gore’s most recent movie, ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,’ and after reading the book version of the movie, I was more than a little astounded,” Mr. Spencer said on his blog, Global Warming. “The new movie and book are chock-full of bad science, bad policy, and factual errors.”

    Mr. Spencer said the sequel, like its 2006 predecessor “An Inconvenient Truth,” implies repeatedly that naturally occurring weather episodes are the result of human-caused global warming — for example, a shot in which the former vice president stands ankle-deep in a flooded Miami street.

    “That flooding is mostly a combination of (1) natural sea level rise (I show there has been no acceleration of sea level rise beyond what was already happening since the 1800s), and (2) satellite-measured sinking of the reclaimed swamps that have been built upon for over 100 years in Miami Beach,” said Mr. Spencer.

  27. Somehow, the inability to understand poverty outside of one’s grouping is widespread. Remember Romney’s comment about the poor not paying taxes? What about Leona Helmsley’s comment that only the poor are supposed to pay taxes?

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