A Brief History of Tomorrow: How The Experts Usually Screw Up (Future Forecasting)

A Brief History of Tomorrow: How The Experts Usually Screw Up (Future Forecasting)

by Jonathan Margolis

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781908556202
Publisher: Apostrophe Books Ltd
Publication date: 03/20/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 794 KB

About the Author

Jonathan Margolis is a journalist and author who writes for the Financial Times, The Guardian and the Daily Mail among other publications. He specialises in technology, but also writes on China, along with a variety of quirkier, mostly scientific, subjects that interest him. His first book was Hothouse People: Can We Create Super Human Beings? (Pan 1987, with Jane Walmsley). His most recent books were A Brief History of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2000), which analysed the successes and failures of futurologists, and O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm (Century 2004). Jonathan lives in London with the author Sue Margolis and their family. See Jonathan’s technology reviews and videos at www.howtospendit.com/#/themes/technology

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Future Past

'The future,' science fiction guru Arthur C. Clarke once said, 'isn't what it used to be.' A clever, ironic statement, superficially quite ridiculous of course, containing nevertheless two nuggets of wisdom for the price of one. Because what the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey was talking about, naturally, was futurology, the fusion of informed scientific analysis and inspired guesswork about the future at which he has excelled for over fifty years.

    And what he was pointing out was the twin paradox which in the last weeks of 1999 started me off, a journalist of late twentieth-century vintage with ambitions of seeing out the first gasp of the twenty-first, on an inquiry into whether futurology has a future — or should finally be written off by we wise twenty-first-century-ites as so much crystal balls.

    For futurology, according to the man who foresaw communications satellites when milk was still being delivered in Britain by horse and cart, has always had two inherent flaws.

    Firstly, visions of the distant future tend to be shaped and coloured by the experiences and prejudices of the present; they go out of date and look and sound old fashioned long before the time they were trying to predict comes round.

    The second, parallel, meaning of Clarke's observation (which has also been made in similar words by the French poet, Paul Valéry) was more personal for him. In many ways, he has been the wisest and most accurate of futurologists. He is the writer whogave the year 2001 its special resonance as a metaphor for deep space travel, just as George Orwell made the year 1984 a byword for the nightmare authoritarian state. But as Clarke looks around him at the reality of the turn of the millennium, he concedes that it hasn't turned out exactly as he imagined.

    In some way, he feels, the future was not supposed to happen so quickly. Yet at the same time, there's no manned mission to Jupiter, no broody, jealous computer with brittle feelings to be hurt, no evidence of aliens having visited Earth, and even Pan Am, the airline featured in the film of 2001 whisking the astronauts to the space station for the start of their fight to Jupiter, has shrunk down to a tiny local carrier in New Hampshire.

    Which is why if there's one thing Clarke can be sure of, it is that he can't be sure about the future. And why Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky believes, 'Perhaps the most plausible prediction is that any prediction about serious matters is likely to be off the mark except by accident.' And equally why, in the first week of January 2000, when I sat down to start mulling over this first chapter of A Brief History of Tomorrow, I was already well aware of what a slippery character we're dealing with when we try to grapple with the future.

    Talking to futurologists and reading their predictions through the ages was one thing, but it was the happy coincidence of where I happened to be that morning, when I started the final phase of planning this book, that drove home my awareness of the future's capricious nature.

    The twenty-first century had arrived, but you only had to walk down the street to see that things were pretty much the same as they were the previous week, back in the second millennium. Pictures of Princess Diana were still being reproduced in newspapers and magazines at every opportunity, despite her having been dead almost three years. The wheezing old railways in Britain were still using rolling stock built in the 1960s. Old men were still bafflingly wearing hats, scarves and gloves to drive, as if unable to believe cars had come with heaters as standard for at least thirty years. And those cars were still powered by fossil fuels, a much of ancient dead leaves and animals, which sounds like such an inspiringly ecological technology — were the opposite not so tragically the case.

    More disappointingly in this January 2000 suburban panorama, there were no flying cars, no sparkly Lurex space suits, no orgasmatrons, nobody wearing strange metallic hats which doubled as space aerials, and absolutely no sign of those severe permanent frowns that had for a century been depicted as what would be the facial expression of choice come the year 2000. So much for futurology.

    But then again, perhaps the future had arrived as advertised, but had done so by stealth, incrementally, and over such an extended period that it wasn't obvious. With this thought in mind, I wandered into a new Starbucks coffee shop that had just opened around the corner in west London.

    And after a few moments there- despite the absence of Labi Siffre actually being on hand to sing 'I Can See Clearly Now' — I began to wonder if the real future was not after all going to consist of gadgets or the internet or genetic engineering or Mars colonies. Not entirely, anyway. The real 2000, the most eagerly anticipated year there has ever been, the symbolic gateway to the future for these past several hundred years, was right here, under my nose, waking up and smelling of coffee.

    A Starbucks coffee shop in a British suburb on the first working, weekday morning of 2000 was far from being merely an ephemeral, pretentious colonial outpost of a passing trend imported from the United States, an attempt to make everyone in the world feel for the price of a latte that they are one of the friends in Friends or an amused acquaintance of the Crane brothers in Frasier.

    Here, rather, was a paradigm for both the potential and the limitations of futurology, a template not for the way things will necessarily be fifty, one hundred or a thousand years from now, but for the kind of wised-up, multidisciplinary thinking futurologists must use — and, crucially, are using — to create a model of the future as it is most likely to work out.

    Just as Clarke's 2001 and Orwell's 1984 were wrong in particulars and timing but perceptive and accurate in spirit and much detail, a Starbucks in early twenty-first-century Europe and the things its customers were carrying, wearing and doing, encompassed elements of the knowable, but totally unforeseen, elements of the knowable and thoroughly predicted — and elements, too, of the utterly fickle and unpredictable.

    Before you say, 'But hey, it's just a coffee bar,' let me explain how it would seem to a futurologist from two or three hundred years ago, when speculating seriously about the future first caught on.

    In Starbucks we have a company which grew out of a single 1970s coffee stall in the Fisherman's Market in Seattle; so it comes to us in a cloned, globalized form from a part of the world which was barely even inhabited a couple of centuries ago, and is now the world's leading centre for two businesses which didn't exist then either — aircraft manufacture and computer software — plus one which very much did, namely coffee houses.

    So it's an American coffee house serving an Arabic drink in many forms, some a little outlandish, most with Italian names. The enormous range of varieties of coffee on sale and the combinations available tells us much about the twentieth-century desire to cater to consumers who want everything supplied instantly to their personal preferences. (Aldous Huxley clearly got part of the future right when he wrote Brave New World in 1931 and had Mustapha Mond, one of the Ten World Controllers, ask, 'Has any of you been compelled to live through a long time-interval between the consciousness of desire and its fulfilment?')

    But at the same time as pandering to the spoilt consumer, the company running the chain prides itself on having a lofty mission beyond the mere selling of cups of coffee. It sponsors programmes for charitable giving, environmental causes and literacy projects; it attempts to educate the public on coffee in general. Nevertheless, it's still a red-in-tooth capitalist venture. When all's said and done, it would far rather we went to Starbucks to drink coffee than to a competitor, and, lest we forget, Starbucks was one of the key companies identified by anti-capitalism rioters in Seattle in 2000 as a target for trashing.

    But the most significant thing about my local Starbucks branch was that it is there at all. Fashionable people in Seattle began to appreciate twenty-five years ago having a 'third place', a neighbourhood hangout which was neither work nor home — a distant American cousin, perhaps, of the Parisian left bank café. The British futurology think-tank, the Henley Centre, has predicted the rise of what it calls 'the domestication of leisure' — meaning the development of restaurants and pubs that seem more like home than 'out'.

    But the fact that such a business has now set up shop in a stuffy English suburb, where just twenty years ago the choice was stale coffee, stewed tea and nothing much else, shows clearly how American ways — the combination of trendified capitalism with keeping the increasingly demanding, egoistic customer satisfied — have by 2000 become the world's ways. This Starbucks happened to be in west London, but it could have been one of the eight branches the chain has in Beijing, the ten in Bangkok or the one in Beirut.

    A coffee shop may be a coffee shop, but it is manifest that the world over consumers cleave above all to brands. The American world, which in so many ways resembles the Roman Empire, routinely squashes historical sensibilities flat. The ancient British middle class wasted no time taking to togas; and the modern, urban British feel as secure in a funky American-branded Starbucks as in a tea shop with paper doilies.

    There are more striking examples still of the brand power of what might be called Pax Americana. Journalist Tom Friedman of the New York Times has even suggested that such pan-global American companies are a force for world peace. His 'Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention' suggests that no two nations with a McDonald's are likely to go to war with one another. Although strictly speaking, NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 contravened that rule, Friedman's law still pretty much holds. It is probably more significant that less than thirty years after the end of the Vietnam war, Microsoft maintains an eleven-person office in Hanoi. When people want Windows, it seems, they are prepared to forget wars and politics.

    Yet even if Starbucks is an unashamedly American entity, the interior of its shops are an artfully contrived kaleidoscopic national mix — no overt, one-culture Coca-Colonization here. The shop's name, for example, has a distinctly Olde English air (albeit with a tinge of nautical American via Moby Dick). Its logo depicts some kind of Lady Godiva character, with a bit of a come-on in her secret smile. But the stripped wood flooring is definitely Danish in influence (even if we were supposed to be living in an entirely washable PVC world by 2000), while the music playing through the Japanese hi-fi system is African and Latin American. Japan, a nation still primitive and mysterious to our ancient futurologist, also devises and makes most of the modern tools the staff use, from the electronic cash tills to their own wristwatches.

    While the natural look reigns at floor level, the coffee house's ceiling is a network of undisguised factory piping, possibly false, suggesting a modern, forward-looking world where we are friends with industrialization and even believe it to be aesthetically attractive. The furniture, by contrast, is not very modern at all, a mixture of natural wood and the kind of brown velour sofas our parents threw out — a suggestion of reverence for the past, here. There's evidence too that these twenty-first-century folk are deep thinkers — one wall of the coffee house is given over to a colourful mural of handwritten philosophical musings. ('It is only when they stop growing that humans become old,' reads a typical one.)

    The Starbucks customers seem to be from all over the world, speaking English in a variety of accents, plus several foreign tongues. Puzzlingly for the futurologist of the past, there is also a seemingly random, and quite scandalous, mixing of races, with no effort made to provide separate areas for those of different skin colour. There is even the visual and conceptual shock of white members of staff serving black customers.

    There's something still more bewildering, too. Although there is not a single man wearing a necktie — evidence that this is a place of leisure rather than a successor to the eighteenth-century English coffee house, where the coffee-drinking was incidental to the men doing business — some of the men here are clearly working, frowning in concentration as they leaf through files of documents, highlighting points, scribbling notes. The fact that they are working in a leisure setting is a bit surprising because it was always imagined that, by 2000, the working week would have withered down to a few hours, while these men's labours indicate that people may be working harder than ever. But their use of paper and pen suggests that the majority of brainwork is still done in 2000 with the aid of traditional tools. Except that most of the men working as they drink their coffee also have beside them technological tools which would have been dismissed as a preposterous fantasy as late as 1980.

    They all sport pocket personal communicators, with which they can speak in an instant to more or less anyone else in the world. Most of the businessmen moreover have pocket computers which house in their memory libraries full of instantly accessible information, as well as performing dazzling calculations in a fraction of a second which would once have taken hours. What is more, these pocket computers can be linked through the pocket communicators — and all the while still sitting on a sofa in Starbucks — to a global brain, a universal, shared consciousness, from which can be summoned up in a few seconds in readable or viewable form practically any fact, opinion, news, data, theory, gossip, work of art, shopping offer or joke in existence anywhere on the planet.

    Oh, and there's one last surprise, too. These multiracial latte and cappuccino drinkers, mostly in their thirties and forties, aren't all men.

    Many are women, who would have been considered old crones three hundred years ago, but have beside them their own babies. Some of the mothers, more puzzlingly still, seem to be engaged in easy, social conversation, meeting on equal terms, with men who clearly are not their husbands. Over half of them, furthermore, are wearing trousers. Some of the women are even working, just like the businessmen.

    At the turn of the twentieth century, women were not considered (at least by men) to be mentally capable of even voting. As late as the 1950s a home economics textbook advised women: 'Don't ask [your husband] questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will exercise his fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him. A good wife always knows her place.'

    A Starbucks coffee shop is, then, an object lesson in unpredictability. Just to emphasize the point, while I was there that morning, a British Airways Concorde flew low over the area on its approach to Heathrow Airport; its terrifying noise stopped conversations for a few moments. Design wise, it still looks a little like 'the future', even though the plans for it were originally drawn up in 1957. Yet by 2000, it was regarded as an anachronism — not because it is too slow or old fashioned, but because, despite its supersonic capability, unmatched before or since, it is too noisy, uneconomical, polluting — and possibly even unsafe — for modern use. And this even though it is powered by that same, wonderfully green-sounding stew of dead flora and fauna as cars. Concorde provides another object lesson in futurology — a development futuristic in its day but predicated on the wrong future.

    Would it have been possible, then, for a nineteenth-century or a 1950s futurologist to have predicted that by the fateful year 2000, Concorde would be as dead-end a technology as the airship, whereas Dan Dare-type pocket communicators would be infinitely more sophisticated than anyone ever envisaged? Or that these gadgets would typically be used in that distant nirvana, where work was expected to have all but disappeared, by workaholic men and women sitting in retro, natural woodthemed coffee bars run as fully capitalist enterprises but underwritten by a hippy-esque, caring-sharing ethic?

    Well, perhaps it could all have been forecast. Everything, after all, that makes our modern world was in existence in the 1850s or the 1950s, just as cave-dwellers could theoretically have built an iMac. In making our cellular WAP phones and palmtop computers, we don't have the benefit of strange new minerals imported from Mars or arcane intelligence taught us by aliens from Vega. So why didn't futurologists of the past ever seem to get the future right? And are we at all justified in imagining that we in the early twenty-first century can finally see into our future any more clearly than they did?

My exploration of the current state of futurology started, I admit, with the belief that it always was and always will be a comedy of errors. We all enjoy with smug hindsight the utterances of such men as the Roman engineer Sextus Julius Frontinus, who declared: 'Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further development.'

    This kind of amusingly blinkered thinking was not limited to Roman times. There was a serious proposal in 1899 to save money by closing down the US Patent Office on the grounds that, as its commissioner, Charles Duell, said, 'Everything that can be invented has been invented.' And even if new inventions came along, there were plenty of people prepared to turn a blind eye to them. In 1909 a senior British customs official made a last stand worthy of General Custer against the preposterous invention of the aeroplane. Louis Blériot had successfully flown across the English Channel that year, and it was time for bureaucracy to limp into action. HM Customs decreed, however, that officials should simply ignore cheeky so-called travellers who arrived in the UK by air, since to do otherwise 'would only bring the department into ridicule'.

    Even brilliant people who should know better have demonstrated a penchant for shortsighted prediction, especially in their own field. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Ernest Rutherford, the founder of nuclear physics, once declared that talk of nuclear power was 'moonshine'. Britain's Astronomer Royal, Sir Harold Spencer Jones, dismissed the idea of space flight as 'bunk' in 1957 — a timely fortnight before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1. And that's not to forget Thomas J. Watson, the former CEO of IBM, who never quite lived down a statement he made in the late 1940s: 'I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,' he said. (Perhaps he really meant five computers per household. I think we have about seven including laptops and palmtops, plus four or five redundant ones in the attic, but then I don't pretend to be really into computers.)

    No wonder that, in another of his dicta, Arthur C. Clarke said that 'when a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right, but when he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.'

    Decades of futuristic films, comic strips and science fiction have done little more to help the cause of futurology, or so it seems. Their main contribution has been to demonstrate repeatedly that we would always be imprisoned in the present, with an 1890s or a 1930s future invariably looking nothing more than a slightly streamlined, stylized version of the 1890s or the 1930s.

    To suppose, then, that we today could somehow avoid those same amusing pitfalls seemed to be a pitfall in itself, an example of what C.S. Lewis described as 'the snobbery of chronology' and which I shall call 'the arrogance of the present' — the belief of every successive generation that at last, sophisticated, modern folk that we are, We've Got It, and indeed, We ARE it.

    One of the best comments on our present-centric attitude to the future is by the great cartoonist — from Seattle, as it happens — Gary Larson. A 1996 cartoon of his depicts a scene at a caveman-era future theme park, Future Werld, a sort of Neolithic EPCOT, in which a cave person in an animal skin is seen glowering at a huge picture of a slightly more evolved cave person who is beaming as he strikes a match. The present caveman is sneering at the picture and snorting, 'Yeah, right.'

    The arrogance of the present, the belief of every generation that it alone has been chosen to live in a 'special' time — even if that means an especially bad time — is perfectly understandable. Princeton astrophysicist Professor Richard Gott has developed a mathematical theory of futurology, the nub of which is that all generations mistakenly believe themselves to be living through such a special time. He explains that it's natural to want to think of your generation being at the beginning of a great epoch, or in an apocalyptic situation at the end (but never too close to the brink, of course) of another. It adds drama to life, Gott argues — but it's far more likely to be misleading than it is to be true.

    The arrogance of the present is the enemy of intuitive, inspirational forecasting just as it is of cool, measured, analytical futurology. The first cousin of plain egotism, arrogance of the present, colours, I would estimate, 95 per cent of what is routinely spouted in the mass media and politics about the future.

    It corrodes the thinking of even those of us who like to think we are somehow immune. How often do we read about some new technology, sigh and put down the newspaper and wonder if science has at long last reached its terminal velocity, just as the Victorians reputedly did when they calculated that trains could never travel at more than 40 mph because the human frame could not survive anything faster?

    Drive down London's Great West Road past the British head office of Gillette, the razor blade makers, any night and you will see dozens of windows lit with figures behind them sitting at computer terminals. What are they doing in there? Perfecting some even more efficient shaving system with not three blades, but four, five, more? I like to imagine there being some martinet foreman bellowing at the rank and file razor blade designers, 'Sharper! Come on! Sharper!' Of course, there isn't; but of course at any given time, Gillette will be working on a still better blade. To assume shaving or anything else has finally reached terminal velocity because it's 2001 and, hey, this is my epoch, is arrogant to the point of absurdity.

    Yet even with the arrogance of the present such an insidious factor, I have come to believe that routinely disparaging serious futurology as so much guesswork is unfair and uninformed, and makes us much like that over-sceptical caveman. For when you examine their predictions fairly, as I hope I do below, the futurologists of the past don't seem to have done nearly as badly as we imagine.

    Those of the turn of the nineteenth century, when, helpfully, there was already a history of futurology to look back on and learn from, did particularly well. For every comically off-beam forecast they made, there were several, less celebrated, which have turned out to be spot on. There is a tendency to forget those who make predictions that hit the mark, perhaps they make us feel we have progressed less than we imagine. Yet with the precedent set by the foresight of the more successful early futurologists, I have become increasingly sure that today we can be more confident than ever before of predicting our future to a considerable degree of accuracy.

    The consistent mistake made throughout the history of futurology has been to scramble timings; things frequently — normally, indeed — appear as predicted, but rarely at the right time. The other thing which has almost always gone wrong with prediction in the past is more problematic, yet, I would argue, even less important. It is the failure to anticipate the fickle finger of fashion, the elements of the Starbucks factor which are merely aesthetic.

    The question is: How significant in the greater scheme of things is the 'look' of a particular era? Fashion pages and style supplements would say they are overridingly so. Yet surely external appearances are something chosen more or less at random rather than as a rational response to need? Futurologists have little choice but to guess at the precise aesthetic of even a couple of years ahead. But it is so much packaging, and cannot be said to matter hugely; what is more, concentrating on how futuristic visions inevitably make a hash of what the future will physically look like detracts from their often impressive substance. And laughing at early visions of the future because our ancestors got the colours or the hem lengths or the degree of flare on the trousers wrong is, when you think of it, really just another example of the arrogance of the present.


Table of Contents

1 THE WAY WE WEREN'T Future Past13
2 IS FUTUROLOGY BUNK? Studying the Future53
3 GLOBAL WARNING Environment77
4 DON'T LOSE YOUR HEAD Human Body111
6 OHM TRUTHS Home and Work169
7 TIME OUT Leisure187
8 WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA? Politics and Society203
9 TO BOLDLY GO Travel219

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Brief History of Tomorrow 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well-researched; beautifully written; crammed with wisdom. Margolis is one of the fairest and most balanced writers I've come across, especially on environmental matters. If you're looking for a sensible, well-researched survey of the major themes of 21st century technology, then your search is over.