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What 2018 Looked Like Fifty Years Ago

(the New Yorker)

Quote:Prophecy is a mug’s game. But then, lately, most of us are mugs. 2018 was a banner year for the art of prediction, which is not to say the science, because there really is no science of prediction. Predictive algorithms start out as historians: they study historical data to detect patterns. Then they become prophets: they devise mathematical formulas that explain the pattern, test the formulas against historical data withheld for the purpose, and use the formulas to make predictions about the future. That’s why Amazon, Google, Facebook, and everyone else are collecting your data to feed to their algorithms: they want to turn your past into your future.
This task, like most things, used to be done by hand. In 1968, the Foreign Policy Association, formed in 1918 to promote the League of Nations, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by publishing a book of predictions about what the world would look like, technology-wise, fifty years on. “Toward the Year 2018” was edited by Emmanuel G. Mesthene, who had served in the White House as an adviser on science and technology and who ran Harvard’s Program on Technology and Society. It makes for distressing reading at the end of 2018, a year that, a golden anniversary ago, looked positively thrilling.

Two things are true about “Toward the Year 2018.” First, most of the machines that people expected would be invented have, in fact, been invented. Second, most of those machines have had consequences wildly different from those anticipated in 1968. It’s bad manners to look at past predictions to see if they’ve come true. Still, if history is any guide, today’s futurists have very little credibility. An algorithm would say the same.

Carlos R. DeCarlo, the director of automation research at I.B.M., covered computers in the book, predicting that, in 2018, “machines will do more of man’s work, but will force man to think more logically.” DeCarlo was consistently half right. He correctly anticipated miniature computers (“very small, portable storage units”), but wrongly predicted the coming of a universal language (“very likely a modified and expanded form of English”). One thing he got terribly wrong: he expressed tragically unfounded confidence that “the political and social institutions of the United States will remain flexible enough to ingest the fruits of science and technology without basic damage to its value systems.”

The predictions got the technology right (except on space travel) but not the institutions or social reality.

For example: the 'Picturephone' that Bell Labs was trying to invent that you may have seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey is quite
 commonplace, except that we now call it a Smart Phone. What was wrong with the prediction was that it would be a luxury item that would be used rarely, with the landline phone still getting the majority of use. It would be far easier to store data on computers than on paper... but dead-tree editions are still more enjoyable  ways to read a novel than a portable reader. More significantly, Big Business would be able to share data easily with each other and with government agencies, with the ability to exploit such knowledge for making business decisions such as hiring and firing. Hackers might do that, but Big Business cannot spy on workers to find out their politics, consumer purchases, and financial records without consent. (Social Security and IRS records are generally off limits.