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September 2009

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5:35pm Friday September 18, 2009 (link)

Think of how ridiculous prediction really is. Say you took your time machine back to 1999. It's the top of the internet bubble. The country is at peace and has a small budget surplus. We are the "world's only superpower." Iraq and North Korea are sometimes alarming, but there are no other threats on the horizon. It's "the end of history." If you asked people what might be a problem in the future, some would have mentioned the Y2K bug.

You climb out of your time machine and tell them that in ten years, the U.S. will run a two trillion dollar deficit, be at war in Afghanistan and Iraq and have a black President. Oh, and Y2K was nothing!

Not only would people have laughed at you, experts would have lined up to tell you that that was all impossible. The U.S. financial situation could never deteriorate that fast (and the country could never borrow that much money without hyperinflation.) We'd never go to war in two third world countries at once, and if we did, it would be over in no time, since they barely have armies to resist us. And where would a black President come from, since there were so few prominent black politicians in the Senate or as state governors?

The farther back you go, the more absurd actual events are compared to what people expected. Suppose you had gone back to 1984 and told them about the state of the world in 25 years. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and cold-war relations were at a new low. Japan was eating into the U.S. market in one area after another. The religious right was on a roll. The IBM PC and the Apple MacIntosh were fairly recently introduced.

You tell them that the Soviet Union will break apart (with little violence) in just a few years. That Japan will enter a 20-year slump. That China will be making half the products in U.S. stores, and loaning the U.S. money to fund its deficits. That everyone has a home computer and that this thing called "the Internet" was changing commerce, news and entertainment in strange ways. And that the religious right didn't get a thing they wanted -- just the opposite (more pornography available, abortion still available, gay marriage legal in more and more places.) No one would have believed any of that. And again, it wasn't just that they didn't think these things were likely. Experts would have told you that it was all impossible.

If you had gone back to 1899 and told them about the future, you would have been regarded as insane. Who would have predicted (or believed) a country with hundreds of millions of cars, 300-passenger aircraft flying between huge sprawling cities, major industries dedicated to movies, television, and music, most of the population carrying mobile telephones, computers in most homes, etc.?

Who would have understood that those cities could be destroyed in half an hour by computer-directed intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, launched from the other side of the world? Who would have guessed that within a lifetime (from 1900), Russia would be the world's second military power, Japan its second economic power, and the British Empire would be gone? Who would have believed World War II and the murder of millions by their own governments?

So whenever I read someone confidently predicting this or that in ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred years, I just roll my eyes and continue on to something else. When it comes to the future, none of us know what we're talking about.

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