This piece originally appeared on the WaPo Labs Blog. WaPo Labs is the digital team at the Washington Post Company focused on innovation and experimenting with emerging technologies.
Predicting the future is no simple matter, as hindsight will attest. (“The automobile is only a novelty!” “Atomic power is impossible!” “No one will buy chewy cookies!”)
For millennia, philosophers from Nostradamus to the estimable Ms. Cleo have tried and failed to divine prophecy from the stars – yet the human impulse to foresee our future continues to endure. And who better to predict the unpredictable than those who spend their lives dreaming of tomorrow: science fiction writers?
That was the idea behind the Writers of the Future’s Time Capsule Predictions, anyway. In 1987, as part of L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest, a dozen highly regarded science fiction authors were asked to envision what our world would be like in a quarter-century: 2012.
How did the predictions fare? Some better than others.
Isaac Asimov’s conjecture was about 50 percent correct: there will be eight to 10 billion humans on the planet (close, but wrong: the current figure is seven billion), and an epidemic of widespread hunger (right). “These troubles can be traced back to President Ronald Reagan,” he added cheekily, “who smiled and waved too much.”
Gregory Benford fared quite well in his predictions: the world population will be just under eight billion, oil will be running out, and the “real shortage” will be not fuel but water (yep, yep, and yep). He also correctly predicted that he will be “old, but not dead” and invited future readers to “come by and see [him]… and bring a bottle.”
Several authors’ guesses turned out to be surprisingly spot-on: the late Gerald Feinberg envisioned great advances in the field of nanotechnology; Dave Wolverton foresaw leading world economies outsourcing their technologies and work production to developing nations; and the late Roger Zelazny predicted the spread of a “cashless, checkless society.”
Other soothsayers’ divinations of the future turned out to be a bit more cloudy: Sheldon Lee Glashow declared that “Japan will be the central economic power in the world” and foresaw the discovery of cures to many diseases that still remain a mystery: diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease. Going out on a limb, Tim Powers envisioned that “probate and copyright law will be entirely restructured by 2012 because people will be frozen at death, and there will be electronic means of consulting them.” And several authors incorrectly predicted that the U.S. would be plagued by widespread illiteracy by 2012 (the most recent estimate found the country to have a 99 percent literacy rate).
Perhaps what’s most interesting about the 1987 predictions, though, isn’t whether the authors correctly guessed global population figures or which countries would be the most economically viable, but how the moment in which the writers were living colored their visions of the future. Nearly all of the predictions referenced the ominous threat of nuclear war, the tenuous relationship between the U.S. and Russia, and the global AIDS epidemic. These apocalyptic specters were the static backdrop to the visionaries’ predictions – a world without the possibility of desecration was unimaginable; only the extent to which we could survive it was subject to debate.
And not one of the authors could foresee what has become the defining technological advancement of our time: the Internet.
What will the world look like 25 years from now, in 2037? Will we even recognize ourselves?
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