The future is not what it used to be


A look at 1960s futurology suggests that we have been misled by one extraordinary sector, electronics, into exaggerating the rate at which the world around us is changing.

Everyone knows that technology is today advancing at an unprecedented rate. In the United States, it is even argued that there is a ‘new economy’ or a ‘new economic paradigm’, in which innovation has freed us from the laws of economics which hitherto restricted growth.

And yet there is a problem with this argument. The best measure we have of the overall rate of technological change is the rate at which productivity is increasing. Particularly in those countries – like the United States – which are at the frontiers of efficiency and the application of new technology. And productivity growth has not gone up. In the United States, and in most other developed countries, productivity has risen by less in the twenty-five years or so since 1970 than it did in the twenty-five years before that.

Now many of the proponents of the ‘new economic paradigm’ are aware of this difficulty. They argue that the statistics are simply wrong: they fail to reflect properly the impact of technology on growth and output. There is probably something in this argument. But to make it stick, you would have to demonstrate not just that we are underestimating the value of improvement in the quality of goods we buy – which is plausible – but that we are underestimating by more – much more – than we did in the past.

There is another possible explanation. It is that we are victims of our own hype, and that technology is not moving forward today any faster than it did in earlier decades. After all, someone who lived from 1860 to 1960 would have seen horse transport replaced by cars and aeroplanes, would have watched electricity and everything powered by it introduced into their home, and might have lived to 1960 because they had not died from contaminated water, smallpox, or infectious diseases – which is what would very probably have happened if they had been born a century earlier. They could never have expected to see or hear Abraham Lincoln but the voice and moving image of John Kennedy was in their living room. Besides all this, internet shopping seems a rather minor novelty.

This thought was stimulated when I stumbled across a dusty copy of a 1967 report from the futurologists of the Hudson Institute. They had drawn on historic trends in innovation to suggest changes which would ‘almost certainly’ occur before the end of the century.

They got a lot of things right. They predicted the general use of automation and cybernation in management and production, and the development of high speed data processing. They anticipated universal real time credit, audit and banking systems. They thought we would have facsimile machines, and high quality reproduction in both black and white and colour. Communication would be transformed by personal pagers (perhaps even two-way pocket phones).

It is amusing that the too ubiquitous mobile phone was regarded as a way-out invention. Like many people in the 1960’s, these futorologists correctly sensed that information technology would be important, and their expectations about what it would achieve were surprisingly prescient. What they did not anticipate was miniaturisation, or that processing would become so cheap that we would have our own personal computers rather than a terminal to a central mega computer.

But once you move outside the field of electronics, very few of the innovations they anticipated have actually occurred. Take transport, for example. They expected us to have personal flying platforms and inexpensive road-free (and facility free) transportation. We would traverse longer distances in super helicopters and giant supersonic jets, and enjoy inter-planetary travel. In reality, developments in transport have been modest. In 1939, you normally crossed the Atlantic in an ocean liner; in 1969, you could do so in six hours in a jumbo jet. In 1999, the seats are more comfortable and the flight attendants are more friendly, but the service on offer is essentially the same.

Or look at fuel and power. The Hudson Institute anticipated new sources of power for fixed installations (magneto-hydrodynamic, thermonic and thermoelectric, radio-active). And for ground transportation (storage battery, fuel-cell propulsion or support by electromagnetic fields). And a large expansion of controlled nuclear power. In practice, most power is still generated by burning fossil fuels to make electricity, our cars still have petrol engines, and our trains are propelled by diesel engines or overhead electricity supplies.

They expected our lifestyle to be transformed. We would have relatively effective appetite and weight control. We would benefit from human hibernation, controlled mechanisms for relaxation and sleep, chemical methods for improved memory and learning, and enjoy programmed dreams. And there would be non-harmful methods of over indulging. I wish they had been right.

The list of things that have not happened goes on. We do not light cities by artificial moons, or have any significant influence on the weather. The fabrics we wear have not changed much. We still don’t mine the oceans, and we certainly don’t have undersea colonies. Automated grocery and department stores are technically feasible, but we don’t want them.

If you had been writing in 1966, and had projected the pace of historic development in the creation of new materials, in transport, in pharmacology and in lifestyle changes into the future, you would have anticipated far more than actually occurred, which is what the Hudson Institute did. In only one – admittedly large – area would you have underestimated the pace of change. Perhaps we have been misled by one extraordinary sector, electronics, into exaggerating the rate at which the world around us is changing. Perhaps the story the statistics tell us is true.

H. Kahn & A. J. Wiener. The next thirty-three years – a framework for speculation. Daedalus, 1967

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