Why do we need predictions? 80 years later.

I wrote here, and told in many other places, and many times, that Summ()n is not about ‘predictions’. We don’t see the future given and predefined, and ‘laying there’ waiting for someone to pick it up on way. Rather, we see the future is in a making, by the thoughts and actions of today; the tricks is that these thoughts and actions can shape different futures, and so we help people to think differently. But we are about the future, or the futures nevertheless, and so I am also interested in the the ‘neighboring’ areas of classical and straightforward ‘predictions’.

In fact, I am most interested not in the today’s predictions about tomorrow, but in the yesterday’s predictions of today (which was, of course, the future from the yesterday’s point of view). This domain, usually referred as retro-futurism, is a source of permanent inspirations and food for thought, and could be a fruitful learning tool too, if one starts systematically analyzing both the ‘right guesses’ and the remarkable flops (beware that the article in Wikipedia defines retro-futurism differently; perhaps I have to write another article this subject).

I have recently encountered a brilliant piece of for such a retro-futuristic exercise. In the 1931 The New York Times asked a number of prominent thinkers and ‘doers’ of that time to predict what would happen with the world in eighty years – that is, in 2011! We now have an excellent material to reflect and learn (ok, may be to smile from time to time too). This material was re-introduce by the paper at the very end of last year – see Why Do We Need Predictions? (I also borrowed a illustration from their site, by a brilliant artist Mark Weaver). The paper itself refers only to the partial scans of the original publications, but I found a place where someone very carefully reconstructed an entire document (The World of 2011 as Envisioned in 1931 – beware though that they also replaced the original pictures of the authors with their much older portraits; their words therefore may look a bit wiser than they are 🙂

But with old or young portraits, their words are often very wise indeed! I was actually very impressed with many of the insights (I also enjoyed a very characteristic language, very different from today’s lingo). I decided to cut the whole document into individual pieces and post here, even if for the future references; I also comment on some of the most striking lines. I will post here the first one, by William Ogburn, and then put others in separate postings.

William Fielding Ogburn was an American sociologist, pretty much forgotten now; his thinking was pretty much a reflection of a technocratic context around him, and he postulated technological development as the key driving force of civilization developments (Marx would call him a ‘techno-fetishist’). In this piece he is referred as the Chairman of the Presidential Commission on Social Trends, a position he held for a few years under President Hoover.

Here in his predictions he also plays a technology card very strongly – “Technological progress, with its exponential laws, holds the key to the future.” Automated factories, ‘electronic tubes’, and dominance of technicians are his future. Of course, “people will become more nervous”, but “mental hygienists” will be there to help. This is the world where knowledge and rationality rule.

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