TOMORROW: Why predictions of the future are usually wrong

There was a brief spell, between the white heat years of the 1960’s and the gaudy disaster of the 1980’s, when futurology blossomed. This was the final gasp of a post-war love affair with centralised planning. If scientific know-how could control the fragile ecosystem of an economy, why couldn’t it also determine the future? This question fuelled many thinkers of the time, notably Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler

The lure of the impending millennium, and the razzmatazz of the electronic revolution, inspired Toffler and his peers to make a slew of confident, sweeping predictions about the decades ahead. Which is odd, given the fervid disruptions of their own time. They looked across the wild spate of social and technological change that was teeming all around them, and declared that they could see, with twenty-twenty foresight, the future. That took some balls*.

I’ve been studying this bout of futurology as research for a novel I'm writing, which is set on a science park in the late ’sixties. It’s especially fun to read these would-be Nostraramuses from the comfort of 2016, because I can evaluate their predictions from the very era they presumed to foresee. It’s not just Back To The Future 2 whose future has already come and passed. Today I can read these futurology tomes with the smugness only hindsight offers. Anti-gravity belts by the year 2000? Undersea colonies? The leisure economy? Pull the other one, Alvin, it’s got a nuclear fusion generator attached.

But once my self-satisfied glee subsides, I've found that there's something much more interesting going on here. It's fun to catalogue the prophesies these futurologists got wrong; but it's far more interesting to explore the reasons why they got them wrong. By way of example, I give you a children's book written in 1972 by Geoffrey Hoyle, and illustrated by Alasdair Anderson. It’s called 2011: Living in the Future**. 

As you can see from the cover art, the future presented in this book is the kind where every surface is crammed with flashing coloured lights and buttons. It's no coincidence that this scene – a classroom, believe it or not – looks so much like the bridge of the USS Enterprise. The book was written and drawn during the first few years of Star Trek's original airing; and the imaginations of the time were heavily influenced by that show's silvery bachelor-pad aesthetic.  

As with any future-gazing text, there are a raft of things this book gets wrong – breakfast-making robots, free public transport, and the way that everyone wears a shiny jumpsuit. There are also a surprising number of things that it gets right – ebooks, cheap air travel, thumbprint banking and food that arrives on conveyer belts. It even foresees one or two things that haven‘t happened yet, but could do in the near future. Take the 'giant pipes that run the length and breath of the country,' transporting ‘anything from a box of nails to a crane.’ Maybe Elon Musk read this passage, before he came up with the Hyperloop?  

‘Tube travel’: the 1972 vision...

‘Tube travel’: the 1972 vision...

...and the 2016 Elon Musk version.

...and the 2016 Elon Musk version.

But I want to focus on one prediction which, although it's nearly perfect, still gets some vital details wrong, in illuminating ways. This is the passage where the book foresees online shopping. 

Ocado: but 50 years early

Ocado: but 50 years early

As these images show, the experience Hoyle and Anderson foresaw in this passage would, with the exception of all the multiplicity of buttons, be familiar to users of Ocado and its less upmarket competitors. If you read the following (slightly redacted) excerpt, you can see how close they came:

You give your order [-----] and it is recorded at the supermarket [-----]. Later the same day the electric delivery truck arrives with your order.

Okay, the ‘same day’ bit is ambitious, but isn't this exactly what Amazon is starting to offer, in its new Prime delivery service? But before you start to praise the authors too much, I should come clean about the redactions I made above. Here's the full passage:

You give your order over the phone and it is recorded at the supermarket by a tape recorder. Later the same day the electric delivery truck arrives with your order.

This, or course, makes a lot less sense. The manual, analogue process imagined here would be unscalable and extremely hard to automate. In other words, in spite of its visibly hi-tech trappings, this vision failed to capture the TECHNOLOGICAL innovations that have made online shopping possible: digitisation, packet networks, the World Wide Web. This kind of disruptive technology is the first and most visible thing that futurologists tend to get wrong. They extrapolate from the tech they see around them at the time – televisions, telephones, tape recorders – and morph these into a more sophisticated future that, in reality, would never have arrived had if these technologies hadn't been superseded by something utterly new and different.

But if we scrape a little further beneath the surface we can see a number of other ways this prediction is wrong. Look again at the ordering process. Not only does our jump-suited customer use the phone to order the goods – she 'dials the food department' and the order is 'recorded at the local supermarket'. This is not the massively centralised just-in-time logistics that have revolutionised retail and distribution over the past few decades. It's a tweaked version of the way things worked in 1972, where the shopper walked or drove to their local store and ordered direct from the fellow behind the counter. Predictions often fail to catch such ECONOMIC changes, which are even harder to foresee than new technologies.

Let's drill a little deeper still. The groceries, we've seen, are delivered by an electric van. That's not totally wrong – an increasing number of commercial vehicles are electric. But the book predicts that this trend will, by 2011, have gone much further:

Gone are the oily smells and fumes of traffic. When people travel, they go by electric car, bus, or train.

In our 2016 world things have not, of course, moved anything like this far. The reasons for this are complex, and some of them lie in the TECHNOLOGICAL and ECONOMIC forces I've already mentioned; but surely the key pressures holding back the elimination of the combustion engine, are POLITICAL?

And finally, have you noticed how the person at home, ordering the food, is a woman – and the worker driving the delivery van, a man? The book is riddled with the gender and familial norms of the ’seventies. This in spite of the fact that The Female Eunuch had been out for two years already. But after all, it was written and illustrated by men***. Let's not even get started with ethnic diversity. I'm sure you can guess how many BAME characters pop up in these pages. SOCIAL changes are perhaps the hardest to envisage, because the biases that govern our present expectations are largely unconscious.

What we're building here is called a PEST analysis – a breakdown of the Political, Economic, Social and Technological forces acting in the environment around us. To me, this example is a great illustration of what makes it so important to explore these kinds of forces. If we want to predict the future of some current norm – shopping on the high street, say – we naturally tend to start by looking at the mechanics of that process and thinking, how might these change? This is, to some extent, what Hoyle has done, by grafting a ‘vision phone’ onto his mental picture of a housewife's weekly shopping trip. 

If we start with current norms and try to extrapolate forward, we tend to miss the external forces that will most profoundly shape our future ways of doing things. To get out of this mental rut we need to find techniques - nudges, jolts, disruptions – that can force us out of our tunnel vision. This is why Shell, famously, piloted scenario planning techniques back in the seventies, under the guidance of the splendidly-named Pierre Wack. As a result they suffered far less than their competitors during the oil crunch of that decade. Today, they're still seen as leaders in applying these techniques, under the equally splendidly-named Jeremy Bentham. 

An excerpt from Shell's Forty Years of Scenarios

An excerpt from Shell's Forty Years of Scenarios

Scenario planning is humbler than other forms of futurology. It starts with the premise that we can't predict the one true future future – but it takes advantage of the fact that we can imagine many futures. As demonstrated by Pierre Wack’s river metaphor, the key to this approach is to imagine alternate, contrasting and branching futures.

All of which is a rather long-form way of expressing my belief that the key skills we need, if we want to face with confidence the exponential pace of change in our contemporary world, are those of the story-teller. Specifically, the SF writer. If you want to know what the world will look like in the future, don't talk to an economist. Read Stephenson, Le Guin, Atwood, Gibson. They'll tell you.

This blatant advertisement was brought to you courtesy of the SFF writers of the world.  

* Yes, they were pretty much all men.

** Originally published as 2010: Living In The Future but retitled for a 2011 reissue. Look, it’s complicated.

*** See first footnote.