Futurology: The tricky art of knowing what will happen next

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Image caption,
Cheap air travel was among the predictions (illustration from Geoffrey Hoyle's book)

A 1972 book which predicts what life would be like in 2010 has been reprinted after attracting a cult following, but how hard is it to tell the future?

Geoffrey Hoyle is often asked why he predicted everybody would be wearing jumpsuits by 2010. He envisioned a world where everybody worked a three-day week and had their electric cars delivered in tubes of liquid.

These colourful ideas from his 1972 children's book, 2010: Living in the Future, helped prompt a Facebook campaign to track him down. His work has now been reprinted with the year in the title amended to 2011.

"I've been criticised because I said people [would] wear jumpsuits," explains Hoyle, the son of noted astronomer and science fiction author Fred Hoyle. "We don't wear jumpsuits but to a certain extent the idea of the jumpsuit is the restriction of liberties."

Hoyle's book is a product of its time. The move towards a planned society with an emphasis on communal living colour it.

Image caption,
Fortunately, jumpsuit proliferation has not occurred as Hoyle predicted

"Most of it is based on the evolution of a political system," Hoyle notes.

The author also predicted widespread use of "vision phones" and doing your grocery shopping online.

He is one of a long line of science fiction authors to have tried their hand at futurology, the discipline of mapping out the future.

"If you go back over the years in terms of science fiction and fantasy you find many very brilliant simulations of futures that have occurred," says Richard Rhodes, author of Visions of Technology: A Century of Vital Debate about Machines, Systems, and the Human World.

Perhaps one of the most celebrated pieces of futurology by a science fiction author was Arthur C Clarke's prediction of a network of satellites in geostationary orbits [effectively remaining at the same spot in relation to a fixed point back on earth].

The idea of satellites in geostationary orbit had been floated before but Clarke was the first to see the possibilities for their use as relays for broadcasting and communications.

And HG Wells was years ahead of his time, predicting nuclear weapons in 1914, and later inspiring physicist Leo Szilard.

In more recent times, author David Brin, in the 1989 novel Earth and in his other works, predicted citizen reporters, personalised web interfaces, and the decline of privacy.

"The top method is simply to stay keenly attuned to trends in the laboratories and research centres around the world, taking note of even things that seem impractical or useless," says Brin.

"You then ask yourself: 'What if they found a way to do that thing ten thousand times as quickly/powerfully/well? What if someone weaponised it? Monopolised it? Or commercialised it, enabling millions of people to do this new thing, routinely? What would society look like, if everybody took this new thing for granted?'"

Conscious efforts at futurology go back a long way. In 1931, to celebrate its 80th anniversary, the New York Times went to several prominent men for their predictions of what life would be like in 2011.

There were "hits". William Mayo predicted a 70-plus-year lifespan. Other predictions about an ageing population and less importance for national boundaries were promising.

Image caption,
HG Wells predicted nuclear weapons 30 years before it became a reality

But there were bad misses - certainly for Michael Pupin, the physicist - who predicted the equitable distribution of wealth.

A similar exercise had been undertaken in 1893 - looking forward to 1993 - for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Florida as a major tourist destination and fast trains are among the hits, but there are many misses.

Politician John J Ingalls was one of the most prescient when he wrote about travelling from New York to London in less than a day.

Predictions, failed or successful, tell us as much about the time they were made as they do about the future.

Go back to the early years of the Cold War and predictions of catastrophic nuclear war were widespread.

"It is the dog that didn't bark," says Rhodes, also author of The Twilight of the Bomb. "In the nuclear community in the years after World War II, they were pretty clear if we didn't eliminate nuclear weapons, if they didn't get it under control, there would inevitably be a nuclear war.

"They didn't see the deep existential fear those weapons induced in leaders of the various countries."

And it's easy to get things wrong or to miss a potential development, because an insurmountable obstacle seems to stand in the way.

Image caption,
Internet grocery shopping isn't exactly like this

One common wrong prediction, made by utopian socialists in the 19th Century, and cropping up in 1893 and 1931 and many times since, is the idea that mechanisation just has to go a bit further to earn us all a life of leisure.

Hoyle's three day week for 2010 has failed to materialise. "People are going to have to work very hard. It's gone the other way. People are working seven days a week. I'm very pessimistic now," he says.

But Hoyle got it right when predicting the role of the vision phone. And the vision desk sounds rather familiar too. "The glass on top of the screen is made in a special way so that when you write on it the camera photographs what you write."

If you predicted today that within a few years time key electronic devices like phones, GPS and media players would be embedded in the human body, you would hardly be saying anything daring.

"It's fairly straightforward to extrapolate from existing technology - that tends to be what people do," says Rhodes. "But the really important changes are almost inevitably complete surprises."

The proliferation of the computer and the microchip comes into this category, says Tim Mack, president of the World Future Society.

"Computers were all looked at as big data crunchers," says Mack. "People missed that - the embedding of chips in just about everything."

Futurology is big business now. The defence industry picked it up a long time ago, but now it's used in everything from consumer technology to food firms.

And it will still prove delightful to read 2010's predictions in a century's time.

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