OK, m’man Stross has written an intelligent, reasonable post on predicting the future, concentrating on the degree of weirdness (what he calls unknown unknowns).  And he convinces himself that we really can’t predict anything more than forty years out.  He concludes:

And by 2052, the unknown unknowns will have driven the world to be a very different place from anything I can predict today.

Really, Charlie?   A little more than one generation?   I think he’s wrong, and I think the best way to show this is to look backwards instead, to a hypothetical sf writer of forty years ago– 1972.  And let’s say that this writer is kind of conservative in her predictions.  In fact, let’s say she predicts that the year 2012 will be exactly like 1972.

How far off would she be?  Well, let’s look at some of her successful predictions.

  • The richest and most powerful nation in the world will be the US.  The most important language for world communication will be English.
  • The richest regions will be North America, Europe, and Japan.
  • The US will be a republic whose politics is dominated by two parties: the Republicans who largely favor the rich and prefer small government, and the Democrats who prefer liberalism (that is, a middle class society with a strong safety net).  On many issues the young will be much more liberal than the elderly.  A minority will despise the Democrats for being lamely centrist.
  • The president will be seeking another term despite a recent recession and plenty of voters who see him as the embodiment of evil; the other party will be divided and widely accused of radicalism.  Republicans will campaign against social spending, abortion, and the media; there will be the threat of a populist third party run.
  • There will be much tacit acceptance of pot, but it won’t be legal.  Other recreational drugs will be more actively repressed.
  • The US will be involved in wars with nations much smaller than itself, largely facing guerrilla opponents, and will be unable to convince the rest of the world that the war is worth it.
  • Oil reserves will give disproportionate importance to the Middle East.  The long conflict between Israel and its neighbors will continue to brew.  India will be a democracy; Russia will be run by an authoritarian regime with a backwards economy propped up by oil revenues.
  • Fidel Castro will still be defying the US from Havana.  North Korea will still be a bizarre communist holdout.
  • Liberals will worry about how industrial civilization is greatly harming the ecosphere; conservatives will largely dismiss the notion.
  • Major corporations will include General Motors, AT&T, Du Pont, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, United Aircraft, and Exxon.  [Not gonna penalize our predictor for a couple of mergers and name changes.]
  • The economy of the richer nations will be capitalist (with a fairly big government largely devoted to defense and the social safety net), the most important sectors being manufacturing and services.  Ships, planes, and trucks will distribute goods; people will get around mostly by cars and planes.  Computers will be increasingly important in business and science.  People will communicate often by phone. 
  • Most Americans, at least, will live in the cities and suburbs, in their own house if they can afford one, as a nuclear family.  The work week will be about forty hours; domestic appliances will ensure that the family has plenty of leisure.
  • The chief entertainment sources will be movies, television, and recorded music.  One might cynically add that another source of entertainment is gossip about entertainers’ lives.  Popular music genres will include rock and country.
  • There will be exciting but (unfortunately for sf fans) marginal exploration of space.  However, movies about much more advanced space exploration will be popular.
  • The vast majority of people will aspire to marriage, though some people will be happy to just live together as couples.  Women will be an important component of the labor force, but on average they won’t be paid as well as men.  Birth control will allow a high degree of sexual freedom and experimentation; this will be opposed by some, who will somehow blame women more for it.  Gays and lesbians will be creating their own subculture and organizing for more recognition. 

Not a bad job really… much better than the efforts of actual sf writers!

So what are the major things she got wrong?

  • The fall of communism
  • The rise of China as a capitalist manufacturing powerhouse
  • The personal computer
  • The Internet
  • The smart phone
  • The microwave oven
  • The defection of the South to the Republican Party
  • Gay marriage
  • The election of a black president
  • Rap as the dominant pop music

I’m not going to try to balance the lists, because it’s too subjective.  Some of the items on the second list are pretty significant.  On the other hand, again, my hypothetical writer was making no actual attempt at prediction.  It wasn’t that hard to predict the fall of communism– I did it myself though I got the date way wrong.  The Southern Strategy had already been mooted by Nixon; Stonewall had already happened; nobody quite got the transformation of economic life by electronics but many came close– hell, bits of it were predicted in Looking Backward in 1887.

I freely admit that I cooked the list a bit, partly for the amusement value.  On the other hand, I could have extended it quite a bit.  The point is, despite how fast things seem to change, our everyday lives really have not been revolutionized that much in forty years, and our political and economic system is barely different.  Many of the major changes of modern life, especially the accompanying changes in values and mores, happened earlier. 

Stross is too smart to be pinned down to specifics.  But I’ll still wager him that he’s wrong: 2052 will be more like than unlike 2012, and most of its politics, economics, and everyday life will be entirely recognizable if we could see them right now.  Of course there will be interesting changes, but the really radical civilization-changing ones will be much farther off.