Can we really imagine our own future?


OK, here we are moving into the second decade of the 21st Century. For most of us the future has arrived. But, strangely, it looks a lot like the past.

So what if we wanted to actually imagine the future fifty or a hundred years from now? One way is to look at the past. How did they see us? Fortunately, it’s easy. In a matter of a few seconds I found two great snapshots of the future on the Internet—one from 1900 and the other from 1961, both projecting what life would be for us, today.

According to the one from the Weekend Magazine in 1961, the first thing we’re told is, “It looks as if everything will be so easy that people will probably die from sheer boredom.” I don’t know whether I should laugh or sigh. It’s true; life does seem a whole lot more boring. So what else? Fasten your seatbelts …

“Your house will probably have air walls, and a floating roof, adjustable to the angle of the sun. Doors will open automatically, and clothing will be put away by remote control. The heating and cooling systems will be built into the furniture and rugs.

“You'll have a home control room—an electronics centre, where messages will be recorded when you're away from home. This will play back when you return, and also give you up-to-the minute world news, and transcribe your latest mail.

“You'll have wall-to-wall global TV, an indoor swimming pool, TV-telephones and room-to-room TV. “Press a button and you can change the décor of a room.

“The status symbol of the year 2000 will be the home computer help, which will help mother tend the children, cook the meals and issue reminders of appointments.

“Cooking will be in solar ovens with microwave controls. Garbage will be refrigerated, and pressed into fertilizer pellets.”

How are we doing so far? Well, there’s more…

“Mail and newspapers will be reproduced instantly anywhere in the world by facsimile.

“There will be machines doing the work of clerks, shorthand writers and translators. Machines will ‘talk’ to each other.

“It will be the age of press-button transportation. Rocket belts will increase a man's stride to 30 feet, and bus-type helicopters will travel along crowded air skyways. There will be moving plastic-covered pavements, individual hoppicopters, and 200 m.p.h. monorail trains operating in all large cities.

“The family car will be soundless, vibrationless and self-propelled thermostatically. The engine will be smaller than a typewriter. Cars will travel overland on an 18 inch air cushion.

“By the year 2020, five per cent of the world's population will have emigrated into space. Many will have visited the moon and beyond.

“Our children will learn from TV, recorders and teaching machines. They will get pills to make them learn faster. We shall be healthier, too. There will be no common colds, cancer, tooth decay or mental illness.”

Ah, well…no and no again. No air walls. No end in sight for colds, cancer, tooth decay and mental illness. No space colonies, no air suspension cars. Nada. But a few hits, too, like computers and electronics.

So how much less accurate would you expect the forecasts made in 1900? According Harpers Magazine and one J. Elfreth Watkins, a mining engineer and railroader, the 21st Century would “seem strange, almost impossible.” Let’s see…

“There will probably be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America and its possessions by the lapse of another century.” Well, yes. Check.

“The American will be taller by from one to two inches. His increase of stature will result from better health, due to vast reforms in medicine, sanitation, food and athletics.” Check, again.

“Trains will run two miles a minute, normally; express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour… Cars will, like houses, be artificially cooled… Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance… Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span… Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world…” And so on.

In many ways the predictions from 1900 were more accurate than those from 1961. Why? I don’t know. Maybe by the 1950s people’s aspirations—and their views of technology—were already distorted by the entertainment and marketing industries.

So how would we play the 100-year prediction game? Easy answer: we wouldn’t. I think we’re rapidly losing our ability to imagine our own future. Back in 1900, the ordinary citizen was still very much connected to the production of tangible goods. He or she not only wanted better products, but could imagine how to build them.

Today, we’re so overrun by inexpensive consumer goods, expertise and entertainment—that we can’t imagine any desire going unfulfilled, as long as we have a bit of money to spend.

Of course that’s the easy answer. Or just a part of the answer. The real reason imagining our future is more difficult than ever is the mounting complexity of the choices facing us. There’s the global population explosion and population aging. There’s climate change and Peak Oil, which could change everything. And then there are other man-made complexities such as genetic engineering of viruses. Or biological warfare. All of which could interleave into the natural world in the most unpredictable ways.

These are just a few of the possible developments that could affect our imagining. But what about more aspirational imaginings? You know, the air cars and floating roofs? Well, that would require a more energized view of where we’re headed. But forget the air cars. Our more recent aspirations may point toward a better fit between us and the rest of the planet—a more sustainable, less energy-intensive future. And there is some evidence that these thoughts are entering our collective imagination.

Imagination is the key to the future—any future. So unless we regain the ability to imagine our own future, both personally and societally, we won’t have one. So why not give it a try? What do you think the next 100 years will bring?

And for my part I’m going to try to imagine very happiest New Year for you all.


  1. Nice, Gerald. Futurescaping is such a fascinating activity, but I must confess that it's always beyond my mental capacities as I have enough trouble comprehending the here and now.

    That aside, though, I wish you and your family a happy and healthy new year.

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth. Futurescaping is hard work, I think. We've grown unaccustomed to inventing things, including the future. At some point I'm going to have to take up the challenge, put a toe in the water and make a few predictions... try a few guesses at the next 50 years at least...


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