I’d like to introduce you to Life in the Future, one of my all-time favourite books, which got a passing mention in my diary on 26th July 1986, 28 years ago today. It was published in 1976 and still graces my bookshelf.
My favourite bit of the book has always been the double-page spread above, illustrating a Delphic Study from the mid-60s in which a host of experts were asked when they thought specific technologies might become available. Their answers were collated and plotted on a timeline (starting in the 1970s and finishing with ‘Never’), with markers to show when 50% and 90% of them agreed a particular technology would be in use.
The predicted dates were only part of the fun for me. What really interested me was which technologies had been chosen. My favourites – truly children of their time – were:
- Two-way communication with extra-terrestrials (50% of the experts were expecting this by about 2025, while the rest pessimistically chose ‘Never.’)
- Automated language translators (should have been done and dusted by the early 70s if you believe the study)
- Effective, simple and inexpensive fertility control (predicted to be available by 1985)
- Economic regional weather control (1990-ish)
- The widely accepted use of non-narcotic drugs for changing personality characteristics (somewhere between the 80s and 90s)
Re-read rather ironically from my vantage point here in the far future – some way past the previously mythical 2000 AD – the book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into 70s thinking. The influence of the preceding few years is obvious: the new liberalism and free thinking of the 60s, the 70s energy crisis and the expansion of nuclear power (the accident at Three-Mile Island was just a few years away), the rise of the environmental movement, significant improvements in medical technology (the first heart transplant was already old news by this point), the development and early use of packet switching telecommunications networks, and so on.
Longer-term hopes featured in the study included the feasibility of education by direct information-recording on the brain, the breeding of intelligent animals as a low-grade labour force, the control of gravity by modifying gravitational fields and economic ocean farming to produce at least 20% of the world’s food. Wonderful stuff.
Despite the boundless technological optimism on show, the experts had to draw the line somewhere. They baulked both at the use of telepathy and ESP in communications, and at the idea of induced long-term comas used as a form of time travel.
Before long, I’ll be reading Life in the Future on a date beyond the end point of the study, which was around 2020. Compiling a list of likely technological change over the next 60 years would be just as difficult today as it was back in the 60s – but it might be fun to try (suggestions below please!).
Finally, it’s worth noting that while the study was busying itself with telepathy, controlling gravity and alien contact, it missed a few rather important developments that we take for granted today:
- Instant access to a worldwide network of connected computers – from a device you hold in your hand
- A system allowing you to search all the world’s knowledge – anytime you want, and from pretty much anywhere
- In-vehicle video and audio navigation systems controlled by a global satellite network
…to name but three!
If you were taking part in a similar study in 2014, I’d love to know what key technology breakthroughs you’d expect between now and 2080. Who knows, if we compile a big enough list, the Internet could help us run a Delphic study of our own!
Here’s an excellent infographic from the Long Now Foundation that does a similar job, this time based on literary prediction: http://cdn.shortlist.com/resource/binary/874e8f9420996aab69ecaea2d7ad919f/predictionsgal2.jpg
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