Saturday, March 29, 2008

Let the Automatic Food Utility Do It

Reading these 1968 predictions of life in the year 2008 reminds you of a few axioms.

  1. Predictions of the future inevitably overestimate progress in transportation and medicine, and usually underestimate progress in communication and media. This one actually gets a lot of what's happened in electronic banking right, though. ("Money has all but disappeared. Employers deposit salary checks directly into their employees’ accounts. Credit cards are used for paying all bills. Each time you buy something, the card’s number is fed into the store’s computer station. A master computer then deducts the charge from your bank balance.")
  2. Predictions of the future surprisingly overestimate the difference between the future and the present relative to the difference between the future and the past. This is actually stated explicitly in this piece: "Despite the fact that the year 2008 is only 40 years away—as far ahead as 1928 is in the past—it will be a world as strange to us as our time (1968) would be to the pilgrims." The 1960s appeared to many as a precipice of tremendous technological change, but it seems safer to assume that the rate of change within a generation or two would be reasonably recognizable to members of that generation, and reasonably similar to the rate of previous changes. In other words, if you want to predict changes as drastic as domed cities and undersea vacations, it's safer to predict them hundreds or thousands of years in the future rather than forty.
  3. Predictions of the future -- at least popular ones -- overwhelmingly underestimate the interplay between social change and technological innovation. "The housewife simply determines in advance her menus for the week, then slips prepackaged meals into the freezer and lets the automatic food utility do the rest." The assumption is that new technology plugs in perectly into already existing social relationships, without transforming them in the slightest. Personal computers replace secretaries and file cabinets, robots replace servants and blue-collar workers, but the structure itself remains the same. In effect, it's the inverse of axiom #2, and it's inversely wrong. If anything, social change has been accelerated since the industrial revolution, especially at the micro-level (i.e., how office and information workers do their stuff).

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