Lessons from past ideas about the future
Fri 29 Jun 2012 by Nigel Pinkerton.

Hollywood’s depictions of the future have a habit of being wildly off the mark. We know that the world didn’t end in 2000 and machines haven’t become sentient and enslaved the human race. As yet we haven’t succumbed to viruses, asteroids, zombies, or environmental catastrophe. But the good news is that in a couple of years we will all be flying to work.

Hollywood is more concerned with making good movies than accurate predictions, but there are people who make a profession out of speculating about the future. Economists, physicists, social scientists, and some religious sects often indulge in both short and long-term predictions. While these predictions don’t always hit the mark, a well-reasoned opinion about the future has significant value from a planning point of view.

One famous prediction from the 1960s, which became known as “Moore’s law”, said that the number of components in integrated circuits (a proxy for things like computer speed and memory) would continue to roughly double every two years for “at least ten years”. The prediction is famous because it has held true for so long.

If you wait until next year to buy that new computer or smart phone because you expect to get more bang for your buck, your behaviour has changed because of an assumption about the future. This price/quality trend is widely expected to continue even as Moore’s law reaches its theoretical limit – due to new technologies taking over.

Like many predictions about the future, Moore’s law became partly self-fulfilling. Naturally the existence of this prediction led to the setting of targets for research and development firms – helping to keep the trend going.

While some predictions are self-fulfilling in nature, others by their very existence can prevent the outcome that was predicted. The Y2K bug was a non-event at least partly because frightened companies spent millions making sure computer systems were robust before the clocked ticked over to midnight on 1 January 2000.

Of course there are plenty of examples of predictions being just plain wrong, such as a certain former CEO of IBM who thought the world market for computers would be “maybe five”.

Gazing into an oval ball

A recent article in The Economist observed that short-term predictions about society, technology, and the economy have a habit of being too optimistic.

People making these short-term predictions tend to underestimate the likelihood of negative shocks like the Global Financial Crisis. Because it is very difficult to know when these shocks will occur, they tend to be left out of predictions altogether or treated as a “downside scenario”.

On the other hand, long-term predictions tend to be too pessimistic because they underestimate the likelihood of large, rapid advances in technology. Few people foresaw the extent of China’s economic and technological success over the last 20 years, something that could not have been achieved on the back of “cheap labour” alone.

Perhaps the most famous example of long-term pessimism is the late 1700’s prediction by Thomas Malthus that the earth’s population would always expand to consume any surplus resources – ensuring the earth would soon run out of space and everybody would end up in poverty.

This is not the reality we see today – where birth rates have fallen below replacement in many developed countries and are slowing (albeit from a high level) in the developing world. Scaremongers like to quote the UN’s projection that the world’s population will reach 9 billion by 2050. What they don’t tell you is that most projections show the population levelling off at that level or even declining over the following 50 years.

Even if all the suitable land on the planet was put into agriculture, we could still increase our food production by using better tools, genetically superior crops, and better farming methods.

So what will happen to our modern society when, for example, oil finally begins to run out? One of my colleagues has a favourite saying that goes “the stone age didn’t end for lack of stones”. The implication is that peak oil is likely to be more of a gradual transition into alternative technologies than a sudden catastrophe.

The future, it seems, could be very bright indeed. There are respected scientists who believe that life expectancies could be about to improve dramatically. Meanwhile, the lottery of where you are born in the world is likely to have less of an impact on your economic and social standing.

But it seems to be in our nature to think the end is nigh. Whether we watch them on the TV or read about them in a journal, something the future is sure to bring more of is predictions of doom.

Nigel Pinkerton is an information analyst at Infometrics (

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