What’s ahead in this shiny New Year stretched out in front of us? Since the dawn of civilization, humans have wanted to see into the future. Seers, prophets, and fortune-tellers of all sorts have responded to — and preyed upon — the primal desire we have to reduce the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
This time of year, we’re bombarded with glib and confident “experts” forecasting everything from the economy, to global warming, to financial markets, social trends, weather, and lots more. Predictions often tell us more about the predictor’s explanatory style and values than the future. Optimists sometimes make wildly rosy predictions while pessimists typically foresee doom and destruction. Most forecasters project a glass half full or half empty extrapolation of today’s best or worst trends.
Neuroscience shows the survival of our species depended heavily on our primitive brains letting negatives stick like Velcro and positives slide off like Teflon. We’re programmed to pay more attention to danger and fear. Forecasters (and politicians) playing to our dark side can trigger those menacing and powerful emotions.
With the benefit of time and hindsight we can now laugh at these dire predictions:
- In the 1890s, German Max Nordau, wrote, Degeneration, a runaway bestseller forewarning the moral collapse of society through crime, immigration, and urbanization. He called it a Black Death of degeneration and hysteria.
- A 1901 American bestseller was The Simple Life by Charles Wagner arguing that materialism was dying, and people were going to migrate back to the farm.
- Oswald Springer’s 1923 bestseller, The Decline of the West, warned that civilization was on the brink of collapse and optimism was cowardice.
- Stanford University biologist, Paul Ehrlich, published The Population Bomb, in 1968 with this catastrophic warning, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
In his book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Harvard professor, researcher, and author Steven Pinker’s notes a long list of failed predictions and writes, “prognosticators are biased toward scaring people.”
Technology is a major driving of change and is changing very unpredictably as we see in these forecasts:
- Lee DeForest, the “father of radio,” said in 1926 “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”
- Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield predicted in 1959 that mail would soon be delivered by packing letters into guided missiles.
- In 1968, the chair of Ontario Hydro said, “I feel safe in predicting that man will have unlimited electrical energy to shape his future during the next hundred years. The more energy we deliver, the lower will be the unit cost of electricity.”
- In 1980, AT&T projected that 900,000 mobile phones might be sold by 2000. There were 109 million sold by then and over 17 billion sold to date.
- Experts forecasted in 2000 that 30 gigawatts of electricity would be generated worldwide through wind power by 2010. It was 200 gigawatts and reached 370 by 2015. Solar power has generated over 17 times what was predicted in 2000.
- Sir Alan Sugar, a British business magnate, and media personality said in 2005, “Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput.” As of 2014, 390 million units were sold.
- Just before the iPhone launch in 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer laughed it off, “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”
So, enjoy the latest rounds of prediction fiction. Some can be good fun. Treat the diviners of doom like going to a horror movie — have a frightful scare, treat it as entertainment, and get back to reality.
Speaking of reality… tomorrow, we will publish our January issue of The Leader Letter. We kick off this issue and the New Year with our annual look at how the world keeps getting better and better — despite all those gloomy headlines and dismal predictions.
We also take a look back at last year’s top blogs to help your reflection and renewal. We see how Peter Drucker’s thought leadership continues to guide leaders and organizations. These transformations are vital to continuous change and development in our unpredictable and fast-changing world.
I predict a year of unpredictable events. It’ll be filled with good and bad, joy and sadness, and plenty of ups and downs. Positive progress will continue to quietly march forward while “the news” diverts our attention and feeds our fears.