Theoretically, one benefit of knowing what is going to happen – is being able to prepare for that situation. There is a better chance of taking advantage of future eventualities if one is prepared for those possibilities: public systems, policies and events can be better utilized for the general good if we can plan today with some foresight of tomorrow.
And it is also true that one might profit from that knowledge. One of the reasons prognostication seems to focus on technology is that the ability to know and invest in the “next big thing” carries some heavy profit potential. (And to some extent technology is more discreet and easier to isolate and identify than political or social movements.)
Predicting the winning products of tomorrow – and the lifestyles those new products enable – has been a continuing effort for centuries. Sometimes, retrospective views of the future have been collected into books, like The Wonderful Future That Never Was: Flying Cars, Mail Delivery by Parachute, and Other Predictions from the Past (Popular Mechanics) (Hearst, 2010). This is a recent book edited by Gregory Benford (and the editors of Popular Mechanics) which holds up past predictions of the future from the 1930’s-40’s-50’s to show, in some cases, how close the prognosticators came. But mostly to show how much they missed.
It is disappointing to many to see how much was missed: the flying cars, the free energy, the integrated cities and so forth. But in some ways, we may have exceeded many of the predictions in the area of communications, and the results of advanced communications in business, entertainment and personal life.
Would it have been possible to predict the future of specific inventions – jumping forward from a crude beginning to the more sophisticated object we have today?
A recent article – Mr. Edison’s Kindle – posted in the Technologizer blog, suggested such a possibility. It posits the idea that one of Thomas Edison’s (lesser) inventions may have suggested the future of electronic publishing – represented by the Amazon Kindle. And the piece then explored more than a dozen other early inventions of the early 20th century that might have hinted at – or laid the groundwork for – modern technologies we have come to love, like portable music players, wireless phones, podcasts, all-in-one-printers and more.
Ironically, the most improbable connection may be the title example. Mr. Edison in 1911 proposed printing on thin pages of nickel that could be used and re-used to show content, what the authors claim as a non-electronic version of a personal publication device. More than a bit of a stretch – but the article was intended to be impressionistic, not representational. Edison did indeed have some pretty whacky ideas that never materialized in real products – including this one.
But, in spite of the occasional reach, the examples are worth reading about, fun to consider and inspire some thought. Are you in the presence of a device that might evolve into yet another world-bending paradigm shifter? (Maybe I will be when my iPad2 arrives?)
With this bit of insight – carrying the past into our present – do we learn something that would enable us to assess current technologies of our present – and project a vision of what they might become in the future?
An interesting project in this regard is a proposal for “A History of the Future in 100 Objects.” This project is in the process of gathering funding at KickStarter – an innovative way for individuals to fund independent and creative research and development.
The project – looking more than fully funded at this writing – was inspired by a BBC program, “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” The program explored a special online exhibit and timeline collected at the British Museum, which was intended to represent important milestones in the history of man through 100 key artifacts.
Selecting the objects that will also represent the future is obviously a daunting challenge. And who will know whether it’s accurate? But the extraordinary evidence of insight provided by crowd-sourcing such soft challenges – offers an intriguing opportunity to examine what a “higher” level of consciousness might create.
— Rich Bowers