A century ago, newspapers used to print lots of predictions about the future. They’d usually look 100 years out — to our time — and make bold pronouncements about what was to come.
Sometimes, they’d even invite students to do it.
Then the tradition stopped. I don’t know why.
But in this newsletter, I am proud to bring the predictions back. That’s because, without realizing it, I inspired a group of grade-school students in Wales to make predictions about what’ll happen 100 years from now — and they’re allowing me to share them.
Why are these worth reading? I will offer two reasons:
1. It’s fun. Do you always need a reason?
2. Oh fine. Here’s a reason: Because a lot of people believe they know what’ll happen in the future. They are almost all wrong. So let’s gain some perspective on what we really know is coming — and what we most certainly don’t.
Here’s how this all started:
I have an end-of-year tradition for myself: I love searching newspaper archives from a century ago, seeking predictions about the year I am about to enter. When I did this in advance of 2021, by looking at predictions published in 1921, I found some eerily accurate ones about our modern lives. I then published a roundup of them.
The greatest predictions from 1921 came from a famous electrical engineer at the time named Charles Steinmetz. Among his foresight, he predicted Spotify:
Sure, a minority of us are streaming opera these days. But good on him: Great big idea; lacking on specifics. He also predicted home heating and air conditioning:
But not all predictions were so accurate. Students of 1921 predicted all sorts of crazy things, including that nobody in 2021 will travel by boat across the Atlantic. Know why? Because everyone now goes “under it in a tunnel.”
Alas, we don’t go under the Atlantic in a tunnel — but then again, maybe this student was on to something. We can cross the English Channel in a tunnel. And we’re no longer really boat-bound — now we’ve got planes to jet between continents. Not to mention space tourism.
Anyway, I published all of this many months ago. And recently, out of nowhere, I got an email from Daryl John, the senior deputy headteacher of Milford Haven School in South West Wales.
“To inspire and engage our pupils,” he wrote me, “we used your article to create a range of inspirational tasks across a range of subjects, called 'Life in 2121.’”
Then he sent me a delightful roundup of his students’ predictions for life 100 years from now. Even better: He said I could share some of their predictions with you. Ready?
According to a student named Callum, we will be “living on floating islands because of sea erosion.” He illustrated it:
Meanwhile, Lily imagines a medical utopia:
Cian imagines a world of automatic conveniences:
Laurie imagines domestic labor robots and teleporting to school. Daniel expects that we’ll be able to download new languages onto our brains. Brooke says Apple will be making the iPhone 45. Rowan predicts “a hologram suit that you can choose whatever clothes you want.” Layla, in a very lovely way, says that “In 100 years’ time, physical disability as we know it will be a thing of the past.”
Of course, we can’t prove or disprove any of their predictions (though sign me up for the hologram suit). In fact, the fun of reading these is in recognizing just how impossible it is to predict the future.
That’s because even when you're right, you're not really right. You might get some part of the idea, but not a good sense of how it'll work or how it'll fit into our society.
And that is the thing we should remember about predictions, particularly when someone tells you something very scary — about how new technologies will irreparably harm us, or how modern cultural shifts will be forever exacerbated.
It’s a fun intellectual exercise and all — but if someone says they can predict the future, you should remove them from your present.
When we predict the future, we often make a critical error: We imagine that some things will progress, but that other things will be fixed in time. Technology will become too advanced, for example, while our ability to manage it will be stuck in the past. Life will move too fast, because we imagine our current selves trying to navigate unfamiliar terrain.
In real life, of course, everything advances and evolves. People from 100 years ago, for example, would be mystified by our entertainment landscape today — just as I’m sure we would be if we saw whatever kind of immersive content people will be using 100 years from now. But I guarantee that those people will just be living normally, the same as we are now, and whatever media they have access to will feel totally common. That’s because Netflix wasn’t simply dropped down into the year 1921. Netflix was the culmination of a century’s worth of incremental advancement.
This is why I’m so disinterested in scary predictions about the future: We never account for all the advancing factors. We are limited by our own knowledge. We’re focused on one moving factor. We cannot imagine a future world in balance, because we cannot know how all the factors advance.
We didn't figure out how to make horses fly; we abandoned the horse, replaced it with an engine, and then ultimately figured out how to put that engine inside of a machine that can seemingly defy gravity (though, again, the car is still not flying), and reengineered our economy as a result.
My thought? We should spend less time worrying about the future, and instead take joy in our ability right now to begin shaping the future.
Leave the predictions to the students. It’s a good exercise! And frankly, they know as much as any of us about what’s coming next.
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