What will the world be like in 100 years?
People of 100 years ago seemed to love this question. Newspapers of the 1920s are full of predictions about our time, often featuring gee-whiz developments like flying cars and teleportation. But as I looked for predictions from 1922 about the year 2022, one very different article loomed large. It was written by the British novelist W. L. George, and reprinted in regional newspapers across America.
His prediction about 2022? Meh.
Instead, he offered an important truth about how the world works — and it helped him accurately imagine the world we live in today.
It’s also an insight we should continue applying to our lives now, because it can help us feel better about our own future.
George opens by saying that, although “the advancement of science will be amazing” in 2022, he doesn’t think it’ll be all that mind-blowing. At least, not compared to the technological leaps people made between 1822 and 1922. What’s a rocketship to Mars when the world has already gone from horse-and-buggy to railroad?
There’s merit to that. Although we today think of our digital era as epic and unprecedented, we can’t forget that, a century ago, people witnessed an absolute transformation of what seemed possible — from information moving faster than a physical object (thanks to the telegraph) to light magically appearing in a home (thanks to electricity). Ours is not the only amazing time. It might not even be the most amazing.
But here’s the insight of George’s that really struck me: Mankind “erects the new while retaining the old.”
That particular line came from a paragraph George wrote about cities in 2022. Contemporaries of his might have imagined floating buildings or entirely new skylines, but he instead wrote that cities of the future will just be a hybrid of the old and new. For example:
He then applies this kind of logic to pretty much everything — taking versions of what he’s already seen and then improving upon them, rather than imagining a full reboot. Like:
Gender dynamics. "It is practically certain that in 2022 nearly all women will have discarded the idea that they are primarily ‘makers of men.’ Most fit women will then be following an individual career. All positions will be open to them and a great many women will have risen high. … But it is unlikely that women will have achieved equality with men. Cautious feminists such as myself realize that things go slowly and that a brief hundred years will not wipe out the effects on women of 30,000 years of slavery."
Transit. "Railroads … will probably have ceased to carry passengers except for suburban traffic. Railroads may continue to handle freight, but it may be that even this will be taken from them by road traffic, because the automobile does not have to carry the enormous overhead charges of tracks."
Communications. "The people of the year 2022 will probably never see a wire outlined against the sky; it is practically certain that wireless telegraphy and wireless telephones will have crushed the cable system long before the century is done."
Entertainment. "The movies will be more attractive … That is the figures on the screen will not only move, but they will have their natural colors and speak with ordinary voices. Thus, the stage as we know it today may entirely disappear, which does not mean the doom of art, since the movie actress of 2022 will not only need to know how to smile but also how to talk."
Power. "Coal will not be exhausted, but our reserves will be seriously depleted, and so will those of oil. … but it is likely that by that time a great deal of power will be obtained from tides, from the sun, probably from radium and other forms of radial energy."
Of course, he does overreach in places, like in some of those examples above. Live theater still exists, for example, though its reach is far smaller than TV and movies. And in some places he really swings and misses, like:
Housing. “Few private dwellings will be built; in their stead will rise the community dwellings, where the majority of mankind will be living. They will probably be located in garden spaces and rise to forty or fifty floors, housing easily four or five thousand families.”
Food. “It is conceivable, though not certain, that in 2022 a complete meal may be taken in the shape of four pills. This is not entirely visionary; I am convinced that corned beef hash and pumpkin pie will still exist, but the pill lunch will roll by their side.”
He also wonders if we’ll build glass ceilings atop our cities. Nah.
As I write in my forthcoming book, we often fear change because it feels like a wholesale replacement. New appears to replace old, and that leaves us feeling disoriented. But that’s almost never the case. We don’t replace; we integrate. We take the best of the old, and the best of the new, and create something that’s better but also familiar.
Today, we see that happening most visibly with work. Remote work replaced offices during the pandemic, which led people to speculate that all work would be forever changed. It won’t. Instead, we will create a hybrid of these experiences. For example, I recently spoke with the real estate development team at a large restaurant chain. They said the pandemic taught them that not every site visit was necessary — leading to less travel, and more time home with family. But that doesn’t mean all site visits are gone. And it doesn’t mean all meetings are virtual. And it doesn't mean the office is gone forever.
W.L. George was right: Mankind erects the new while retaining the old.
We’ll learn that even more in 2022. That’s my prediction.
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Cover credit: Newspapers.com