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The history of (badly) predicting the future and what we can learn from it

An artist's impression of the future of commuting: a futuristic monorail to transport people to and from suburbia and their waiting families.  (Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images)
An artist's impression of the future of commuting: a futuristic monorail to transport people to and from suburbia and their waiting families. (Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images)

One thing is certain about the future: Humans will continue trying to predict it.

Throughout history, our species has spent a lot of time trying to predict the end of the world, artificial intelligence taking over civilization and everything in between. But we frequently get the future all wrong.

The future fascinates humans because it’s “fundamentally unknowable,” says Rutgers University history professor Jamie Petruska, who wrote the book “Looking Forward: Prediction and Uncertainty in Modern America.”

“Humans just don’t like uncertainty. Governments, institutions and markets don’t like uncertainty either,” Petruska says. “Prediction offers reassurance by creating an illusion of control over an unpredictable future, while at the same time, sometimes influencing decision-making in the present. So prediction, in a way, is really about control.”

Even so, sometimes people predict a dark future like World War III or the nuclear Armageddon anticipated throughout the Cold War. These doomsday predictions started in top-secret classified briefings but then became pervasive in popular culture, Petruska says.

Petruska recalls finding a special issue of Collier’s magazine from 1951 at her grandfather’s house called “Preview of The War We Do Not Want.” Set in the 1960s, the magazine provided detailed coverage of a fictional, nuclear World War III between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The long history of these stories in TV, movies and books reflect the allure of utopian and dystopian futures, she says.

“These highly detailed depictions of an apocalypse — which of course are quite terrifying — play a role in ensuring that that kind of war never happens,” Petruska says, “potentially kind of scaring us into doing something into action.”

Many infamously wrong predictions pertain to the internet. Back in the 1990s, people predicted the internet would collapse. In 1997, Popular Mechanics reported a cover story on the death of the internet that said too many people were signing on, causing gridlock.

“For most of the major innovations in telecommunications — telegraph, telephone, television, the computer, the internet — you can go back through the historical record and find similar predictions claiming that this will be just a passing fad,” Petruska says. “You can also find predictions celebrating the transformative potential of those technologies.”

As hype surrounds predictions about AI, Petruska says it’s important to ask who is making projections, who stands to benefit or profit and what political or cultural assumptions shape them.

“There’s not a single experience of the future that is the same for everyone,” she says. “So it’s important to remember in the context of AI, the context of the climate crisis, that people will experience different futures depending on where they live.”

Thomas Danielian produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Julia Corcoran adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.