In retrospect: chosen by David Jones

The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-three Years

Macmillan: 1967. £3.15

The above volume was perhaps the most professional attempt made during the 1960s to predict the world of ad 2000. Its authors worked at the Hudson Institute, a respected US independent think-tank, and their remit covered several aspects of the world 33 years ahead.

One aspect was economic — how rich the world, and the different countries within it, would be by 2000. Knowing that the economy, and society in general, was driven largely by scientific and technical developments, the tank-thinkers made guesses in these areas too. They were greatly concerned by politics and wars. They even tried to predict sociological changes — the feel and character of society in the future. Like all sensible crystal-ball gazers, they hedged their bets. They expounded not only the most likely ‘surprise-free projection’, but a range of spreads around it, together with many possible surprises and variants. Their reference region was, of course, the United States, but their scope was global. How well did they do?

In economics, their forecasts tended to be on the high side. Thus, for the United States, they predicted a GNP for the year 2000 of (in 1965 dollars) $1.3–4.5 trillion, with a best guess of $3.2 trillion. Taking $1 (1965) = $5.14 (1998), this is $7.1–23 trillion, with a best guess of $17 trillion. The published figure for 1998 was $8.5 trillion.

Their view of the technological future was similarly bold and expansive. They listed 100 significant developments they expected before the year 2000, and feared they would miss many others. In fact, fewer than 30 of their 100 have come to pass, mainly without much impact. They also suggested 35 “less likely” possibilities, such as direct input into the human memory, a drug equivalent to Aldous Huxley's “soma”, and genetic modifications taking human beings beyond the definition of Homo sapiens. Perhaps mercifully, not one of their less-likely list has yet been realized.

Kahn and Wiener's few accurate predictions dealt mostly with electronic communications. They successfully foresaw home video-recording, automated banking systems, pervasive high-capacity data transmission, mobile phones, satellite broadcasting, the universal business use of computers, and new pervasive techniques for the surveillance, monitoring and control of individuals and organizations. But they did not miss as much as they had feared. The most noticeable absentees are the global positioning system, the personal computer (instead they envisaged universal ‘thin client’ terminals, served by central time-sharing mainframes), the pocket calculator and the video game. Technology has not advanced as dramatically as they had guessed.

In their political prophesies, the tank-thinkers concentrated on the international scene — war and inter-bloc conflicts. They projected the cold war forward from 1967 in many ways, some culminating in nuclear exchanges (a professional concern of the Hudson Institute at the time), and others maintaining a tense stability. Some of their scenarios featured an erosion of communism, but none its outright collapse. Only the simple-minded genius of Ronald Reagan ever imagined that outcome.

But the most interesting speculations in the book are sociological. Here the dangerous optimism of the 1960s shines out clearly. Kahn and Wiener's predictions of economic growth, and the boundless wealth to come, led them to predict a “post-industrial society” whose main problem would be making the best use of leisure time. As they grew richer, such societies would evolve into a sort of hippy paradise, with perhaps half the population more or less voluntarily and cheerfully loafing on the vast output of an automated industrial system. Thirty-three years later, that boundless wealth, in GNP terms at least, has largely come our way; and yet we have somehow failed to enjoy or even notice it. Most working people feel as pressured as ever, perhaps more so. And the increase of the underclass, never anticipated by the most doom-laden prophets, has disfigured even the richest modern societies.

I cannot blame the tank-thinkers for failing to foresee the ramifications of the social trends of their day. The 1960s hippies, pursuing happiness as the Declaration permits them, caught it up in the form of addictive drugs — and lit a vast social conflagration that is still spreading. The feminist revolution, the environmental movement, the growth of global migration and ethnic cleansing, the eruption of AIDS: all these would have been beyond the most insightful of prophets.

Kahn and Wiener did, however, glimpse the spread of electronic totalitarianism. Their technical predictions included some shrewd guesses at how, by the merging of big databanks and the widespread installation of surveillance equipment, whole populations could be routinely and continually monitored. They clearly foresaw the erosion of privacy. To them this was an evil, a threat to freedom. Our more enlightened age knows it as a safeguard. Only the gaze of innumerable cameras saves us from the underclass. Only by allowing the government to peruse all our bank accounts can we discourage the tax-dodgers and the money-launderers. Only when every telephone conversation and every Internet connection is logged, and even recorded, can the gangsters, terrorists and pushers be kept in check. Freedom must sometimes be destroyed to save it.

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Jones, D. In retrospect: chosen by David Jones. Nature 403, 20 (2000).

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