Futurology: predicting today’s world, a century ago.

Dimitris Dimitriadis
4 min readNov 22, 2020

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We need now more than ever to learn from past examples about the potential of future thinking

Since the beginning of the world people always have tried to predict the future, in a prophetic manner, using different ways such as religion, magic, horoscope. Since the beginning of the 20th-century people identified the need to base these predictions on a more evidence-based scientific way. Futurists back in the 1920s and 1930s have predicted video phones, wireless internet, wind power, and artificial wombs, all found in the innovative “To-Day and To-Morrow” books, clearly stating how all these innovations looking strange back then may change the way we live today. Nowadays, predictions are part of our daily futuristic life, dominated by scientific methodologies serving mostly corporate or government needs. Futurists back in the 1920’s even though they thought about the future in a scientific way they were also thinking about futures that would exist for other humanitarian reasons apart from governmental or corporate needs.

Kegan Paul’s To-day And To-Morrow Series 10 Volume Set — found at https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/10-volumes-kegan-pauls-day-morrow-1728213565

Forecasting future discoveries — Accurate predictions or false prophecies?

When it comes down to future thinking is really difficult to find out which separate path will lead to our genuine future. Futurists of To-Day and To-Morrow’s book made predictions of technological developments that were either impressively accurate and led to technological innovations that we use in our daily life (such as video phones, space travel to the moon, robotics, and air attacks on capital cities), or others which were completely inaccurate.

Let’s see some examples of these books and how and if they have predicted the future world discoveries of nowadays.

A brilliant example comes from J.B.S. Haldane’s book Daedalus; or, Science and the Future. He made foundational contributions to genetics and evolutionary biology and also found time to contribute to biochemistry, cosmology, and statistics. For instance, Haldane predicts that solar energy would play an important role in energy policy and also stated the upcoming energy insufficiency. He mentions the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen made possible through this energy source. He predicts the dwindling of fossil fuels and muses on other possible sources of energy, most notably wind energy. He imagines a time when longevity would be much higher and especially hopes for medical advances that would ameliorate women’s health after menopause.

Daedalus or Science and the Future

Oliver Stewart’s 1927 book, Aeolus or: The Future of the Flying Machine, contended that British craftsmanship would win over American large scale manufacturing. He figured travelers would use those small aircraft with a propeller for thrust and a freewheeling rotor on top for short-pull flights, moving for a long stretch to flying boats — traveler planes with boat-like bodies that could take off from, and land on, the ocean. Flying boats unquestionably had their vogue for spectacular journeys over the sea, yet vanished as aircrafts increased and longer reach and as more air terminals were manufactured.

Take another example, The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul by the scientist J.D.Bernal. Bernal presents a far-reaching vision of the future that encompasses space research. In his view, it will be possible for the conditions of civilization to reach a state of materialistic utopia. He thinks about mortality and what science might be able to do to extend it. He envisions a small sense organ for detecting wireless frequencies, eyes for infra-red, ultra-violet, and X-rays, ears for supersonics, detectors of high and low temperatures. What is most interesting about Bernal is how he imagined the World Wide Web, about 60 years before its original invention, without having any imagination that computers are needed to run it. And this is a real example of how far extended future thinking can go.

The past and the present

The combination of scientific expertise and creativity in these books has created a collection of ideas, somewhat interspersed between futurology and science fiction. It is this spirit of optimistic imagination that I think desperately needs to be re-injected into today’s forecasts.

Computers are widely used nowadays to predict the future, mainly by organizations or governments, using huge resources. The main techniques used to try to prepare for or predict the future is all well and good. But such approaches are deeply reductive as a model for thinking about the future more widely, or for thinking about other aspects of the future.

If we are about to compare To-Day and To-Morrow with the futurology of nowadays, we will realize how much more optimistic most of these writers were. Predicting futures today are more likely to be risky, or revealed by anxieties about disasters and pandemics.

Conclusion

It seems like nowadays we are at an impasse in future thinking and in danger to predict positive changes. We need to compare earlier attempts to predict the future, in order to help us make better predictions. If today’s Futurists see how different people in different societies throughout the centuries understood the past or the future perhaps, they would be better equipped to devise a future we could live with. We need now more than ever to learn from these past examples about the potential and dangers of future thinking. We need to look closely at what might help us to be better futurists, as well as at what might be blocking our vision.

This article is inspired by Professor’s Max Saunders book Imagined Futures: Writing, Science, and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book

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Dimitris Dimitriadis

👩‍🚀 Digital Futurist 📢 International Speaker 🎙 Social Media Podcaster