The Future in the Past

People have not always thought about the future in the way we do today. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18 th century that people truly started behaving as though humans had any real control over their destiny (apart from appealing to their gods). Since then, thinking about the future has become a burgeoning activity and literally thousands of books have been written on thinking about and (especially) planning for the future. If one restricts one’s attention to the longer-range future and the human condition, the list of books becomes much shorter and less daunting. The five books below each represent an historical attempt at thinking about the longer-range human future in a particularly interesting way. Even so, five books devoted to this aspect of the future may be too many for a list of this sort. Nonetheless, these are each fascinating accounts in their own right.

The Economic Consequences of the Peace — 1995 (1920)

John Maynard Keynes

For long-term policy analysts, this is a ‘smoking gun’. Correct long-term policies are always easy to see in retrospect. This is a case of a correct long-term policy analysis seen in prospect. Keynes was a participant at the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. He resigned his (minor) position and wrote this economic analysis that argued (as he had at the Conference) that the reparations conditions were too punitive and that they would leave not only Germany in economic ruins, but the remainder of Europe as well. He even proposes a program for revision of the treaty. Most interesting is what he suggests will happen if the treaty is not revised: “If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and the progress of our generation.”

The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty Years — 1967

Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Weiner

This is Herman Kahn’s classic text on thinking about the longer-range future. He starts off with multifold long-term trends that he thinks have been going on for centuries and proceeds to some fascinating projections on population and per capita Gross Domestic Product. He also lays out 100 things that are ‘sure’ to come true by the year 2000. Depending on how tough a grader one is, he gets between 20 and 80 of them right. More interesting is the difficulty one has in making predictions that are measurable in the future. For example, how would you grade “Relatively effective appetite and weight control” or “Major reduction in hereditary and congenital defects”?. The more important parts of the book are Chapter 1 where he lays out the argument for the utility in thinking longer range and Chapter 10 where he spells out 10 ways in which doing future-oriented policy research can be helpful. One piece of advice that still echoes today is, “As long as we are in a state of uncertainty about both ends and means, the most important principle may be to refrain from attempting to legislate for the future in detail. Social policies should be devised that leave large amounts of freedom… and that, so far as possible, avoid foreclosing avenues of future revision and new decision.”

The Next 200 Years: A Scenario for America and the World — 1976

Herman Kahn, William Brown, and Leon Martel

This is a companion piece to Kahn’s book on the year 2000. In it he basically responds to the doom-and-gloom scenario that was laid out in the famous Limits to Growth study from the Club of Rome. Kahn argues that population is the primary driver of the longer-range future and that high world population growth rates around 1976 were an anomaly when looking at historic rates. He thought that the population growth rates would decline after 1976 (which they have) and that would make all the difference. He argues at length that if population levels off at about 15 billion people (probably a high estimate in today’s thinking) that the major problems addressed by the Limits to Growth study could be handled by technology. For those who think that population is the primary driver of the world’s problems, this is a well-argued screed for creating a sustainable earth if we can get population under control. In any event, this book is useful for its serious attempt at looking as far as 200 years into the future.

The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting — 1999 (1976)

Daniel Bell

Daniel Bell is responsible for popularizing the phrase “post-industrial society.” He saw clearly in 1972 that we were entering an era that was markedly different than the industrial society that had dominated the first three quarters of the twentieth century. Part of the importance of this book is that Bell can be characterized as both a sociologist and a futurist. This is an excellent example of the role that sociology can play in seeing with some accuracy well into the future. (Some have argued that all longer-range thinking is basically sociology because of the dominance of social institutions in driving longer-range outcomes.)

Bell interestingly starts his arguments with Karl Marx’s characterization of the capitalist society and how Marx sees it playing out. Bell goes on to show where the rise of the middle class in a knowledge society has thwarted Marx’s vision of a world of capitalists and subjugated workers, thus ameliorating the tension that Marx thought would lead to the eventual dominance of the workers. Bell’s 75 page foreword for the 1999 edition makes fascinating reading as he looks back on how he did.

Future Shock — 1971

Alvin Toffler

Toffler, a noted futurist, has written several books that are candidates for the list of 50. This is his classic book on the accelerating pace of life and was chosen both because of its broad futuristic sweep and its publication date (1971) – giving us a chance to see how well it has aged. To me, the most important contribution of this book is its serious attempt to pin down the concept of accelerating change. For Toffler the key concept is transience – the “temporariness” or impermanence of every day modern life. Transience “provides the missing link between sociological theories of change and the psychology of individual human beings.” By describing the increasing transience in man’s relations to things, places, people, organizations and ideas, Toffler makes the case that it is this pervasive transience today (in the ‘70s) that defines the nature of the accelerating change of life and is causing the psychological effects of future shock.

The book is full of speculations about the future. Some of them, including a characterization of the potential of the early internet, are decidedly prescient. Others have long since been overtaken and still others seem less likely to come about than they might have in the ‘70s. In contrast to the book’s record on speculations, its arguments related to transience and future shock have held up rather well – again pointing to the utility of social science in thinking about the longer-range future.

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