Roughly 50 years ago, on August 16, 1964, Isaac Asimov wrote an essay in the New York Times predicting what the world would be like fifty years hence. (He was inspired by the World’s Fair of 1964, to which my sister and I were taken by our parents.) It’s a longish piece, and concentrates on increasing population pressure as well as the ability of technology to deal with that pressure and also improve our lives.
I’ll highlight just three of his predictions, one mostly right, on partly right, and one wrong.
This is what he got mostly right:
In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000. Boston-to-Washington, the most crowded area of its size on the earth, will have become a single city with a population of over 40,000,000.
He was accurate on most of these. In fact, he slightly underestimated the world’s population, which is now 7.1 billion (see the U.S. and world population clock here), while the population of the U.S. is 317,309,000 and that of the Northeast Corridor is about 49.6 million.
This one wasn’t quite right:
The situation will have been made the more serious by the advances of automation. The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction. Part of the General Electric exhibit today consists of a school of the future in which such present realities as closed-circuit TV and programmed tapes aid the teaching process. It is not only the techniques of teaching that will advance, however, but also the subject matter that will change. All the high-school students will be taught the fundamentals of computer technology will become proficient in binary arithmetic and will be trained to perfection in the use of the computer languages that will have developed out of those like the contemporary “Fortran” (from “formula translation”).
That hasn’t quite come to pass, although MOOCs are making inroads into conventional teaching and most high-school students don’t know computer programming, due largely to the fact that computers are already user-friendly. And we still have conventional subjects in schools.
The next one is mostly wrong, due largely to Asimov’s inability to foresee the rise of the Internet and its ability to dispel boredom:
Even so, mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.
Yes, psychiatric drugs like antidepressants are on the rise (20% of Americans take them), but psychiatry is not our most important medical speciality, for most of its medications are dispensed by general practitioners.
More important, the world is becoming plugged in: when you walk down the street in an industrialized country, or ride in a bus or train, notice how many people are using their cellphones, iPads, iPods, or computers. Google Glass, the wearable computer, is next. This is the way the whole world will go. (My theory, which is mine, is that eventually the whole world will be like New York City.) Connectivity has brought tremendous advantages: think of the ability to access information at your desk instead of a making a laborious trip to the library. And electronic journals and instant publication have markedly sped up the progress of science. Well, perhaps we won’t be as bored, but we may lose the skills of interpersonal communication.
Asimov made many other predictions. In general I think he did pretty well—certainly better than I would have—but it’s remarkable how many other people got stuff wrong, usually predicting a more technologically advanced or ideologically repressive society than we have now. Remember Nineteen Eighty Four (written in 1949), or The Jetsons cartoon series, which supposedly took place in 2062?
h/t: OpenCulture via reader Jim E.