Prediction is hard, especially about the future

In 1987 both the Internet and the Soviet Union existed. Twenty-five years later, only one of these things exists, and it’s not the one that most people would have predicted in 1987, or even the one that they had heard of.

This comes to mind because I recently came across this set of time capsule predictions from notable SFF authors of 1987. Like all retro-futuristic predictions, this one is a lovely mixture of the wrong and the ridiculous, and it gives us all a chance to smirk at how smart we are for living in the future that those poor schlubs could only guess about. I especially note how pessimistic most of these gentlemen are (and they are all gentlemen). Many of them predicted nuclear war or ecological collapse; economic troubles were widely forecast, and the human population was routinely overestimated. (In fact, nearly every person who mentioned population used the number eight billion, which is so coincidental that I assume the number was the official estimate at the time. It also overshoots the actual world population by about a billion.)

I’m particularly amused by Isaac Asimov’s short prediction, which I quote in its entirety:

Assuming we haven’t destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war, there will be 8-10 billion of us on this planet—and widespread hunger. These troubles can be traced back to President Ronald Reagan who smiled and waved too much.

The cause of all our problems

Gregory Benford made this puzzling remark:

The outer-directed, social-issues consciousness of the USA, only nascent in 1987, will have peaked and run its course…leading to a fresh period of inward-directed values, perhaps even indulgence…though there will be less ability to indulge.

1987 was the beginning of a period of social consciousness? And it’s supposed to have run out of steam by now? I can safely say that I have no idea what he’s talking about, not even enough of an idea to say for sure that he was wrong.

Lots of people predicted computers would be important. No one mentioned the Internet. Other technological predictions, about space missions to Mars or the moon, about nanotechnology, and about renewable energy, all failed to come true.

And of course no one guessed that the Soviet Union would break up, especially not in two short years.

But what’s the point of reading about failed predictions of the past if you aren’t willing to make a few predictions of your own? So here are my predictions for the year 2037:

  • The Internet will be ubiquitous in economic and social interactions. It will, in fact, be so omnipresent that no one will think about it much.
  • The US will still have the world’s strongest economy, but not by much. Its main competitors will be the developed economies of China, India, and Brazil.
  • The EU will still exist, but it will have fewer countries in it than it does today.
  • Islamic terrorism will largely be a thing of the past.
  • Humans, but not Americans, will have been back to the moon. Most likely the newest moon visitors will be Chinese. No manned mission to Mars will yet have taken place.
  • The Singularity will not have happened. There will be no strong AI. There will be no contact with extraterrestrials. We will not run out of oil, nor will there be any game-changing renewable energy source. There will be no radical breathroughs in biology, cryogenics, nanotechnology, or robotics. Instead, there will be modest, incremental advances in all of these fields (except the Singularity and extraterrestrials, because those are pure fantasy).
  • Global warming will still be going on, but nothing much will be done about it. It turns out that incrementally adapting to global climate change is easier than radically revamping the entire world economy in an attempt to stop it.
  • There will be wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.


  1. Well, Wolverton and Card managed to make some predictions that, read today, don’t seem completely silly; they’re also among the few listed whose predictions were not predicated on a belief that Reagan would bring about nuclear death for the planet, it seems.

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