Popular Science

How predicting the future shifted from fiction to fact—and what we lost along the way

From mobile phones to artificial wombs: what a visionary set of predictions from a century ago can teach us about our attempts to forecast the future today.
We could use a little more whimsy in our forecasting.
We could use a little more whimsy in our forecasting. (Unsplash/)

The findings of this research were first covered by The Conversation as part of its Insights series.

From shamanic ritual to horoscopes, humans have always tried to predict the future. And while some of those practices may sound arcane, modern life still relies on prophecy. From the weather forecast to the time the GPS says we'll reach our destination, our lives are built around futuristic fictions.

Of course, while we may sometimes feel betrayed by our local meteorologist, trusting their foresight is a lot more rational than putting the same stock in a TV psychic. This shift toward more evidence-based guesswork came about in the 20th century: futurologists began to see what prediction looked like when based on a scientific understanding of the world, rather than the traditional bases of prophecy (religion, magic, or dream). Genetic modification, space stations, wind power, artificial wombs, video phones, wireless internet, and cyborgs were all foreseen by "futurologists" from the 1920s and 1930s. Such visions seemed like science fiction when first published.

They all appeared in the brilliant and innovative "To-Day and To-Morrow" books from the 1920s, which signal the beginning of our modern conception of futurology, in which prophecy gives way to scientific forecasting. This series of more than 100 books provided humanity— and science fiction—with key insights and inspiration. I've been immersed in them for the last few years while writing the first book about these fascinating works, and have found that these pioneering futurologists have a lot to teach us.

In their early responses to the technologies emerging at the time—aircraft, radio, recording, robotics, television—the writers grasped how those innovations were changing our sense of who we are. And they often gave startlingly canny previews of what was coming next, as in the case of Archibald Low, who in his 1924 book “Wireless Possibilities” predicted the mobile phone: “In a few

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