How Americans View and Predict the Future

ByABC News via via logo

Nov. 4, 2006 — -- Twenty-five years ago, leading futurists predicted vast underwater cities, a Soviet Union with an economy stronger than the U.S., and super intelligent computers in every home.

Our accomplishments and vision all come from the human animal's unique ability to ask one fundamental question: What's next?

A gnawing curiosity has moved America from covered wagons to space shuttles, an innate "forward lean" that takes the familiar and makes it fantastic.

"I think the ability to forecast is what has kept the human species alive ... the ability to predict and anticipate what was over the next ridge," said futurist Paul Saffo.

As wagon trains pushed west 150 years ago, Jules Verne imagined a trip "From the Earth to the Moon."

When director Fritz Lange got his first glimpse of New York nearly a century ago, he imagined "Metropolis," a vision that dropped audience jaws in 1927 and gave rise to everything from Buck Rogers to "The Matrix."

Through the years, as popular art re-imagined life, life strove to imitate art.

"I think 'Star Trek' itself is probably more responsible for sort of packing the ranks of rocket scientists than any other information out there," Popular Science editor-in-chief Mark Jannot told ABC News.

Future vision also reflects present mood. Will we live in the soulless chaos and gloom of "Blade Runner" or "Terminator"? Or the clean utopia of "Sleeper" or "The Jetsons"?

"We all want to have our own personal Rosie the Robot cleaning up after ourselves. And robot maids have been something that we've predicted over the years," Jannot said.

Popular Science has forecast the future for nearly a century, and while we're still waiting for our flying cars, our plastic houses and the lobotomy as a crime fighting tool, those predictions have gotten increasingly accurate.

"In 1973, we predicted that mobile telephones, which we called "take-along phones," would ... go into general use among businessmen and housewives alike," Jannot said.

The magazine also predicted satellites, space stations and Web cameras decades before their invention.

So, what's next?

"We've got the possibility of artificial intelligence and biotech advances and nanotech advances," added Jannot. "That all of that coming together in the near future might create a future that is so different from where we are now."

Saffo believes we can predict the future by examining the present.

"What we have learned in the past 30, 40 years of futurism and forecasting is to pay close attention to the collective actions of everyone in the present, as a way of understanding where things will turn out," he said. "Our actions in the present determine the outcomes in the future."

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