The Plight of the Futurologist - Part One
not an easy task trying to predict the future; just ask the
former president of IBM, Thomas J Watson, who, in 1958,
confidently stated that 'there is a world market for about
five computers.' Or the 19th century British MP, who
extrapolated from the rate of population growth in London at
the time, and the number of horses needed to support such growth, that by the middle of the
twentieth century the capital would be six feet deep in
Most predictions like these emerge from a 'more of the same'
thesis; that is to say, the forecaster assumes that the
future will be just like the present, except for
trend-derived growth in whatever area their prediction
The obvious problem with this approach is that the future
isn't always like the present; motor cars replaced the
horse, and silicon chips replaced the valve - both
paradigm shifting inventions that were unforeseen by the two
forecasters mentioned above.
The other common, but equally hopeless, methodology is the
'end of the world is nigh' one. This operates on the
principle that resolute pessimism, if maintained for long
enough, will at some point be mirrored by reality, and that
the myriad false positives that occur in the meantime will
be instantly forgotten when the seers' predictions
ultimately (but no more than coincidentally) come true.
Occasionally this works; a few of the more grim constant
forecasters of economic recessions and depressions, for
example, have managed to revel in the glory of their
predictions being accurate for the 10% of times they
actually hit the mark, whilst neatly sidestepping any
criticism or disbelief in the efficacy of their methods for
the 90% of times when they're so wide of the mark that the
services of a pack of bloodhounds are required to retrieve
Mostly, though, when the boldly asserted dates of
Armageddon, oil supplies drying up, or robots doing the
housework, pass without any of these scenarios actually
happening, the forecasters are finally branded by sensible people as deluded nuts. Unfortunately, this
judgement is usually settled upon post facto; prior to the
event there will always be those who are seduced by the
certainty with which the forecaster proclaims their vision
of what will be.
All this said, I now propose to join the charlatans, the
deluded and the plain mad, and offer you the first four of
my sixteen predictions for 2020. I do not claim that they
are anything other than speculative thoughts, but I have
tried to avoid falling into the common traps mentioned
above, to which too many before me have fallen victim.
1) Oil won't have run out
A tad obvious, maybe, but a safe first prediction. I will
also go as far as to say that peak oil will not have been
reached by this date, either. Oil is a finite resource, but
efficiency savings and alternative methods of production
(oil from shale, for one) will ensure that growing global
demand is met, at least in the short to medium term.
2) The internal combustion engine will still be alive and
The recent availability of electric cars with
petrol-equalling performance, such as the Tesla, has led
many commentators to question whether the hundred year
dominance of the internal combustion engine is about to come
to an end. It isn't, of course - the major disadvantages of
electric cars, such as their lack of range, high cost and
the fact that the power they use is still primarily
generated by fossil fuels, mean that society will not be
abandoning petrol and diesel any time soon.
However, this doesn't mean that the status quo will
continue ad infinitum (although the band might, given their
history). Expect to see high performance KERS systems
trickle down from F1 into supercars, high end saloons and
sports cars in the near future; starting with Ferrari,
McLaren, Mercedes and BMW first, and followed closely by
Lotus, Audi and Porsche. These won't resemble the limp and
heavy hybrid drivetrains seen in Hondas and Toyotas, but
will instead offer meaningful power boosts, allowing smaller
capacity, more fuel efficient engines, with consequently
lower CO2 emissions.
Electric cars will be more widely available, and cheaper
too, but will be marketed predominantly as city cars rather
than as long distance transportation.
3) Congestion will ease
Politicians, or to be more precise, politicians and
their clueless advisors, generally seem to be fans of the
'more of the same' view of the future. In the context of
transport planning, this has led to to their implementation
of increasingly convoluted and expensive systems to 'ease'
congestion in major cities, few of which can be said to have
been wholly successful.
The main problem is their obsession with creating an
artificial and limited binary opposition: public transport
good, private transport bad. In reality, the former is
usually expensive, uncomfortable, and unlikely to take you
exactly where you want to go, unless you live in one train
station and work at another, whilst the latter is
comfortable, does not require you to share your space with a
person who has cracked open a can of Stella Artois at 9am,
but is often a slow and inefficient means by which to travel
Congestion is unlikely to be eased by policies that
adhere to this overly simplistic view of transport choices
as 'moral' or 'immoral'; repeated attempts to make public
transport work, in the UK at least, have failed, yet, like
Einstein's insane person, we do the same thing over and over
again, and expect different results.
What will ease congestion is a paradigm shift in the way
in which people engage in work. The proliferation of
broadband, and the ever increasing processing power of our
PCs, Macs and mobile devices, has already begun to make the
notion of a fixed physical place of work seem strangely
old-fashioned. Ten years down the line, and with a million
new applications having been invented, for many, the office,
and the attendant commute, will be a relic from the past.
4) We won't be drowning/burning up* (*delete as applicable)
The human capacity to worry that the end is near has
been a constant throughout much of civilisation, showing
that even when we had more important things to worry about,
such as not starving to death, we still had the capacity to
create even worse imagined fates.
From the Jews' notion of Armageddon, through to the more
modern concept of the complete obliteration of mankind by
nuclear holocaust, biological warfare or global warming, no
generation seems to have been complete without its own
particular spin on the age-old 'we're all going to die'
Fortunately, we're not. All going to die, that is. Nor
are we, in the Western world, at least, going to be drowning
in sea water caused by rising ocean levels, or finding our
land becoming desertified, despite what environmentalists
would like you to believe.
All of this will not happen, not because I believe that
scientists are wrong about global warming, but because of
the simple aphorism that necessity (and the attendant money
to be made) is the mother of invention. Capitalism feeds on
a market, and when that market is as big as saving the
world, the solutions will be rapidly created.