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Predicting the future is still a difficult task, even for experts

Francisco Miraval

I frequently speak with students and with community leaders about the possibility that around 2050 we humans will become trans-humans, that is, entities with holographic bodies and digital brains. Every time I mention that possibility, I receive the same answer: for different reasons, that will never happen.

I must emphasize I do not have any special gift to see the future and, therefore, I do not know if trans-humanism will ever become real. I only know it is difficult and it has always been difficult to predict the future, both what is going to happen and what is not going to happen.

For example, in 1923, Joseph Pulitzer (whose last name is now the name of a famous prize), published in his newspaper The World the opinions of several experts who ventured to anticipate how the world would look like in the 21st century, that is, our time. (I follow here an article published by Columbia Journalism Review, May-June 2013, pages 14-15.)

One of those experts, D. W. Griffith, a movie producer, was of the opinion that even one hundred years after his time there would be no instantaneous transmission of live movies. According to Griffith the reason was not future limitations of technology, but the fact that nobody would ever want to “waste time” watching movies.

Another expert, William Anderson, anticipated that in the 21st century only “abnormal and deprived” people (his words, not mine) would drink alcohol. And yet another expert, H.L. Mencken, was sure by this time the United States would once again be a British colony.

We can laugh at those predictions, especially the one about people not willing to waste their time watching movies. Tablets and smartphones were not anticipated by Griffith. In fact, people are willing to spend time watching movies. But the truth is predictions are always difficult, even for experts. Some of those experts, however, were right.

Ninety years ago, Mary Garrett Hay, of the New York City League of Women Voters, said women will become “politically powerful” and that the idea of electing a woman as president “will shock no one.”

And John Sumner was right when he said that in our time, as it happened in his time, there would be people doing business to take advantage of the “weaknesses of their brothers,” legally selling unhealthy products or services.

What kind of conclusion can we draw from the experts who Pulitzer consulted to anticipate life in our lifetime? Those who were right teach us that the marginalized people of one time could be the powerful people at a different time (Hay) and that some elements of human nature never change (Sumner.)

Also, we should be kind to those who were wrong. There was no way for them to predict atomic energy, space travel, computers, Internet, globalization, and so many things we now take for granted, but our grandparents never had.

For that reason, instead of laughing at their mistakes, we should review our own ideas about a still inscrutable future.

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