Predicting the future by projecting the present

That post about the Post Office contained an intriguing concept.  It accuses the USPS of acting like Kodak, which hung onto its chemical film business even after the digital camera was invented.  The syndrome is “looking at the future as a variant of the present.”

This is how most predictions of the future are made.  Take a current fact or trend and project it into the future and extrapolate it into infinity.  I think of the “Tomorrowland” features on the old Walt Disney show that I used to watch as a kid, predicting what life would be like in the year 2000.  Air transportation really had taken off in the early 1960′s, so we would have individual jet packs to fly around with by the year 2000.  Food technology–nutritional analysis, manufacturing, packaging–was exciting at the time, so by the year 2000 we could get our nutrition from pills and squeeze tubes.

None of these came true, of course.  The predictions ignored what is unchanging in human nature (our desire for safety and security; our love of eating) and they basically just were commentaries on their own, now dated, times.  Disney, of course, could not have predicted what computers would actually be used for (not housekeeping or as personal butlers, in that age when people were impressed with new housekeeping technology such as toasters and vaccuum cleaners), much less the invention of the internet.

I see this projection of the present into the future in political analysis, demographic studies, public policies , and cultural studies (such as those that predict where the church will be in the next decades).  Can you give examples?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’m an old practitioner of this kind of projection (see my novel Wolf Time), and I think there may be a distinction here. I’d say you’ve got two different phenomena–trajectory of progress and trajectory of decomposition. I think it’s harder to know what improvements will come in the future than to guess how a system on the decline will deteriorate. The process of progress can be very diverse, while the process of deterioration seems (to me) to be pretty predictable.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’m an old practitioner of this kind of projection (see my novel Wolf Time), and I think there may be a distinction here. I’d say you’ve got two different phenomena–trajectory of progress and trajectory of decomposition. I think it’s harder to know what improvements will come in the future than to guess how a system on the decline will deteriorate. The process of progress can be very diverse, while the process of deterioration seems (to me) to be pretty predictable.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Warren Buffett, probably the most astute investor of our time, bought a large chunk of the Washington Post on the assumption that it had a captive, high margin market for advertising. Lo and behold not too many years later the Internet traduced this market causing the balance sheet to move seriously south.

    After winning control of Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008, the liberal pundits waxed ecstatically about a liberal era of politics to offset the Reagan era. Lo and behold Obama, Pelosi, et al lurched too far to the left causing a groundswell of opposition that could put paid to the liberal “era.”

    Sic transit gloria mundi. [ Quickly pass the glories of the world.]

  • Peter Leavitt

    Warren Buffett, probably the most astute investor of our time, bought a large chunk of the Washington Post on the assumption that it had a captive, high margin market for advertising. Lo and behold not too many years later the Internet traduced this market causing the balance sheet to move seriously south.

    After winning control of Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008, the liberal pundits waxed ecstatically about a liberal era of politics to offset the Reagan era. Lo and behold Obama, Pelosi, et al lurched too far to the left causing a groundswell of opposition that could put paid to the liberal “era.”

    Sic transit gloria mundi. [ Quickly pass the glories of the world.]

  • Tom Hering

    Prediction circa 1990: computers will bring about a paperless society.

    If I remember correctly, there have been studies showing that the amount of paper in the world has actually increased. And of course, individuals with computers print all sorts of things out on paper, including photos from their digital cameras.

  • Tom Hering

    Prediction circa 1990: computers will bring about a paperless society.

    If I remember correctly, there have been studies showing that the amount of paper in the world has actually increased. And of course, individuals with computers print all sorts of things out on paper, including photos from their digital cameras.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Back in the 1930′s, Vannevar Bush imagined something like what we now have in computers. He called it a “memex.” It was a “device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

    Of course, even this prediction was stuck in the technology of the day, as Bush imagined this wonderful machine would be micro-film based.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Back in the 1930′s, Vannevar Bush imagined something like what we now have in computers. He called it a “memex.” It was a “device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

    Of course, even this prediction was stuck in the technology of the day, as Bush imagined this wonderful machine would be micro-film based.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    If you want a gross misstep along these lines, let’s talk about the actuarial assumptions for Social Security, Medicare, and most pensions……Pollyanna herself would find them grossly optimistic.

    (“you mean if government promises to take care of people in old age, they might not bother to have as many kids–and in doing so will wreck our actuarial assumptions? Oops!”)

    Really, virtually any prediction coming out of government, for that matter, will ignore the reality that projecting the present is to ignore the side effects of the change just made.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    If you want a gross misstep along these lines, let’s talk about the actuarial assumptions for Social Security, Medicare, and most pensions……Pollyanna herself would find them grossly optimistic.

    (“you mean if government promises to take care of people in old age, they might not bother to have as many kids–and in doing so will wreck our actuarial assumptions? Oops!”)

    Really, virtually any prediction coming out of government, for that matter, will ignore the reality that projecting the present is to ignore the side effects of the change just made.

  • DonS

    Bike Bubba @ 5: LOL. How about that prediction that Obamacare would run $10 billion in the black during its first decade, and that everyone who wanted to could keep their old coverage?

  • DonS

    Bike Bubba @ 5: LOL. How about that prediction that Obamacare would run $10 billion in the black during its first decade, and that everyone who wanted to could keep their old coverage?

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Don, that’s actually a slightly different phenomenon. The Social Security disaster is simply an oversight; failing to consider that Social Security will itself change actuarial assumptions. Eminently forgiveable in 1937; not so forgiveable to continue the charade today, of course.

    Regarding the health insurance deform act, those claims were made without any statistical or actuarial support whatsoever, and in general were made contrary to the best estimates of the actuaries and others in the know.

    In short, the Obamacare errors are not mistakes. They are lies.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Don, that’s actually a slightly different phenomenon. The Social Security disaster is simply an oversight; failing to consider that Social Security will itself change actuarial assumptions. Eminently forgiveable in 1937; not so forgiveable to continue the charade today, of course.

    Regarding the health insurance deform act, those claims were made without any statistical or actuarial support whatsoever, and in general were made contrary to the best estimates of the actuaries and others in the know.

    In short, the Obamacare errors are not mistakes. They are lies.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    “It accuses the USPS of acting like Kodak, which hung onto its chemical film business even after the digital camera was invented.” Okay, isn’t this a bit overstated (even if that’s the fault of the referred-to article, and not Veith’s summary of it)? Kodak did and does develop digital cameras. I owned one back in 2000 or so. I don’t know the details of Kodak’s business plans and maneuvers, but I don’t think they were entirely blind to the change that was coming, nor do I blame them for trying to sell film for as long as they could make money from it. But whatever.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    “It accuses the USPS of acting like Kodak, which hung onto its chemical film business even after the digital camera was invented.” Okay, isn’t this a bit overstated (even if that’s the fault of the referred-to article, and not Veith’s summary of it)? Kodak did and does develop digital cameras. I owned one back in 2000 or so. I don’t know the details of Kodak’s business plans and maneuvers, but I don’t think they were entirely blind to the change that was coming, nor do I blame them for trying to sell film for as long as they could make money from it. But whatever.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    tODD’s got a good point. Kodak’s misstep was not in the past decade or so when digital photography became the norm. Rather, their misstep was to abandon camera bodies as a main line of business back in the 1960s or so. Hence, when people no longer needed film, they didn’t have a fallback position.

    They’ve worked hard to get back into the “PHD” (push here dummy) camera business, with some success, but it’s hard to catch up when Nikon and Minolta have four decades of experience you don’t have.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    tODD’s got a good point. Kodak’s misstep was not in the past decade or so when digital photography became the norm. Rather, their misstep was to abandon camera bodies as a main line of business back in the 1960s or so. Hence, when people no longer needed film, they didn’t have a fallback position.

    They’ve worked hard to get back into the “PHD” (push here dummy) camera business, with some success, but it’s hard to catch up when Nikon and Minolta have four decades of experience you don’t have.

  • The Jungle Cat

    This isn’t another example, but it’s worth noting in this context: If you watch movies from the 1980s which are set in the future (e.g. “Alien” or “Blade Runner”) all of the technology looks very 1980s-ish. The only fundamental difference between that technology and the technology which actually was available around the time of the Reagan Revolution is that in the projected future the technology can do more. The projected future is almost always just the present on steroids.

  • The Jungle Cat

    This isn’t another example, but it’s worth noting in this context: If you watch movies from the 1980s which are set in the future (e.g. “Alien” or “Blade Runner”) all of the technology looks very 1980s-ish. The only fundamental difference between that technology and the technology which actually was available around the time of the Reagan Revolution is that in the projected future the technology can do more. The projected future is almost always just the present on steroids.


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