Fifty Years On: The Way the Future Was

Fifty Years On: The Way the Future Was November 6, 2020

My Anxious Bench colleague Chris Gehrz is smarter than I am. When I told him I was going to talk about the outcome of the presidential election in my Friday blog, he pronounced himself deeply impressed at my brash optimism that we would have an outright and uncontested winner by that point. How right he was. Hence, I can say little that is definite, except for the thoroughly non-partisan consolation I always offer the losing side at this point in any election year. You might be really unhappy now, but don’t worry too much. Whenever Party A wins the presidency in circumstances as polarized as this, then it must follow as the night the day that in two years time, opposition Party B will sweep both Houses of Congress in the midterms, so just hold your breath and wait for 2022.

In discussing the recent election, I was actually thinking about larger questions about predicting the future, and the mistakes we make when we try to project current trends. Specifically, I was looking at a particular treasure I own, a remarkable snapshot of the way the future looked exactly fifty years ago.

In the 1960s, the British publisher Purnell produced a wildly successful series of major histories in the form of weekly parts, with consistently superb illustrations, and with contributions by some of the best scholars of the time. The buyer committed to 96 or more weekly installments, which would then be bound in multiple volumes. The series on the Second World War remains legendary, and I still profit from what I learned way back then. Ditto for its Man Myth and Magic. Here, though, I concentrate on a different project, namely the History of the Twentieth Century, or at least the century as its learned authors knew it during the years it appeared, 1968-70. The distinguished general editors were historians A. J. P. Taylor and J. M. Roberts. The final volume six (issues 81-96) offered a history of the 1950s and 1960s, with a study of general themes such as science and technology, or race and color. If you read that volume six in 1969-1970, what would you think were the most important trends in the world, present and near future? What would you miss out on? What would you get wrong? And what does this suggest for what we are not seeing when we contemplate the world around us in this particular annus beyond horribilis of 2020, fifty years down the road?

So much about the History of the Twentieth Century volume is laudable, especially its global coverage, which is examplary. This was a British and Commonwealth product, much of it written by men (and I stress men) who had lived through the last days of empire, and decolonization. There is terrific coverage of Africa, Asia and Latin America, in a way that I suspect might not have been the case in a contemporary US series: that might be unfair. There are good accounts of ongoing crises, in Vietnam and the Middle East. This really is globalized history. Race, racism, and racial conflict are all treated substantially and very seriously.

The account of technology is also good, with proper stress on developments in the world of computing. As always in such matters, the problem with future projections is that they are far too timid. On “the Electronics Revolution,” T. Chenevix Trench tells us that the number of computers in the world had grown from 4,000 in 1961 to 100,000 by 1969, and by 1980, there might be well over a million. “Every large shop counter, every use of a credit card, every request for a library book, every class in a school or university, may in our lifetime involve the passage of information to or from a remote computer” [my emphasis]. If that was not startling enough, “a great current debate concerns the question whether the computer will reach the home. It is surely unwise to deny this possibility.”

To put this in context, by this point, ARPANET had already been established, and Steve Jobs was in ninth grade at Homestead High. It was in December 1968 that Doug Engelbart gave the Mother of All Demos in San Francisco, in which he demonstrated a bewildering host of new technologies which for the first time showed how computers could be used for communications and information retrieval, rather than simply for processing numbers. He was mapping the tech world we have known since. We should assuredly not blame the History for not knowing all this, but it does suggest that in matters technological, it rarely pays to be too conservative.

In fairness, the History offers good surveys of key developments in DNA, automation, the digital recording and transmission of information, and exploring the workings of the human brain. The account of environmental dangers is impressive. The History pays no attention to the issue of human-driven climate change, the science of which was then in its infancy. But it does speak at length of issues of overpopulation, pollution, especially of the air, and the excessive use of insecticides.

As we know in retrospect, the volume gives far too much coverage to human achievements in space, given the story as it actually developed in the 1970s and beyond. That is understandable, given the astonishing record of the previous decade or so, from Sputnik to the Moon landing, and if you extrapolated that into the near future … well, careers in Star Fleet were evidently a realistic prospect. Someday, somebody could even hope to make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. Today, sadly, accounts of manned space flight generally show up in historical writing as a subset of Cold War propaganda. Computers and the Internet were the real final frontier.

Don’t get me started on misusing the word parsec.

As to the future, the volume makes no elaborate predictions about the outcome of the Cold War at a very delicate moment in that story, when the Soviets were building up their nuclear arsenal at an astonishing rate – I almost said, as if there was no tomorrow. Nobody suspected that the Soviet Union itself might have just two decades left to exist. In a rare specific prediction, venerated historian A. J. P. Taylor remarks that he had contemplated offering advice to future editors of such a twentieth century History, perhaps to be written in the year 2000. But on balance, he decided not to do so because the world would not exist by that point, or at least not human civilization. The inevitability of superpower warfare meant that by 2000, “History will have come to a full stop.” His essay is called ”To be continued?” and basically, it wasn’t going to be.

In this 1970 survey, two screaming omissions stand out above all. One is gender and sexuality, and the revolutions then getting under way in the post-1968 world. As I remarked, the overwhelming majority of the many contributors to the volume were male, in a way that looks startling today. The History certainly makes some nod to current changes of the late 1960s, for instance in images of women as protesters and countercultural figures, but there is no real sense of upcoming changes in the politics of sexuality, of refashioning concepts of gender, of gay rights. As elements of “real” history, women feature in the early part of the century, with the New Woman, and then again we hear about Women at War in the 194os. But after that, women really disappear as a historical category. Issues like contraception and the sexual revolution make no appearance in the main volumes – they might be stashed away in odd supplementary material associated with the project, which I don’t presently have access to. But even if the material is around somewhere, it is ancillary or supplementary to real history, an afterthought. Gender and sexuality receive only a fraction of the encyclopedia space that is allotted, well, to Space.

How might the compilers have reacted had you told them that a decade later, Britain would have an exceedingly powerful woman Prime Minister?

Linked to that gender revolution was the collapse of fertility rates around the world, which would transform so many aspects of human affairs. In 1970, that trend was obviously under way in Europe, but a couple of decades would spread it throughout most of the world, outside Africa. The History is still living in the world of the Population Explosion.

The other yawning gap in the History is religion. The theme appears sporadically in accounts of specific crises, such as the lead up to the Vietnam War, but most of the discussion is confined to one well-illustrated ghetto, a characteristically self-indulgent essay by Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee tells us that dogmatic or institutional religion is largely defunct or discredited in the modern world, but religious impulses and spiritual hunger remain strong, and are channeled into seemingly secular ideologies such as Communism or nationalism. Religion might survive in some form of non-dogmatic or non-authoritarian future, in loosely bound associations of seekers. There is next to nothing in the History about the realities of any faith tradition or religious institution. The slightness of the coverage sends a powerful negative message, that this is just not something that people care much about any more. Certainly nobody who mattered.

What the editors and compilers did not know was that in 1973-74, an energy crisis would detonate a global economic meltdown, which would undermine nations and ideologies, and turn many millions of people to older and more otherworldly beliefs – within the realm of Islam, of course, but also in Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. Of course, there was no way in the world they could have known any such thing. But they would have been stunned to envisage the world just ten years ahead, when a dynamic Pope was successfully challenging Communism in eastern Europe and Latin America, and when the Iranian Revolution made radical Islam a mighty force on the world scene. Expand this list as you like, and look at the role of religiously motivated voters in putting Ronald Reagan in the White House, or of activists of other faiths in remaking in revolutionizing the politics of India or Israel.

In the matter of religion, the compilers of this fine and thoughtful encyclopedia in 1970 almost entirely missed what would become the most important trend in global politics just five or ten years ahead of them. Even less do they show awareness of the revolutionary power of social trends then emerging, in matters of gender and sexuality. That precedent has to inspire some humility in us today. If we were to dare predict the 2030s, never mind the 2060s, what overwhelming future trends would we miss? I would scarcely dare to attempt a list.

I do though think of one scene in the 2019 HBO series Years and Years, which projects the history of Britain over the coming couple of decades. I hated most of the series, but one early moment is priceless. An upper middle class couple know that their teenage daughter is about to make a Dramatic Announcement, and they know from her search history that she is trying to come out to her parents about being Trans. When she broaches the subject, they are fully prepared, and their liberal hormones go into full flood. Oh darling, how wonderful! Do know that we support and affirm you totally! Don’t be too offended if we make the odd mistake about pronouns, will you?

Then a somewhat confused daughter explains that no, that that is not what she meant. She is indeed preparing to make a full transition, but not of being transsexual, but transhuman. She wants to achieve a full physical merger with machine technology, with bionics, as her consciousness becomes indistinguishable from electronic intelligence. She wants to abandon her body, her physical humanity, not her sex. Her hyper-liberal parents are now baffled and appalled.

There is one candidate for the explosive issues of the coming decade or two. And what else is not presently even on our distant horizon?

Scarcely less intriguing, what topics do we presently think are riveting and vital that will have all but vanished from view in a decade or two?



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