The eclectic blog Lists of Note recently published a list of predictions that the SF writer Robert Heinlein made in 1952 for what the year 2000 would be like. Here they are, with my comments in red for wrong and green for right:
(Source: Galaxy magazine, Feb 1952)
So let’s have a few free-swinging predictions about the future. Some will be wrong – but cautious predictions are sure to be wrong.
1. Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door — C.O.D. It’s yours when you pay for it. Nope.
2. Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure. Yep.
3. The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to repel an attack from outer space. Nope.
4. It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a “preventive war.” We will fight when attacked, either directly or in a territory we have guaranteed to defend. Wow, no.
5. In fifteen years the housing shortage will be solved by a “breakthrough” into new technologies which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies. Nope.
6. We’ll all be getting a little hungry by and by. Nope.
7. The cult of the phony in art will disappear. So-called “modern art” will be discussed only by psychiatrists. Nope.
8. Freud will be classed as a pre-scientific, intuitive pioneer and psychoanalysis will be replaced by a growing, changing “operational psychology” based on measurement and prediction. Sort of.
9. Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered; the revolutionary new problem in medical research will be to accomplish “regeneration,” i.e., to enable a man to grow a new leg, rather than fit him with an artificial limb. Nope.
10. By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system, and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be a-building. Nope.
11. Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision. Yep.
12. Intelligent life will be found on Mars. Nope.
13. A thousand miles an hour at a cent a mile will be commonplace; short hauls will be made in evacuated subways at extreme speed. Nope.
14. A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity. Nope.
15. We will not achieve a “World State” in the predictable future. Nevertheless, Communism will vanish from this planet. Mostly, depending on what you call China.
16. Increasing mobility will disenfranchise a majority of the population. About 1990 a constitutional amendment will do away with state lines while retaining the semblance. Nope.
17. All aircraft will be controlled by a giant radar net run on a continent-wide basis by a multiple electronic “brain.” More or less.
18. Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear. Nope.
19. Mankind will not destroy itself, nor will “Civilization” be destroyed. Yep.
Here are things we won’t get soon, if ever:
— Travel through time Yep.
— Travel faster than the speed of light Yep.
— “Radio” transmission of matter. Yep.
— Manlike robots with manlike reactions Yep.
— Laboratory creation of life Nope, already done.
— Real understanding of what “thought” is and how it is related to matter. Nope, pretty close now.
— Scientific proof of personal survival after death. Yep.
— Nor a permanent end to war. Yep.
Heinlein’s predictions about impossibilities were a lot closer than his possibles! He broke Arthur C. Clarke’s 1st Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
Still, the hit rate here is obviously very low. How could such a bright and imaginative guy could get so many things wrong? Sure, prediction is notoriously difficult, but he was really off by a lot.
I think it was because he was extrapolating from the changes he saw around him, but he happened to live in a time of unsustainably high technological change. In his lifetime (1907 to 1988) he saw flight go from biplanes to interplanetary rockets. Imagining that “the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be a-building.” would be a natural step. He had seen air travel become commoditized, so he thought space travel would too. He had seen polio and TB beaten, so he expected cancer to be beaten soon as well.
In fact, the changes that so impressed him largely stopped in the 70s. Changes in transportation stopped because the energies needed were too high – SSTs and manned spaceflight are too expensive. Medical progress slowed way down because antibiotics and vaccines only beat the easy problems. Social progress actually went backwards – the ERA was defeated, and the provision of health care and education are a bit worse than in his day, at least in the US. The major technical problems of his day – like AI, fusion power, and missile defense – are still not solved, and we’re not all that close. He lived in a time when everything was changing fast, but it slowed down a lot soon after.
That’s part of why he’s fun to read even now. All his characters are so energetic! They’re all excited about the bright future. Life is visibly improving for them, in a way that it isn’t really for us.