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2020 visions of the past and future

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What will the future hold for a child of 2020? And how good were visionaries of the past at predicting the present?

2020 has long been a landmark year. Not for any particularly good reason other than it provided a nice round number which, like 2000, once seemed a long, long way off. And now it’s nearly upon us.

2020 also looks nice as a number – all the twenties and to mark it we have a lot of 20s for you, from the past and yes, from our version of the future.

It’s time for some crystal ball gazing, but we hope informed and by those in a position to do something about it. “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future” is probably the quote on this subject I hear most often in conference Powerpoint presentations. They all tend to be negative and cynical, a kind of apology perhaps for what is about to come next which are usually, er, some forecasts.

Why are people so cynical about looking into the future and yet just can’t seem to stop themselves? Sure it’s hard, but it’s not pointless. Perhaps I’m an optimist but people can shape the future, and to do that you need to imagine a better future. Great leaders with their visionary speeches are an obvious example but in business too what is a company without its vision? I’ve found some positive quotes about predicting the future to balance the negative we hear so often. Such as, to start with: "If you don’t think of the future you can’t have one" ( John Galsworthy).

Looking back at the forecasts about the future from the past, I am always struck by how remarkably prescient they were, and it doesn’t make that much difference whether they were the ‘experts’ of their time or just someone with an imagination. In fact, the more vivid the imagination the better the predictions, perhaps because they are able to better imagine how people and society will react to new ideas than those with a strong stake in them.

The forecasts we, remember, that stick out, are those that got it really wrong: "Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr Epstein," as a Decca executive told the Beatles' manager, or "The cinema is little more than a fad," said Charlie Chaplin. But they’re notable because they are the exception rather than the rule. We examine some of the more interesting predictions and forecasts from the past and give them a generous assessment of where they got it spot on, where they missed by a mile or just got it impressively half-right. We focus more on inventions that require some engineering and technology rather than business predictions or major scientific leaps although we have one or two of those too. "It is far better to foresee even without certainty than not to foresee at all" (Henri Poincare).

If thinking about the future helps to shape it, then science fiction writers, who make it their vocation, should be worth listening to? It’s remarkable how many ideas from the world of fiction have become science fact, with many more on their way. Rebecca Northfield picks out some of the best who got it right – for better or worse, because writers deal in dystopias as well as utopias.

Then we get our own crystal ball out. Chris Edwards imagines some of the huge technological changes coming in the next two decades via text messages from one new citizen born in 2020. We list some of them on our timeline below. "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run" (Amara). Yes, we know, so perhaps we’ve overestimated the speed of change. But it has been accelerating - compare the mass adoption of the motor car with the TV with the PC with the mobile phone. While, of course, past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future, there’s no reason to think it will slow down.

Timeline showing speculative future technology milestones

Image credit: E&T

The future of 2020 was once supposed to bring us silver lamé jumpsuits, personal cyborgs and flying cars – which have always been just around the corner. Perhaps "The future is already here -it’s just not evenly distributed" (Gibson). So we compare today’s top five flying cars.

Looking into our crystal ball again we can predict there will be a digital-only bonus issue out next month in time for Christmas, with all the regular extras and a whole bunch of exclusive features, in the app or online. "I won’t say 'See you tomorrow’ because that would be like predicting the future, and I’m pretty sure I can’t do that" (Wittgenstein).

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