Tomorrow Never Dies

What we can learn from the long, dubious history of predicting the future. (Hint: Don’t pull a Kaempffert.)

February 2008By Comments

To mark Texas Monthly’s thirty-fifth anniversary, we turn to the future. On nearly every page in this issue you will find an attempt to fathom what life here will be like in five, ten, twenty, even forty years—what music we’ll listen to, where our energy and water will come from, who our leaders will be, where we’ll shop, what we’ll eat for dinner. A magazine is a microscope, magnifying the people and stories at hand; this month we have trained our lenses on the far horizon, on the big questions and on the small, and tried our best to tell you what we see.

We have done this despite the fact that of all journalistic endeavors, the one that presents the most hazards and offers the fewest rewards is a prediction of the future. Consider, for example, a 1950 Popular Mechanics story titled “Miracles You’ll See in the Next Fifty Years,” by the improbably named Waldemar Kaempffert. The author imagined a prototypical late-twentieth-century family, the Dobsons, living in a paradise of efficiency. “When Jane Dobson cleans house,” he wrote, “she simply turns the hose on everything.” Her husband, Joe, has been freed of the need to shave his beard by a Nair-like product—“It takes him less than a minute to apply the chemical, wipe it off with the bristles and wash his face in plain water.” Most importantly, the dinner dishes are a snap for Joe and Jane, since their soluble plates can be washed straight down the drain. As for the rest of the cleanup, “discarded paper table ‘linen’ and rayon underwear are bought by chemical factories to be converted into candy.”

Try living that down. There is no account of how, in later years, Kaempffert came to regard the failure of the chemical industry to turn his boxers into lollipops, but I imagine he would have just as soon not created the expectation. A few predictions did come close (a television set connected to a telephone over which Jane does much of her shopping), but on the whole, Kaempffert’s project was not a resounding success. Nor did Ladies’ Home Journal prove prescient in its 1900 forecast that by the twenty-first century the letters c, x, and q would have been jettisoned from the alphabet; nor did Time, when in 1966 it decreed that “remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop” (the better prediction might have been that “Time, while entirely feasible, will flop once remote shopping catches on,” but that’s another story. )

Prognostication is an imperfect art, full of risk, but it is one we can’t live without. Every day we make thousands of tiny short-term predictions, most of which are based on experience—when the light will turn green at a familiar intersection, how long it will take for a bowl of soup to get hot in the microwave—and most of which come true. Long-term guesswork is just as routine, only much less conclusive. We are always looking at the years ahead, they just never come into focus.

This has been particularly true during the nearsighted, fearful decade at the start of the twenty-first century. People always believe that the era in which they live is the most perilous in history, but perhaps this only means that people in the present are always right. Jeopardy accumulates over time. Shortly after the end of World War II, a social scientist named Samuel Lilley wrote that “the most prominent psychological feature of the world of 1946 is the very prevalent feeling of uncertainty about the future.” Nineteen forty-six? The war was won, the economy was on the cusp of a decades-long boom, baseball was clean, men wore hats. These days the horizon is much cloudier. To pose just a few of this generation’s quandaries: How will our finite supply of water support the endless growth of our population? (See “The Last Drop,”) Will oil run out and what will happen if it does? (See “The Gospel According to Matthew,”) How will the contours of our culture be reshaped by immigration? (See “El Gobernador,” or just look out the window.)

Though these puzzles cause sleepless nights in every time zone, each has a particular resonance in Texas. All our large cities face critical water shortages; as a global energy capital (and the leading source of carbon dioxide emissions in the country), we have a crucial role to play in the endgame of the petroleum industry and the move toward a carbon-constrained economy; our demographics are at the vanguard of the rest of the country’s. The future is here. There’s some irony to this, since who imagines Texas as especially futuristic? A strong case could be made that the opposite is true, that a unique obsession with the past defines Texans. Our laws are crafted by legislators who sit behind antique wooden desks, surrounded by enormous oil paintings of bygone battles, their microphones concealed in old ink pot wells. Our most famous war cry is not “Forward!” or “Onward!” or “God be with us!” It’s “Remember the Alamo!” We have a tendency to gaze backward in this state; yet as more than one subject interviewed for this issue commented, we now have a great obligation, to the world and to ourselves, to look ahead.

Still, how to avoid pulling a Kaempffert? How to ensure, for instance, that none of the geniuses on this month’s carefully curated list of “35 People Who Will Shape Our Future” will end up droning on the television at four in the morning, peddling their innovations for $19.95?

Fortunately, this question (or one like it) has so perennially dogged mankind that a long tradition of expertise exists. From the oracle at Delphi to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, not a single generation has trod the earth without contriving some means of peering into the mists of tomorrow. The Hebrews turned to their prophets, the Babylonians to their sheep entrails, the ancient Chinese to their oracular ox bones and turtle shells. In these more technocratic times, we turn to “futurists,” consultants (usually for corporate clients) whose claim to know what lies ahead is based more on research than innate gift. Though they have little in common with the half-mad seers of the past, futurists remain somewhat eccentric—their job is to remain on the outskirts, looking for unseen patterns and challenging old paradigms, so they have no home in any one field. They are the nomads of the Information Age, always one step beyond everyone else.

Texas, it turns out, is awash in futurists, due partly to the concentration of big tech and energy companies and partly to the graduate program in Future Studies at the University of Houston, which offers courses like “Scenarios and Visions” and “Strategic Planning.” Our state also boasts four chapters of the World Future Society, a sort of international clearinghouse for experts and dabblers in the forecast business, though only one chapter, in Austin, is currently active. In November, I visited the group’s monthly meeting, looking for guidance. Its founder, Paul Schumann, offered his gloomy counsel.

“Right now we’re in a period of collapse,” he explained when I inquired as to the fate of all mankind. “On the other side of that collapse, life will be much simpler, but it will be a very different kind of life, and a lot of the fighting that you see going on right now is because people are afraid of that change.”

The latter half of his analysis made some sense, but I wanted to know more about the “simple life.” What exactly did he foresee? A radical return to the agrarian routines of our ancestors? The sealing of all borders? Basic cable? But Schumann declined to supply particulars. The world had become so maddeningly complex, he told me, that two or three years was the outer limit for “an integrated view.”

“Thirty years ago you could see much farther into the future,” he said. “But now there are so many complex forces working on each other that the network is unstable. A small perturbation can cause a large change. Our foresight has gotten so short that it’s like we’re driving a car while looking at the bumper. And we’re going seventy miles per hour.”

Hmm. It would follow, then, that the February 2008 issue of Texas Monthly stands a far greater chance than the February 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics of smashing through a guardrail and plunging to its death. If we can’t see down the road, and we’re going faster than ever, isn’t it only a matter of time? But of course we aren’t going faster than ever. The earth does not rotate around the sun any more quickly today than when it was home to the dinosaurs. What has changed is our experience of time—the future seems to be rushing at us more quickly than it used to, so quickly, in fact, that how we think of the concept has been fundamentally altered. Today has more tomorrow in it than any yesterday ever did. Forecasters are no longer explorers who embark from and return to the safe harbor of the present but watchmen in a wild and bustling port, observing the incomprehensible traffic of a billion vessels arriving, departing, and foundering in the local waters. The present is more dynamic than at any point in its history.

This transforms the work of prediction, making it less an act of imagination and more one of observation, an exercise that tells us as much about now as about anytime else. So it is for us in this issue. Here you will find no flights of sci-fi fancy (well, one—see “The Cheap Seats”), no lists of coming miracles, no fictional families of 2058 commuting in personal hovercraft and brushing their teeth with lasers. “The present is pregnant with the future,” said the German philosopher Leibniz, and although it is highly doubtful that he had the February 2008 Texas Monthly in mind, we have taken him at his word. Think of this issue as an ultrasound: Everything you will find in it—from demographic changes and decreasing water supplies to dual-language education and the commercialization of high school sports—is already under way in nascent form. How and whether these phenomena continue to grow will determine the health and well-being of the future we produce. As for if and when people will finally be able to eat their underwear for dessert, on this point we remain resolutely silent.

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