I’ve been reading a fascinating book recently – it’s called The Third Millennium, by Brian Stapleford and David Langford. It’s basically a speculative history of the years 2000 to 3000.
What’s really interesting is that it was written in the 1980s; and yet they’ve been pretty accurate with their technological predictions – the internet, the demise of supersonic flight, Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, sustainable energy – they’re all there. Some breakthroughs are put much further in the future than they have actually occurred – the genetic sequencing of human beings isn’t forecast to happen for another 100 years or so; ditto self-driving cars, which in fact look as if they’re going to be on our streets within a few years.
Prediction is very difficult, especially if its about the future
What they get completely wrong is the politics. The Soviet Union is (in this book) around for hundreds of years. In reality, of course, it was already unravelling by the time of the book’s publication. There’s no a hint of Islamic terrorism (there IS terrorism, but it’s of the anti-capitalist variety).
In social matters, also, things are a bit off. While they predict the Internet, for example, they think it will immediately do away with commuting to and from work.
The lesson seems to be that “hard” subjects like science and technology are fairly amenable to prediction, at least in the short term. When it comes to human behaviour, however, forget it – even the comic year is completely impenetrable to forecasting.
Looking to the horizon, and beyond
Nevertheless, for me this book has been a fascinating read. It has almost forced me to raise my sites beyond the very near future (as determined by the likes of Donald Trump, Brexit, North Korea and so on) and, in company with the authors, try and peer way over the horizon.
That is quite a useful exercise for historians, I think, especially for those (like me) who look at world history as a whole. It reminds one that history does not culminate in the present; rather, the real significance of past events, and of present events, is how they will affect the future, as it is manifested in the short, medium and long terms.