4 Mistakes We’re Still Making About the Future

Image shows a collage of clocks
Looking at predictions for the future from the past can be hilarious.

You should also read…

From the New York Times’ 1920 prediction that “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere”, to an article in 1825 that asked “What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches?”, we have a wealth of utterly mistaken views of the future bequeathed to us. Sometimes the key error is simply the date by which certain advances will be achieved, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sometimes it is in misunderstanding the importance of a particular advance, such as video phones – lauded as a great development of the future, we’ve since learned that for the most part, we don’t actually want to be able to see the face of the person we’re talking to, especially if we’re just asking them if they’re at the cinema yet.
Yet there are mistakes about the future that we are still making – in popular culture, in received wisdom, and even in otherwise rational forward-planning. The mistakes we make in popular culture are usually understandable; for instance, a story in which we have faster-than-light travel but are still limited in our ability to communicate with one another between planets offers much more scope for drama than a story in which we can send messages at near light-speed, but people travel much more slowly. Mistakes we make in other areas are perhaps less justifiable, and may even lead us to make bad decisions in terms of future career planning and other areas in which predictions are relevant. We’ve taken a look at 4 mistakes we’re still making about the future – and, at risk of adding further to lists of incorrect predictions, what the future might actually be like instead.

1. We will have a caste of robot-like drone workers

Image shows toy robots.
In the future some jobs may be carried out by robots.

A common feature in many science fiction dystopias is a class of workers who are nothing more than drudges: their work is deeply unpleasant, repetitive and poorly rewarded (if at all). There is seldom any means of escaping this life, and often it is even written into the workers’ DNA. It’s usually the case that this alienated drone caste makes up the vast majority of the population, enabling a small minority to live lives of fabulous luxury.
This trend is evident in science fiction from decades ago right up to the present day. For instance, The Hunger Games (published 2008) features ten districts of impoverished, persecuted drone workers, two districts that are only marginally more privileged, and one capital district filled with people living in incredible decadence. Brave New World (published 1932) has several genetically-engineered castes, from highly intelligent, physically perfect Alphas right down to the Epsilon-minus caste, who are barely human and carry out the same sort of hard, repetitive work as the downtrodden workers of The Hunger Games. In Brave New World, the vast majority of people are in the lower castes – the explanation being that their society “is modeled on the iceberg – eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.”
Given current trends, it is hard to justify this as a prediction for the future. Why employ workers – or feed and clothe slaves – to do this kind of work when you could mass-produce robots to carry it out much more cheaply? If our technological progress continues at the current rate, about 35% of jobs in the UK could be automated within the next 20 years. It’s true that the worlds of both The Hunger Games and Brave New World have a cataclysmic war in their past that could be used to justify technological stagnation – but the high level of technology available to the elites in both scenarios belies this explanation, and anyway, many visions of the future that make this same assumption do not include this kind of justification.

What the future will actually look like is harder to assess. The prediction that any menial, repetitive job will be done by a robot where possible is easy enough to make and support – but what happens to the people who do those jobs at the moment? We’re likely to have the first taste of this within the next decade or two, as self-driving cars increasingly become a reality on our roads, bringing to an end jobs such as lorry driver or taxi driver, and there are more than a quarter of a million people currently employed as lorry drivers in the UK alone.
Whether they will find new jobs in emerging industries as others fade away or whether growing automation will lead to growing unemployment figures is a question to which we do not yet know the answer. Some visions of the future suggest that growing automation will enable us all to work less than half the hours we do now for the same quality of life; others suggest that employment will be an option for only a very limited number of people, and everyone else will be dependent on a kind of turbocharged welfare state. Whatever the outcome, it seems improbable that when we already have robots for unpleasant tasks from mining to cleaning, we would replace them with anything as expensive to maintain, as easily tired and as vulnerable to hazardous chemicals as a human being.

2. We will communicate with computers through keyboards or joysticks

Image shows a computer keyboard.
We can’t yet be sure what technology will replace the keyboard.

Computer keyboards have a lot to answer for. 1 in 3 computer users might have the early symptoms of RSI and keyboards are notorious for harbouring germs. Aside from these issues, they’re also not a very efficient means of conveying information – the standard QWERTY keyboard was designed not for speed but to avoid typewriter jams (as well as having the cute bonus of salespeople being able to type ‘typewriter’ using only the keys of the top row). Keyboards also lead naturally to typos, which can cost businesses a fortune. Other manual means of communicating with a computer are even worse – consider the traditional science-fiction spaceship, its console covering with endless unlabelled single-purpose buttons.
It seems very logical, then, that we would abandon these means of conveying information and instructions to computers as soon as technologically possible, and recent developments prove this to be the case. We’re keeping the old methods of communication with computers – keyboards and mice – but we’re also adding new methods, like touchscreens and voice recognition. In the form of increasingly advanced haptic feedback, we’re also giving them new means of communicating with us.
The average person speaks at 120 words per minute or more – but even a very good typist might only manage 80 words per minute. So it makes logical sense that once we have the technology at the required level, we’ll move increasingly away from the keyboard, mouse and joystick as means of inputting information. What we will have instead might not even have been invented yet – but it probably won’t look much like the devices we use to communicate with our computers today, and even less like the buttons and switches inside a modern car.

3. Our current divisions, prejudices and societal norms will remain

Image shows WW2 'We Can Do It' poster.
Past predictions did not anticipate how social norms would evolve.

It’s remarkable to read some of the science fiction of the Golden Age of the 30s, 40s and 50s, in which writers came up with prescient ideas for future developments, such as earbud headphones (in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) and mobile phones (in HG Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come) – but in which they nonetheless failed to predict the shape of modern society in other hugely significant ways. Brave New World, for instance, has a male-dominated hierarchy; in Fahrenheit 451, all the intellectuals are men; and even in novels without such obvious sexism, from 1984 to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, gender roles are much the same as in the society in which the author was writing. The same is true of depictions of race and sexuality.
Science fiction saw considerable progress in this area in the 1960s onwards, so perhaps it’s unfair to criticise the genre for its social imagination not living up to its feats of technological imagination. Still, our own societal imagination of the future also feels surprisingly limited in this regard. We often react with horror to the societal norms of the past, from extremes like slavery and anti-semitism to milder decisions that seem bizarre to us. Yet the question of which of our own norms will seem similarly horrific to people in the future often doesn’t come up.
Might it be that people in the future will be horrified by the idea of children being brought up by parents whose only qualification to raise them is a biological relationship? Perhaps it will be the idea of passing by a homeless person on the street and not giving them money that will cause outrage. Maybe they will be disgusted that we ever chose to eat meat. In all likelihood, there will be something else altogether that we consider normal but will leave the people of the future horrified that we could ever have chosen to live like this.
Of course, this unpredictability makes it hard to factor in these kinds of social changes into our predictions. However, there are some other social trends that are more predictable, yet we are nonetheless ignoring. For example, for most of history very few people ever slept alone. Children shared beds with their siblings, friends of the same sex routinely shared beds, higher-ranked servants might share a bed with their employers and so on. Nowadays we assume that anyone not cohabiting with a partner will usually sleep alone. Furthermore, we’re increasingly choosing not only to sleep alone, but also to live alone. When we live with people, we live in smaller groups than ever before – in pairs or with immediate family members,rather than with a larger extended family. This is only one example where trends suggest the future will be markedly different from the past and the present – and yet we generally ignore it.

4. The poor of the future will look like the poor of Dickens’ novels

Image shows a scene from Oliver Twist.
The poor of today may not look the same as the poor of tomorrow.

On a related note, we are much better at predicting the future of wealth than we are the future of poverty. This is something that makes logical sense – the usual trend is that what is available only to the super-wealthy in the present will be available to the wealthy in the near future, and in the long-term will become commonplace, a trend we’ve seen with former luxuries like books, education, adequate heating and sufficient food. So in order to know what the wealthy might have available to them in the future, we only have to look at what the wealthy have now and what luxuries are in development, and work it out from there.
Predicting the future of poverty is much less intuitive. Even our image of poverty in the present day is skewed – we’re inclined to think of poor people as very thin, perhaps dressed in ragged clothes. Yet the very poor in developed countries are more likely to be obese than underweight; malnourished, yes, but not in the way that stereotypes suggest. There are very few people in the developed world who cannot afford food at all, but significant numbers who cannot afford healthy food, or the time it takes to prepare. There are other unexpected aspects of modern poverty, even on a global scale, such as the eye-catching statistic that more people have smartphones than access to working toilets. Despite this, we persist in imagining future poverty as Dickensian, perhaps with the odd modern concern thrown in – Oliver Twist on a melting iceberg.
This is a clear example of where our mistaken predictions could make a material difference. Dickensian orphans with visible ribs dressed in rags evoke our sympathy immediately. Yet someone who is poor and malnourished in the future is more likely to be obese, own a smartphone and – since only highly competitive, challenging jobs won’t be taken by robots – be unemployed (or to give it a more Dickensian ring, idle). This future face of poverty doesn’t evoke the same sympathy as the Dickensian orphan – in fact, it might even evoke scorn. This difference in reaction might affect our ability to tackle poverty effectively in future.
Time magazine predicted in 1968 that remote shopping would flop. Charlie Chaplin described cinema as “little more than a fad”. Microsoft’s CEO rubbished the iPhone’s chances in 2007. History is full of atrocious predictions, yet from personal decisions on where to live and what career to take up, to broader questions such as which politician’s vision of the future to trust, a great deal depends on us trying to make them accurately.
What do you think we’re getting wrong about the future? Let us know in the comments!

Image credits: Banner; robots; keyboard; We Can Do It; Oliver Twist.