Books about predicting the future.

Right now I’m reading something called The Next 100 Years, by George Friedman, of Stratfor. It’s a prediction of geopolitical developments between now and the year 2100. It’s interesting, and some of it makes sense to me. Some of it, though, I feel like he’s way off with.

Whether he’s way off or not is something I’m not really looking to discuss (but if anyone’s read this book, then I’d be up to talk about it.) What I’m really looking for are books designed to forecast the future. Not science fiction, but non-fiction books where the author looks to map out the development of the world in the future.

The books that would interest me the most would be those written well in the past, which tried to predict the world as it would be today, or in the recent past. I read John Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which was written in the year 1887, predicting the world of 2000. Anyone know of any others out there? Preferably ones that got the future hauntingly correct–or staggeringly wrong.

I don’t know if there’s been anything published yet about this or not. Are you familiar with a web bot that is tallying all the posts in a given period of time and seems to be having some success with predictions based on what the internet world has on its collective mind?

Perhaps someone else can fill you in on the details as I don’t have them.

There are thousands of books like this. The problem with them is that they get dated so quickly that they are hard to find.

Looking Backward is by Edward Bellamy, but it is a utopia rather than a prediction of the future. It’s really the way he wanted the world to be in his own time. Several dozen of these were published between his in 1887 and 1900, but most are read only by historians, and for good reason.

Another set of books were published in huge piles just before the year 2000. They’re all forgotten, too.

H. G. Wells did a famous non-fiction book in 1906 called Anticipations that you can read online or download.

There simply are no books ever written that predict the future with any accuracy. The future always surprises everybody.

The future, Conan?

In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler opined that we’d all be living in mobile homes, chasing jobs around the country as industries switch for savings of a few percent and specific skills and experience were less valuable than a generalized knowledge of information processing and handling. Well, he was wrong about the mobile homes, anyway. Most of his trending, however (such as his “First/Second/Third Wave” concept) was really pretty obvious and tended to trail rather than lead speculative fiction of the day.

In general, predictions that tend to be too specific, specifically about technology and geopolitical developments, tend to be more wrong than right, or otherwise sufficiently vague that they seem to apply without actually prognosticating the actually technology or foreseeing the rise of a competing political force. One can point to Vannevar Bush’s Memex as a seemingly accurate conceptual precursor to the World Wide Web and hypertext technology in general, but the lack of inclusion of an operating principle (specifically, a flexible and extensible metadata system) makes it only of novel interest even if you ignore that it completely lacked the communication infrastructure that makes the Internet accessible and robust.

Similarly, while the failure of the Soviet Union from internal dissent and fiscal insolubility was predicted by many, few actually predicted that it would fall before the turn of the 20th century and no one foresaw the rise of the Solidarity movement before 1975 or that in less than 15 years it would precipitate a crisis that would cause the Warsaw Pact to crumble and the Soviet Union to voluntarily dissolve without a shot fired in anger between the major players.


There is such a thing as futurology, but it’s still too new to have a track record by which its predictive power can be judged.

I was similarly interested in other future-predicting books after reading The Next 100 Years. I think he’s pretty much spot-on for a lot of his predictions, especially the U.S.'s change in immigration policy which will solve many problems in 20 years or so (I can’t remember exactly when he predicted that would happen, sorry if I’m off).

Iben Browning had a couple of books, one called Climate and the Affairs of Men, and one called Past and Future History: A Planner’s Guide, which predicted many agricultural, social, and political changes based purely on climate. I never really could grasp everything he was going on about, but I don’t think he had it quite right. I appreciate and respect his theories, I just think there is more that goes into the input than what he was allowing for.

R. Buckminster Fuller made many predictions in his works, and Critical Path had several such (as well as a little of everything else – it’s my favourite book), but I can’t think of anything specific right now.

Here’s the problem with predicting the future of human events: Historical change is in large part driven by technological change. Marx got that much right. Agreed?

But technological change is inherently unpredictable. We can predict that, short of a general civilizational collapse, technological progress will continue; but we cannot predict its directions, even in broad outlines. Not even scientists or engineers can do that. Look at old issues of Popular Mechanics and such, full of wonderful inventions, that, for one reason or another, proved impractical. How could Marx, or anyone of his time, have predicted the social, economic and political effects of the automobile or the radio or the atomic bomb? At present, we cannot predict the feasibility or potential of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, controlled nuclear fusion, brain-computer interfaces, genetic engineering, or anything else that might or might not constitute a technological singularity. Such things might prove dead ends, or they might actually be made to work; we don’t know.

Futility by Morgan Robertson, published in 1898. It only has to do with one incident, though, but it is a very historic one.

infinitii–Friedman predicted the radical change in America’s (and all other countries’) immigration policy to come at around 2030. I agree with this assessment; I think that’s a reasonable trend, especially in the industrialized countries where the native birthrates are falling. I can see this being a real problem for countries like Japan, which is very much averse to accepting immigrants. I also agree with Friedman about the imminent decline of Russia and China. They won’t go quietly, but I have to agree that I see internal issues pulling them apart.

Where I have some problems with the book is Friedman’s failure to go into why the EU apparently ceases to exist–he doesn’t even touch on it, but talks about Germany, Greece, Poland and Great Britain acting independently by the middle of the 21st century! He dismisses western Europe’s involvement in geopolitical affairs of the 21st century by saying, “They won’t have a taste for it.” Sure, the EU has its cohesion problems, but I can’t see them standing aside and letting the United States become a global hegemon without at least a word or two of protest. Also, Friedman tosses in climate change as something of an afterthought in the book’s epilogue. He says it’s really happening, caused by humans, but that the coming end of the population boom will cause a dropoff in the demand for hydrocarbons that will render climate change moot. However, while his own book suggests that population growth is going to drop off, he doesn’t suggest that populations themselves will drop drastically in the next fifty years. He also suggests that we’ll be heavily reliant on hydrocarbons for that time period. So it doesn’t add up: he accepts that use of hydrocarbons is right now causing climate change, but believes that forty or fifty more years of continued use of them won’t exacerbate the problem. If he dismissed climate change outright, his argument would hold up. But it sounds to me like he just doesn’t feel like addressing a reality that he’s acknowledging. I don’t mean to turn this into a climate change debate–even if you happen to be a climate change skeptic (I’m not,) Friedman admits that he isn’t one, but somehow believes that climate change is just going to stop.

I’ll have to check out the Fuller book. I’ve never read him before, but I’ve heard many good things.

BrainGlutton–Absolutely right. If someone had written in 1809 a book called The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the Nineteenth Century, how likely is it that the author could have predicted the impact that railroads would have on daily life? Electricity? Dynamite? Sure, the steam engine was known, and I have no doubt someone was at least talking about building something that would become the locomotive, but even if the author predicted the development of the locomotive, what are the odds he could have foreseen railroads linking distant cities, and providing intracity mass transit?

Which leads to another problem I have with this Friedman book. He calculates specific developments of future technology–space-based military platforms, military body armor, electricity transmitted to earth by microwaves from orbiting solar collection panels–and figures they’re inevitable. He admits that there are inevitably unintended consequences to new developments, technological or otherwise, but his real sin is a calculus that during wartime, technological advancements will predictably speed up. That might have been the case in the past, but while we can all stand to learn from history, we can also learn from the warning that every stockbroker is instructed to remind his or her clients of: past performance is no guarantee of future results.

This is what I find frustrating about reading predictions of the world to come after our time, and what I think I’d find delightful about predictions made a century ago. I’ve seen illustrations of docking facilities for transatlantic dirigible flights, and air-based superhighways for atomic-powered flying cars. There’s a certain delight in seeing how wildly wrong someone in the past might have predicted the future. Those predictions, be they right or wrong, provide a fascinating window into the way these people saw the world. I remember reading about a play that was performed in the early 1900s about the distant year 2000, after women had gotten the right to vote. A woman had gotten herself elected mayor of San Francisco, and her whole administration was threatened to fall apart because she had fallen in love with a prominent city council member who opposed women’s suffrage–or something like that. A cautionary tale, warning us of the folly of the weaker sex leading the stronger! I’m fascinated by things like that, too.

Another compelling book was an atlas I used to peruse at the Penn State library, when I used to work in its map room. The atlas was published by the German Information Office in New York in the late 1930s. Its purpose was to explain why Germany had been defeated in World War I, and why its current alliance with the Soviet Union rendered Germany undefeatable in any future conflicts. A fascinating read, and one that I’d love to get my hands on.

An excellent source for that sort of thing: David Szondy’s Tales of Future Past website.

Cool! That site looks like a lot of fun! Thanks! This is the kind of think I’m looking for!

In about 1960 Arthur C. Clarke wrote Profiles of the Future. It got updated, but I have the original version. I should check out how right he was from 50 years in the future. About satellite communication, pretty much.

I also have an anthology from the ear;y '70s called The Year 2000 where all the stories were set guess when. Not very accurate. The biggest flaw I’ve seen in predictions is that the person doing the prediction is confident about one area, and so doesn’t really handle the fact that progress is being made in many areas. The second problem is that they don’t make the logical next step. The famous one is that predictions of the automobile didn’t foresee suburbs, drive-through restaurants and lovers lanes, and that predictions of computers getting smaller didn’t include having them in washers, driers, refrigerators, and cars. I don’t recall anyone who predicted that the average house would contain a few dozen computers by 2010.

Something we tend to forget even now. The Y2K scare reminded us of it, but only briefly. There’s a computer in my refrigerator?!

Glad to oblige! :slight_smile:

See also: “The Gernsback Continuum,” by Bruce Sterling.

Lots of these sites exist.



Doc Atomic’s Attic of Astounding Artifacts

Both Popular Science and Modern Mechanix magazines have their archives online and searchable but I find that using Google Books to search PopSci gives you a better search engine than the site itself.

The Smithsonian traveling exhibition based on Corn and Horgan’ book Yesterday’s Tomorrows is now over and the site is closed, but another of their sites retains the Suggested Reading page, one that is so extensive that I’ve probably read only 75% of the adult books, though I have lots that they don’t list.

My apologies. I typoed the name. It’s Brian Horrigan along with Joseph J. Corn who are the authors of the highly recommended Yesterday’s Tomorrows.

See also the TVTropes page I Want My Jet Pack.

“I’m going to write a story set after the Singularity, a million years hence, when we are all intergalactically-empowered immortal sentiences in the Beyond, and people will STILL BE COMPLAINING ABOUT NOT HAVING SODDING JETPACKS.”

– Patrick Nielsen Hayden

It’s only 7 years since it came out, so maybe it’s too recent for you, but Tomorrow Now by Bruce Sterling was interesting - it’s his predictions in particular areas for the next 50 years.

Exapno Mapcase–Thanks for the “future past” web site riches. Those look like fun, too.

Meurglys–That Sterling book is close to 20% over, so it might be time to check it out. It might be worth it to pick up a copy, since I fully expect to be around for at least most of the next 43 years. You reminded me of are a couple of books I wish I’d picked up when they came out–How to Profit from the Crisis of the 1990s (or something like that) and Dow 36,000. I’m sure I can still find copies of them. I’ll have to look for those, too.