One of the truisms about futures is that insights can come from all kinds of unusual places and unexpected corners of the world. This morning I ran across an illustration of this principle in blog form: an article about a set of 1931 predictions about 2011, via Abnormal Use: An Unreasonably Dangerous Products Liability Blog. Because of course when you think "the history of futures," the next thing that comes to mind is "products liability blogs that interview people on the latest developments in torts."
But to the predictions:
1931 was a long time ago, and few who live today can claim to remember it all too well…. It was a far different time culturally, socially, politically. The issue: What did the great minds of 1931 predict the rapidly approaching 2011 would be like?
There is actually an answer to that question.
Way back on September 13, 1931, The New York Times, founded in 1851, decided to celebrate its 80th anniversary by asking a few of the day's visionaries about their predictions of 2011 – 80 years in their future. Those assembled were big names for 1931: physician and Mayo Clinic co-founder W. J. Mayo, famed industrialist Henry Ford, anatomist and anthropologist Arthur Keith, physicist and Nobel laureate Arthur Compton, chemist Willis R. Whitney, physicist and Nobel laureate Robert Millikan, physicist and chemist Michael Pupin, and sociologist William F. Ogburn.
The most interesting piece, to my mind, is Ogburn's. Of course he got some stuff wrong, but the broad outlines of his vision were pretty spot on:
Technological progress, with its exponential law of increase, holds the key to the future. Labor displacement will proceed even to automatic factories. The magic of remote control will be commonplace. Humanity’s most versatile servant will be the electron tube. The communication and transportation inventions will smooth out regional differences and level us in some respects to uniformity. But the heterogeneity of material culture will mean specialists and languages that only specialists can understand. The countryside will be transformed by technology and farmers will be more like city folk. There will be fewer farmers, more wooded land with wild life. Personal property in mechanical conveniences will be greatly extended. Some of these will be needed to prop up the weak who will survive.
Inevitable technological progress and abundant natural resources yield a higher standard of living. Poverty will be eliminated and hunger as a driving force of revolution will not be a danger. Inequality of income and problems of social justice will remain. Crises of life will be met by insurance.
Not only are the big trends recognizable, but the specificities are interesting too: yes, there's no mention of the microchip, but it strikes me that "the electron tube" is the functional equivalent in his vision. It's also heartening because Ogburn (here's a pretty good biography) was noted for his work at Columbia on social trends, and argued for the growing importance of technology as a driver of human affairs and the future (obviously). He was elected first president of the Society for the History of Technology, but died before he could take office.
illustration from William F. Ogburn, You and Machines, via flickr
Some of his work was controversial– his 1934 pamphlet You and Machines was banned on the grounds that it was too left-wing– but the rest of his work was more mainstream, and as Rudy Volti argues (in a recent Technology and Culture article available behind the Project MUSE firewall), deals with issues that have been at the center of the history of technology and STS:
Ogburn's seminal work on technology was Social Change with Respect to Cultural and Original Nature… [which] introduces the concept that has been his greatest sociological legacy: cultural lag. As he explains: "The thesis is that the various parts of modern culture are not changing at the same rate, some parts are changing much more rapidly that others; and that since there is a correlation and interdependence of parts, a rapid change in one part of our culture requires readjustments through other changes in the various correlated parts of culture."
A 1950 edition of the book more explicitly lays out his theory of the "role of an advancing material culture in bringing about social change," and breaks it down into four parts:"
"Invention" is still given top billing, complemented by "accumulation" (the store of past inventions, which expands at an exponential rate) and the diffusion of inventions from other cultures. The fourth element of social change is "adjustment," the process through which lagging cultural elements catch up with the changes driven by invention, accumulation, and diffusion.
You can see Ogburn's model in his 1931 New York Times piece.