Paleofutures are the futures that were predicted in the past. It’s fascinating to look back at what people of the past thought would happen in their future. Occasionally the predictions turn out to be correct—a hundred years ago, one writer predicted that we would all be carrying wireless telephones—but more often the predictions turn out to be wildly wrong.
There are two basic types of paleofuture. The optimistic futures predict a world moving towards paradise. The pessimistic futures predict a world moving towards apocalypse. Rarely does a predicted future include a mixture of both.
The predominant paleofuture tells us a lot about the time in which it was generated. The turn of the century, around 1900, was a time of immense hope and optimism, and people looked forward to a wonderful future. The 1970s, on the other hand, stand out as a decade for predictions of nuclear destruction, suffocating pollution, hunger, fuel shortages, and the takeover of society by computers.
A few staple predictions form recurring themes. Predictions of personal mobility by flying car are over a hundred years old and are still being made, but anything beyond a prototype is as far away now as it ever was. Fusion power has been perpetually ten or twenty years away for as long as I have been alive.
Another staple prediction is the “meal in a pill”. It’s never going to happen of course. Although our daily nutrient needs could be concentrated into a pill, it can never supply enough energy for our bodies. We’re going to need bulky food, for as long as humans remain warm-blooded and must power a brain.
Some predictions have come and gone. For decades, predictions were made about reaching the moon and colonising it. It was unthinkable to the writers of the time that we might visit the moon a few times then stop going. The fax machine, too, was predicted then came and is about to disappear.
Many predictions extrapolate from what is already theoretically possible, and so in the 1960s there were predictions that our homes would soon feature microwave ovens and ultrasonic dishwashers. The microwave made it big time, but ultrasonic washers never made it beyond jewellry cleaning. In the early 1960s, people knew that every home would soon have a transistor radio, but it never occurred to them that everyone would soon have a digital watch.
Many paleofutures conveniently ignore the fact that the world of the future is also going to include the world of the past. In twenty years time you may have a self-driving car with a holographic dashboard, but you will be sharing the road with cars that have already been built today, and it will be another generation before the “grandmas” of the day will use these newfangled holographic things. Likewise, most of the buildings standing today are going to be around for decades if not centuries.
There’s growing interest in Paleofutures. Much of the activity revolves around the Paleo-future blog where Matt Novak has assembled the world’s largest collection of paleofutures. It’s a fascinating place to lose a few hours.
Need research? Quezi's researchers can answer your questions at uclue.com