How to live on the cliff of tomorrow

We are being Future slopes all the time. Every advertisement, every political campaign, every quarterly budget is a promise or a threat about what the future will hold. And sometimes, it can feel like those futures are happening, whether we like it or not—that we’re simply going with the ride. But the future hasn’t happened yet. In fact, we have a voice and we should embrace that voice as much as we can. But how? I’ve spent the past eight years doing over 180 episodes of a podcast about the future called Front flash. Here, in a three-part series, are the key things I’ve learned about thinking about what might happen tomorrow. (This is part 2. Read part 1and check back soon for part 3.)

It’s easy, and usually quite cheerful, often laughing at predictions about the future in the past. In the book of 1905 Hundred Years Later: An Optimist’s Expectations, author T. Baron Russell predicted the death of stairs. “The plan to climb to the upper part of a cottage by climbing some kind of wooden hill, covered with a carpet that has problems with cleanliness, will of course be scrapped,” he wrote. will be built in two or three decades.” There are hundreds of articles online filled with inaccurate predictions—everything from Time The magazine confidently stated that Remote shopping will never work arrive The New York Times claims that a rocket can never leave Earth’s orbit.

It’s also easy, though perhaps less exciting, to feel as though we ourselves are, right now, on the cusp of something worth anticipating. And if you believe people holding microphones and speaking, broadcasting podcasts, or posting viral Tweets, we are indeed on the verge of something revolutionary. What that revolution is changing—maybe it’s the end of the world, or the singularity, or war, or the cure for Alzheimer’s. It doesn’t really matter which cliff we’re leaning against, exactly. The important part is that we are always half a step away from whatever is on the other side.

But is it us? Can we really know if we are in a time of change? Some historians and philosophers argue that it is impossible to know whether future people will be interested in our current events, because we do not know what will happen next. Others say no, it is quite possible to know at that moment if an event is historical. “Most of us have had an experience in our own lives—unfortunately, it can happen all too often lately—when things happen in the world and we think, oh, that’s a problem. big,” said Matt Connellya historian at Columbia and the author of the book Decryption Tool. For Americans, moments like the plane crashing into the Twin Towers or the January 6 uprising are always on their mind. “The moments where you think pretty quickly to yourself, ‘I’m going to tell my kids about this.’”

But those big events are rare. And for each of them, there are smaller events that eventually only become hugely important with hindsight. When Van Leeuwenhoek showed everyone the first microscope, no one really cares. When Boris Yeltsin chose a man named Vladmir Putin as his successor in August 1999, most Everybodyeven in Russia—didn’t think it would be a globally historic choice. When Alexander Graham Bell introduced his new invention, the telephone, to Western Union in 1876, the company laughed at him and called device “hardly more than a toy.”

So which side of this argument is correct? And how would one even figure that out? This is what Connelly started working on in 2019 with his article called “Historical prediction.”

Keeping track of past predictions to see if they are correct is difficult to do. One way to know how well (or badly) we predict is to start polling people right now about current events, then wait 30 years and come back and see if those whether the survey is correct or not. But no one did that, Connelly said, because that experiment wouldn’t be able to be funded.


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