The Birth of THE FUTURIST 2
The first issue of THE FUTURIST (dated February 1967) was a crudely printed 16-page newsletter, but it was packed with then-current ideas about the future. I had culled them from news releases, texts of speeches, magazine articles, and whatever other sources I could lay my hands on.
One article carried the byline of Hubert H. Humphrey, then vice president of the United States, and was based on a recent speech in which he foresaw desalinated seawater, a permanent base on the moon, control of weather, elimination of bacterial and viral diseases, the landing of men on Mars, and the creation of primitive forms of life. (I suspect the speech was written for Humphrey by David Williams, a member of his staff who was an early Society member.)
Also in that first issue, oceanographer Athelstan Spilhaus predicted that most ships in the future would be submarines, while Richard Shetler, president of the General Learning Corporation, said we could anticipate a population explosion in non-Western cities, as well as computers that could take dictation. Other forecasts came from science writer Arthur C. Clarke and John Diebold, author of Automation, a pioneering best seller on the use of high technology in factories.
This first issue of THE FUTURIST — like other issues published during the 1960s — reflected the enormous optimism in the United States at that time. The world economy was booming, and the U.S. government was spending unprecedented amounts of money. Notwithstanding the soaring cost of the Vietnam War and the Apollo program, Lyndon Johnson’s administration was pouring money into an ambitious “Great Society” program designed to end poverty in America, boost educational levels, and open new opportunities for blacks and other demographic groups.
The immediate effect of these government programs was to generate an enormous demand for bureaucrats, allowing many people in Washington to move to higher-paying jobs with the government or firms funded by the government. Due to the shortage of educated workers, Washingtonians felt secure in their jobs and often could pursue volunteer projects for the World Future Society during working hours. They could also take long lunch breaks to attend Society meetings when we began holding them downtown.
The optimistic mood nourished by prosperity and the breathtaking Apollo program also encouraged a widespread interest in the future, which became the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles. Readers enjoyed learning about the wonderful things that they could expect in the future, and editors catered to this interest.
THE FUTURIST was not immune to the mood: Some early issues of THE FUTURIST could be described as “future porn” — glowing descriptions of the glamorous world of tomorrow. But I’m proud to say that, in the June 1967 issue, I did warn that writers on the future were focusing on “future solutions to present problems rather than future problems arising from present actions.”
The first issue of THE FUTURIST contained so many specific predictions that, 30 years later, I decided to see how many proved right and how many were wrong. [See “Futurist Forecasts 30 Years Later,” January-February 1997.] I began by identifying 60 statements in our first issue as candidates for evaluation. Then I eliminated 26 forecasts because they could not be judged clearly right or clearly wrong due to vagueness in their wording or the fact that the deadline for their fulfillment had not arrived or simply because I didn’t feel able to evaluate their accuracy. That left 34 forecasts whose accuracy I felt I could judge.
Trying as hard as I could to be fair, I scored 23 forecasts as right and 11 as wrong — an accuracy rate of 68%. This finding counters the skeptics who claim that predictions are always wrong, but the fact remains that if you had bet on one of those predictions the chances were one out of three that you would have lost your money.
The 1967 forecasters failed most frequently in predicting future developments in space exploration. Though they forecast correctly that there would be a landing on the moon by 1970, their predictions for landings on other planets by 1980 and a manned lunar base by 1986 proved much too optimistic. (In December 2006, NASA said it anticipated a permanent manned base on the moon by 2024.)
Unquestionably, the forecasters were greatly influenced by the extremely rapid progress in space exploration during the 1960s. They hadn’t reckoned with the possibility that the U.S. government would drastically reduce funding for space projects after the successful landing of men on the moon in 1969.
Still, considering the February 1967 issue as a whole, I don’t think the forecasters did too badly. They anticipated that humans would make dynamic technological, economic, and medical progress in the years ahead, and so we have. The optimism of the 1960s was not entirely unjustified.