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Stray Thoughts: What’s Next? (A Thought Experiment)

There was a time, not so very long ago, historically speaking, when everyone assumed the future would look pretty much like the past—if they were lucky. Any sort of significant change was something to be feared and avoided, because it probably meant invasion or plague or something equally likely to send your life up in flames.

The modern concept of progress—the notion that advances in science, culture and social organization are feeding a steady improvement in the human condition—was a product of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. As an ideology, the cult of progress may have reached its peak in the optimism of middle-class America in the ’50s and ’60s, when new medicines and a parade of shiny and suddenly affordable labor-saving gadgets seemed to promise an end to drudgery and dread.

But as the pace of change has continued to accelerate, we’ve become a bit more world-weary about what it all means. The optimism of the ’50s and ’60s has curdled into fatalism. We expect change—and a lot of it—but we don’t necessarily expect progress. We’ve reverted to our historic default—viewing change with a high degree of trepidation.

Maybe that’s why anticipating the next big change has become such a fascination. We’ve all become futurists of a sort. Not that planning for tomorrow is in any way new. Indeed, some believe the ability to think about the future is what made us human in the first place. But predicting what tomorrow may bring has now become a central facet of our lives.

Did you check the weather forecast this morning to see if you needed an umbrella? Did you read the election polls or watch a TV pundit discuss the possible fallout from a recent Supreme Court decision? Did you put off buying a new computer or a new car because you read that the next iteration will be amazing? Did you, just for fun, fill out a World Cup or Final Four or MLB, NFL or NHL playoff bracket? Did you invest your hard-earned money in a stock you think/hope might be on the rise?

Yeah, so did I.

To do all of this future-gazing, we employ a range of cognitive tools, some more effective than others. We use the science of statistics with a remarkable degree of success—when we do it right. We use deductive reasoning with rather more mixed success. And of course, we use lots of guesswork and magical thinking, with just enough accidental success to make us superstitious.

We’re wrong a lot—or else Hillary Clinton would be president, cars would fly through the air, and we’d all be fabulously rich.

So, when we at PCM asked Sagehen experts in a variety of disciplines to make some daring predictions about what’s next in their fields, our purpose wasn’t really to give you a preview of the future, though we hope that you’ll take away some interesting ideas of what may be in store for us down the road.

The main reason we sought these predictions, and the reason our experts offered them, was as a kind of thought experiment. Thoughtful, informed predictions tell us as much about the present as they do about the future. Whether or not these predictions turn out to be right, I hope you’ll find the reasoning behind them intriguing and enlightening.

Of course, if you shake the dust off this issue of PCM a decade from now, you may find that some of these predictions were dead wrong. A few may even seem quaint and funny.

Like the science fiction writers of the ’50s whose spacefaring heroes went rocketing about the solar system while navigating with slide rules, sometimes we know something revolutionary is coming, but we pick the wrong revolution.

That’s the danger of prediction, even for experts.