Opinion

Danny Wallace on analysing predictions about the future

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Danny Wallace
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“I like reading about the futures that never came”

I remember reading one of my cousin’s vintage comics as a kid.

In it, a bunch of mysterious strangers in unusual bodysuits stepped out of a UFO and told the confused people, “We are from the FUTURE! We are from the year… 1989!”

It was actually 1989 when I was reading it, and this was not a vision of the world I recognised. I’d only just got a Walkman.

But despite this, there is an old and yellowing book I find myself returning to time and time again.

(I realise this sounds like I’m about to try to convert you to a new religion but I promise you I’m not.)

It is called… The Book Of Predictions.

It was written in 1981 and in it, many of the world’s then-top scientists try to predict exactly what the future will hold.

It’s particularly interesting if you are already from their future, like I am.

To those people I am a total mystery, and from what they write I don’t think it would take much to blow their minds. I’m fairly sure if I could travel back in time to 1981 and show them a MiniDisc and a Sky remote they would probably make me their leader.

What’s remarkable is how the people of the past were almost right about so much.

One man – the presenter and record label boss Charlie Gillett – totally predicted music downloads. Someone else courts madness by suggesting that one day cars will come with little electronic maps in the dashboard “that even a child could follow”.

“By 1986, at least half of all US households will be equipped with an in-house computer of sufficient capacity to handle all bookkeeping, financial and tax management!” wrote another man, who somehow managed to make something so exciting and epoch-defining sound incredibly boring.

Another predicted that by 1990 a new form of cash would appear – a digital one, traded by computer. “The computer will become a motorised book carried around in a person’s pocket, with many kinds of questions going in, and many coming back,” said one, and they totally nailed it! Apart from the motorised book element, which feels more like the start of Game Of Thrones.

They said we’d have 3DTV (yes, but turns out no one wants it), we’d have pleasure islands (surely a reference to Love Island), we’d have whole books you can immediately call up on your computer and “your phone messages will be recorded so that you can hear them at a pre-selected time”.

And all of these things came true, apart from the pleasure islands, though I suppose there’s always the Isle of Wight. It’s even got a Starbucks now.

But while all those visions are impressive, I prefer the other stuff. Whether mundane or a stretch. I like reading about the futures that never came. The ideas that slipped between the cracks, or may have gone on to define some other epoch, in some other universe.

By the late Nineties, the book suggests, athletes would have grown so big that no one would watch basketball any more, because it was now just massive men bending down to place balls in baskets. Are you kidding? I would totally watch massive men bending down to place balls in baskets!

Well, I’d watch it once.

Elsewhere, Iceland would declare war on Malta, because they are of course natural enemies. Solar satellites shining brightly in the cosmos would project 24-hour daylight by 1990. And by 2005, all detectives would be telepathic.

Literally everyone would become vegetarian, too – because I guess it just seemed obvious in 1981 – and we would live to 120, though largely underground, no doubt alongside all our vegetables.

And by 1993 – and I’m still amazed no one’s doing any work to make this happen – colossal matriarchal space communities will have formed, with tall and muscular women overseeing the clash of giant robots in space, while humankind lives on High Orbiting Mini Earths (HOMEs), each one themed differently (from punk to goth) and which spin very quickly around the old Earth, which has gone all rubbish and dirty.

Well, none of that happened by 1993. And it seems a tall order, giving yourself just 12 years from prediction to radical new cosmic society. It turned out people were too busy watching Eurotrash and Doctor Finlay in 1993, while bleaching their hair, saying “wassuuup!” and organising their Beanie Babies.

But I get lost among all the privately owned rockets and trains that can travel 100mph and undentable “memory metal”… or the psychic who very confidently predicted that “there will be a revival of moats by 1989!”

Well, I’m still waiting for my moat.

You get what you get, when it comes to the future. But it’s as fun imagining what will never be, as it is what might.

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