Perhaps the most profound words I have ever uttered to a very special young woman on the occasion of her being the valedictorian at her high school graduation who is about to enter Yale Law, one of fifty.
Albert Einstein remarked in 1932 that “there is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.” Thomas Edison thought alternating current would be a waste of time. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once predicted, when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, that airplanes would never be useful in battle against a fleet of ships. There’s nothing like the passage of time to make the world’s smartest people look like complete idiots. So let’s look at a few more. In 1883 Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society and no mean scientist himself, predicted that “X rays will prove to be a hoax.” When Gary Cooper turned down the Rhett Butler role in Gone With the Wind, he is said to have remarked, “I’m just glad it will be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his face and not Gary Cooper.” “Everything that can be invented, has been invented,” announced Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Patents Office, in 1899.
Why is predicting the future so difficult? After all, if history is just one damn thing after another, shouldn’t the future be more of the same? But over and over again, even our most highly educated guesses go disastrously wrong. (Here’s Coco Chanel on the miniskirt, in 1966: “It’s a bad joke that won’t last. Not with winter coming.”) Of course, the smart play would be not to try to guess what’s coming next. But that’s not how we’re wired. Trapped as we are in the one-way flow of time, not predicting the future would be like driving a car without bothering to glance through the windshield from time to time. We desperately need prophets, even false ones, to help us narrow the infinity of plausible futures down to one or at least to a manageable handful. We look at the present and see the present; they see the seeds of the future. They are our advance scouts, infiltrating the undiscovered country, stealing over the border to bring back priceless reconnaissance maps of the world to come.
There’s Hiroshi Tsutsumi, who tries to predict the behavior of one of the most fickle, most influential demographics in the world: the Tokyo hipster. Former jazz musician (and current Federal Reserve Chairman) Alan Greenspan has been staring the future in the face for years and has to put our money (and his) where his mouth is. Peter Schwartz is the man whom Senators, ceos and movie directors go to for previews of the future. He predicted the rise of opec in the 1970s and the fall of the World Trade Center in 2001.
Sherri Lansing picks blockbusters for Paramount Pictures—she has scored in the past with big bets on Forrest Gump, Braveheart and—maybe you’ve heard of it?—Titanic. And mathematical geophysicist Vladimir Keilis-Borok comes into the office every morning to try to work out where the next major earthquake is going to strike. He’s had a few notable successes and one recent, prominent failure. No pressure there, Vladimir.
You have to feel for them. If the recent debates over the service records of our presidential candidates are any indication, we can’t even agree on stuff that has already happened, let alone on what’s next. But thank God some people are willing to put themselves out on a limb, even at the risk of being made fun of by future generations of smart-aleck writers.
We humans are gamblers by nature, incorrigible ones, but we’re not stupid gamblers: we need to know what the odds are and when the fix is in. So let’s extend our posthumous thanks to poor fools like Albert Einstein—as well as to Einstein’s high school teacher, who once made the following immortal prediction to Einstein’s father: “It doesn’t matter what he does—he will never amount to anything.”
Forward Through Backwards Time