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In our opinion: Predicting the future

Published: Tuesday, March 6 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

People tend to be optimistic when predicting the future. That is an admirable human trait. They also tend to focus on gadgets and scientific marvels, the shiny technological things that perform tasks previously thought impossible.

Small wonder, then, that a time capsule recently discovered in the walls of the Crandall Building in downtown Salt Lake City envisioned a modern world in which mail would be delivered via rockets, cars would hover in the air and clothes would be heated and cooled similar to an electric blanket. Those were predictions for the year 2000, written by some of the city's business leaders in 1959, the year the capsule was planted. A building engineer, working on restoring the Crandall Building's facade, recently found the capsule. It was supposed to be opened 12 years ago, but no one still alive remembered it.

Sometimes, change comes in ways people don't care to predict. The bank whose grand opening in 1959 occasioned the capsule has since been bought out by a larger institution, and the branch was closed more than 40 years ago.

Still, time capsules offer an interesting mix of nostalgia and crystal-ball gazing. They often lead the finders to do their own prognosticating. The question is, when we gaze into the future, are we focusing on the most meaningful sorts of predictions?

The 1959 view of today was heavily colored by the tone of the day. That was the dawning of the space age, when orbiting rockets and the promise of manned space flight was all the rage. Naturally, many of the predictions involved rockets and flying things. Today's predictions will betray our own age in similar ways. But take a person straight from 1959 to today (without having lived through all the intervening years, as so many have), and they may be more surprised about things that have little to do with technology.

They may be surprised by a nation in which barely half the adults are married, as revealed by a recent Pew Research Center study. In 1960, not long after the time capsule was planted, 72 percent of U.S. adults 18 or older were married. Now, that figure is 51 percent.

The natural outgrowth of a nation that rejects marriage is children who are raised without benefit of both a father and mother. Roughly 40 percent of all children born in this country today are born out of wedlock, and a majority of them — 60 percent according to government figures — are born to women in their 20s. Such births were primarily among teenagers a half century ago.

Research is clear about children raised in unstable family environments. They do more poorly in school and are more likely to end up poor, addicted to substances and in jail than children raised in traditional two-parent families.

What would a visitor from the past think about the educational achievements of today's youth, which tends to lag behind that of children in many other industrialized nations. What would be their thoughts about business ethics, civility or attitudes toward religion?

The point of this is not to sap the optimism inherent in an America that has consistently found ways to reinvent itself and encourage progress. It is, rather, to redirect the nation's focus on what truly matters going forward.

Technological wonders are indeed marvelous, and the United States has been in the forefront of most of them. Some who wrote in 1959 foresaw things that sound somewhat similar to the Internet and on-demand television. But most of us aren't going to invent a flying car or colonize the Moon.

Each of us, however, can affect the moral condition of the world around us in some small way. Everyday personal choices, multiplied by the hundreds of millions, decide what a civilization will be like many years from now, which also will determine how we use all those other shiny inventions.

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