Jay Evensen: In predicting the future, we seem to miss the most obvious trends

Published: Thursday, April 24 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

This 1964 file photo from the World's Fair in the Queens borough of New York shows a views of a moon colony in the “Futurama 2” ride put together by General Motors. The millions of visitors who attended the New York World’s Fair that opened in 1964 were introduced to a range of technological innovations and predictions. Some of those turned out to be right on the money and others, perhaps thankfully, were way off the mark.

Associated Press

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The future isn’t what it used to be.

Ask people to predict the future, and chances are they jump right into science-fiction, gadgets and remarkable new inventions. That’s no surprise. We’ve been conditioned that way … by a steady stream of remarkable new inventions, gadgets and science-fiction.

But those things are fairly easy to see coming, even if we tend to get the details wrong. It’s the other trends, the ones we’re not paying attention to, that will surprise us.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the New York World’s Fair of 1964, in which the future played a big role. Back then, scientist and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote an op-ed for the New York Times predicting what life would be like in 2014.

He wrote about kitchens that could produce instant meals, televisions that would be wall units capable of showing 3-D images and automobiles that hover a foot or two above the ground. He spoke of “vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.”

He wrote of telephones: “The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”

This remarkably accurate view of driverless cars and smartphones was tempered by less accurate predictions, and by an obsession with how technology would struggle to keep up with overpopulation.

You can’t really blame him for that one. People have been misreading the Earth’s carrying capacity since Thomas Malthus first predicted in 1798 that population would outstrip the food supply. Earth’s population today is 7.1 billion, not the 6.5 billion Asimov predicted. And yet obesity is the biggest health threat in much of the world. It’s the lack of political freedom and educational opportunity, not struggling technology, that keeps other parts of the world underfed.

What Asimov didn’t see — other than identity theft, obnoxious cellphone users in public places and embarrassing YouTube videos — are the trends that still seem to elude our attention, despite being painfully obvious today.

Chief among these is the decline in traditional families, which correlates to a metamorphosis in marriage. Wealthy people are marrying; poor people are not. The Pew Research Center recently found that in 2008, 64 percent of adults with college degrees were married, compared to 48 percent without degrees. And the gap is widening.

Along with this, perhaps the most alarming trend has to do with out-of-wedlock births, which hadn’t started to alarm anyone yet in 1964, when the rate was only 7 percent. The latest government figures show that 40.7 percent of all births in 2012 were to unmarried women and that, broken down by race, the news is worst of all for non-Hispanic blacks, among which 72.2 percent of births were out-of-wedlock.

If allowed to continue, this trend will relegate a large portion of future generations to a disadvantaged class, where all but a few will be unable to obtain a higher education.

This brings me to the next trend, which is that boys are losing ground in education and, by extension, the workforce. Women outnumber men as college graduates, and the gap is widening. Uneducated young men, meanwhile, are finding it difficult to find work that pays them enough to start a family.

Experts blame a variety of factors from a lack of male role models to video games.

Among the most insightful quotes attributed to Asimov is this: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

Part of wisdom is being able to see what is happening beyond the popular chatter and to take action.

The Pew Research Center has a new survey showing what people today think about the future. Amid the inventions and technology is a skepticism, born of experience with gadgets, that wasn’t so evident in 1964. Thirty percent think technological advancements will be bad for society.

The truth is that, bad or good, they won’t be able to make up for the other trends that could overwhelm us.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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