I have seen the future and it stinks

January 27, 1996|By Hal Piper

"IT'S HARD to make predictions,'' Yogi Berra once said -- ''especially about the future.''

Still, we try, and some predictions are better than others. ''Picturephones,'' shown at the New York World's Fair of 1939, never caught on. Who wants to shave and put on a clean shirt just to answer the phone? Also, we didn't run out of oil, as the futurists predicted during the gas lines of 1974.

But it's not just idle curiosity to want to foresee the future. A hundred years ago, a buggy maker needed to know how Mr. Ford's new-fangled horseless carriages might affect him.

And I need a sense of the trends in tuition and in my bank account to forecast whether I will be able to send my daughter to college.

So futurists will always have an audience. Edward Cornish, president of the World Future Society, offers in the current Futurist magazine 92 predictions for how the ''Cyber Future'' will change our lives. Some of the predictions are almost comically hedged. No. 49 forecasts that ''Businesses will need time to figure out how to get the best use out of infotech. . . . Many of the biggest payoffs will come as surprises.''

Wow! Call your broker and load up on shares of Surprises Inc.

Futurists have to hedge. They remember what happened to the prediction that we would run out of oil. The expectation of scarcity encouraged conservation and drove up prices, making it attractive for oil companies to explore and develop more fields. Gasoline is cheaper now than 20 years ago, and world reserves are greater -- enough to last a hundred years, The Futurist now predicts.

We'll see about that. The trouble with predicting is that you have to make assumptions. Sometimes the assumption is that everything will go along exactly as it is now. That's what leads sportswriters to predict that since Lefty Bigbat has hit 10 home runs in the first 16 games, he will hit 100 in a full season of 162 games. But the pitchers will change their behavior; they will throw Lefty more curve balls, or just walk him.

Disrupting patterns

More sophisticated prognosticators assume that conditions will change, and then try to figure out what effect the changes will have. They can be spectacularly wrong if the changes they assume are wrong -- for example, if the stock market goes down instead of up.

Mr. Cornish's assumption is that ''infotech'' -- computers and telecommunications -- is tying the world together but also disrupting traditional patterns and associations. Thus he suggests that perhaps 90 percent of the world's several thousand languages will disappear in the next century.

Most of these are spoken by small groups of people, who will ''likely find themselves pushed to learn English [the language of telecommunications] if they are going to operate outside their own nations.'' Their children, Mr. Cornish thinks, will find it easier to express themselves in English: ''Ultimately English may become the native language of most people around the world.''

As computers take over more of the work, Mr. Cornish sees medical breakthroughs, global universities and higher living standards, but not a happier humanity:

''There will be a growing division between the cybersavvy and the cyberklutzes -- the nerds versus the clueless. . . . The new infomedia may make people increasingly egocentric and selfish. . . . People may lose much of their ability to think rationally and make wise decisions. . . . Interpersonal relationships will likely be increasingly unstable.''

''We are building up unprecedented power to do what we want to do,'' Mr. Cornish concludes. ''We are becoming godlike in our capabilities. [But] we do not know how to use our growing power wisely.''


Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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