The Future is Calling

The future is coming. It is beckoning to us. But what it will be like?

We all think we have a fair idea of how life might be in a few years’ time. We imagine bigger televisions and smarter cars, faster trains and futuristic fashions. But are we right?

Is it possible to imagine what the world will be like in just five years time? Ten? Twenty? Can we really foresee what we’ll all be using and doing? It’s actually much harder than we think.

In fact, it’s almost impossible. Here are two examples from the past:-

1. Iron and Steam
When iron was first produced in quantity, they built a bridge using woodworking joints. It took the invention of rivets and welding before the future could begin.

ironbridge zoom

Woodworking joints, cast in iron, connect metal girders

The bridge builders couldn’t foresee the enormous changes that their new technology would bring:-

  • The very idea of replacing horses with engines was impossible to glimpse. No crystal ball could see it coming.

  • The idea that ordinary people might have actual leisure time and enough surplus food and money go on holiday by train could not be imagined in their wildest dreams.

Linotype machine

2. Typesetting
When the linotype machine threatened to put thousands of typesetters out of work, they rioted. They could not foresee the consequences of this simple machine:-

- The printed word became cheap.

- Hundreds of thousands of jobs were created - jobs the typesetters couldn’t imagine in their wildest dreams.
They included journalists, editors, publishers, distributors and many more.

- Every child in the country was taught to read, despite some MPs standing up in Parliament and saying, “You must not teach the lower orders to read - they will get ideas beyond their station.”

Crystal Gazing
The problem with trying to foresee the future is that it's pretty well impossible. We stand here, in the early part of the 21st Century and we try to foresee the changes that computer technologies will bring and we can’t!  We look back with amazement at how far we’ve come: computers, tablets, mobile phones, the Internet, driverless cars - all things that we couldn’t have imagined back in the middle of the 20th Century - and we boldly try to look into the future.

And the only thing of which we can be certain is that we cannot, in our wildest dreams, imagine all the things that are to come, any more than those early pioneers could have foreseen the consequences of mass-produced iron and steel or the linotype machine.

This section looks in closer detail at why it’s so difficult to foresee the future using examples from the past. You’ll find it a fascinating journey, and it dovetails closely with the section on education in my website - because how should we educate children for a world in which the only thing we know for certain is that we have no idea what it will be like?

Next, let’s look at that iron bridge: Dovetail Joints

© Brian Smith 2015