In 1987, 14 Great Minds Predicted the Future. What Did They Get Right?
I set out for groceries, but I found myself at The Magazine.
The Magazine is a longstanding shop in the SF Tenderloin stocked with vintage magazines, ephemera, and erotica. It has been a purveyor of all manner of smut, art, and insight since 1973.
Earlier this week, I made an exciting discovery there.
As I flicked through a few copies of OMNI Magazine, a defunct science and culture rag, one headline in particular seized my attention. It read: “14 Great Minds Predict the Future.”
The article inside, titled “The Seers’ Catalog” by Marion Long, was published in January 1987. The selected “seers” were 14 leading minds of the time, scattered across various industries. The projected year in question was 2007, a 20-year toss into the future.
Naturally, I was curious about this forecast, these “great minds.” I didn’t live through the 80’s. I was born in the 90’s, and my consciousness is firmly rooted in the 21st century, for better or for worse.
To use that nauseatingly tired term…I’m a millennial. Therefore, my worldview has largely been colored by cynicism, skepticism, and uncertainty. So what I found most remarkable (and refreshing!) about these predictions was the overwhelming sense of optimism. There were words of caution, sure, but the overall projection was one of hope, imagination, and innovation.
Reading predictions for a year that is already 15 years in the past proved to be an interesting thought exercise. It inspired a better sense of my own limited perspective, bent by the century in which I’ve lived. I felt it might be a worthwhile exercise to share, whether or not you lived through 1987.
So, without further ado, here are the highlights.
Where they got it right
Bill Gates (Co-founder of Microsoft): “The dream of having the world database at your fingertips will have become a reality.”
“Also, we will have serious voice recognition. I expect to wake up and say, ‘Show me some nice Da Vinci stuff,’ and my ceiling, a high-resolution display, will show me what I want to see–or call up any sort of music or video.”
“The world will be online, and we’ll be able to simulate just about anything.”
“A lot of things are going to vanish from our lives. There will be a machine that keys off of physiological traits, whether it’s voiceprint or fingerprint; so credit cards and checks–pretty flimsy deals anyway–have got to go.”
“People will like the idea that the machine really knows and that the machine can create experiences formed around the events in their lives to fulfill their particular needs and interests. But there’s a danger, too. It will be easy to feel worthless or overwhelmed by the amount of data. So what we’ll have to do is make sure the machine can tailor the data to the individual.”
Timothy Leary (Psychologist & Psychedelics Advocate): “You’ll educate yourself on the issues by using your own thought-processing appliances, the new computers. So you’ll be continually teaching yourself, continuously learning.”
David Byrne (Founding member of the Talking Heads): “Computers won’t take into account nuances or vagueness or presumptions or anything like intuition.”
HEALTH & MEDICINE
Richard Selzer (Author & Professor of Surgery, Yale Medical School): “Boredom will be the major medical problem of the future. B-O-R-E-D-O-M! As leisure time increases, as life gets more and more mechanized, people become bored–and that creates a dangerous situation.”
“The most important development in research in 20 years probably will be the development of antiviral drugs and vaccines that will wipe out many communicable diseases. Genetic manipulation will help us dispose of the congenital defects that have plagued society for so long.”
“There are going to be all kinds of transplants: heart transplants, lung transplants, brain-cell transplants.”
“I see a distancing between doctor and patient. We certainly have failed the American public. The image of the doctor gives off an ill odor in this country. Doctors are seen as people more interested in having and doing than they are in feeling and perceiving.”
George F. Will (Columnist & Commentator for ABC-TV News): “We will be able to extend life at the end of life, preserve life in neonatal situations, and manipulate life through genetics.”
Bill Gates: “I hope passive entertainment will disappear. People want to get involved. It will really start to change the quality of entertainment because it will be so individualized.”
“We’re going to figure out how curious we are and how much stimulation we can take. There have been experiments in which a monkey can choose to ingest cocaine and the monkey keeps on pushing that button until he dies.”
“Life is really going to change; your ability to access satisfying experiences will be so large…You feel inadequate. It’s going to be intimidating.”
David Byrne: “Because people’s attention spans are getting shorter, more fiction and drama will be done on television, a perfect medium for them. But I don’t think anything will be wiped out; books will always be there; everything will find its place.”
“Outlets for art, in the marketplace and on television, will multiply and spread…The networks will be freed from the need to try to please everybody, which they do now and inevitably end up with a show so stupid nobody likes it. Obviously this multiplication of outlets will benefit the arts.”
Tony Verna (Inventor of Instant Replay): “Who says things have to be real?”
Robert Heilbroner (Norman Thomas Professor of Economics, New School for Social Research): “There is an alarming possibility that our economy is moving in the direction of what some people call a two-tier society—a large population of people with middle class or higher incomes and values, with a considerable bulge at the top, and a large number of people who have been economically and culturally uncoupled from the main society.”
“I think American optimism is in for a very severe challenge.”
“In the next 20 years the government will have to take active steps in providing work and income for the bottom one third of the population.”
“I think it is quite possible that the day of unquestioned American preeminence is finished.”
William McGowan (Chief Executive Officer, MCI Communications Corporation): “Information will be a kind of international standard, the way we now think of gold. It is going to be a controlling factor in international trade.”
HUMAN CHARACTERISTICS & VALUES
Timothy Leary: “You won’t be a serf, a slave, or a worker. What will you be? A performer. Everyone will be performing. Passive listening, passive observing, passive watching will disappear.”
“Everyone is going to be a psychologist, computer whiz, philosopher. Mind play, mind performance, psychological skill are going to be the equivalent of land, money, and power in the earlier ages.”
“Everyone will learn to chart his thoughts and his mental performance—like a baseball player’s stats.”
“You will be living in an information society in which information will be what money and machinery were in the Industrial Age.”
“In the Information Age, to keep any poor kid from having a computer would be like keeping him from having food, medicine, shelter, or clothing now.”
“The key to the twenty-first century will be five words: Think for yourself, and question authority.”
David Byrne: “The line between so-called serious and popular art will blur even more than it already has because people’s attitudes are changing.”
“More and more people will turn to the arts for the kind of support and inspiration religion used to offer them.”
“We will begin to notice the great artistic work going on outside of the major cities—outside of New York, L.A., Paris, and London.”
RELIGION & SPIRITUALITY
Andrew Greeley (Priest & Professor of Sociology at UA Tucson): “We’ll see increased emphasis on the nonrational–the emotional, mystical, and poetic aspects of religion.”
“The power of the pope will shrink. Today we are experiencing the last gasp of a dying order, and in 20 years most of it will be gone.”
Harvey Cox (Professor of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School): “We’ll see fallout from the millenarian and apocalyptic sects that will emerge around the year 2000…If society is experiencing substantial changes—say, the disintegration of family structures or the obsolescence of work skills—then these sects could be dangerous. There’s a very strong, popular kind of superstitious, folk-level strain of apocalyptic belief in the country right now.”
Barbara Ehrenreich (Author & Activist): “Sex will continue to be on center stage in the next 20 years.”
“We will, of course, continue to move away from a medical model of sexuality, which separates sexual activity into normal patterns over here and the dysfunctions or illnesses over there. As we develop a broader definition of sexuality, it will appear particularly quaint to talk about dysfunctions.”
“In 20 years more people are going to have long periods of time when they are not in a marriage or other long-term sexual relationship. They should have options that do not depend on getting emotionally involved.”
WHERE THEY MISSED THE MARK
Tony Verna: “Sensavision will be like a Walkman attached to your forehead. You won’t actually have your head wired because infrared wires will send signals to you. In 2007 Mick Jagger will be onstage, and when Mick feels heat, you’ll feel heat. If a spray of water hits Tina [Turner] on the back, you’ll feel that, or you’ll switch to the stands and smell what people are smoking.”
Timothy Leary: “There are going to be what I call brain radios—hearing aids you put in your ear—that will pick up and communicate with the electricity of the brain…Drugs will be old fashioned. No one will be addicted because you can just turn on the ultimate orgasm and keep it going for an hour.”
David Byrne: “[Computers] may help creative people with their bookkeeping, but they won’t help in the creative process.”
HEALTH & MEDICINE
Richard Selzer: “Many of the diseases that plague us today—cancer, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, and many infectious diseases—will fade from the scene in the next 20 years because effective ways to treat them will be found.”
“People can’t afford the cost of medical healthcare. There is going to be a comprehensive national health plan in this country—it’s inevitable.”
Timothy Leary: “By 2007 the problem of scarcity will be solved. Because most work will be done by robots and computers, you won’t have to work.”
Timothy Leary: “Within 20 years we’ll have scrapped the current system of partisan politics…It is insane to to run a highly complicated, technological, pluralistic society like America when you have in the cabin of the spaceship a Democratic and a Republican candidate kneeing and gouging and beating up each other to see who’s going to be president for four years.”
George F. Will: “Hopefully, people will come to the conclusion that democracy works—that it makes people freer and that freedom makes people more prosperous than they otherwise would be.”
Robert Heilbroner: “The Soviet Union, as far as I can see, will continue to be very bureaucratic and will be very unlikely to make any economic changes.”
George F. Will: “I think we have a real chance of seeing peace in the Middle East.”
HUMAN CHARACTERISTICS & VALUES
Tony Verna: “Twenty years from now we certainly should have more empathy and compassion for each other.”
Timothy Leary: “Material possessions won’t mean as much to us as they do now. If there are nine Porsches in your garage, you’re going to say, ‘Take them away.’ We’ve done that with wheat and grain, and we can do it with other things if we put our minds to it.”
“People will become more intelligent. I am really bored with the level of intelligence on this planet…I am just waiting for people to smarten up.”
RELIGION & SPIRITUALITY
Andrew Greeley: “Most people have a strong feeling that science does not tell you what life means. That feeling is very strong now, and it will only grow stronger. In 20 years no one is going to claim humankind is drifting away from religion—that we don’t need religion.”
David Schramm (Chairman of Dept. of Astronomy & Astrophysics, U of Chicago): “We are all searching for what we call the theory of everything: TOE. If we found TOE we would know how all the forces interact, how the universe began. We would test the Big Bang farther back in time than we’ve ever been able to test it.”