middling optimism

Reviews of the future from the recent past are always instructive. Jonathan Margolis’ A Brief History of the Future (2000) is a breezy journalistic look at predictions of all kinds, though spends more time on gadgets, and sociology than global scenarios. He comes down in favour of a kind of qualified optimism, based on his reading of past forecasts and their reliability, what he calls “the real lesson of futurology”.

– This, as I see it, is not that things usually turn out slightly worse than the best forecast – but that they invariably turn out considerably better than the worst. Dystopian predictions… practically always look hysterical in retrospect, while optimistic futurology frequently seems rather understated when we view it with hindsight.”.

This strikes me as a slightly odd way to put what he concedes is the straightforward view that the “truth” about the future probably lies between the extreme views around at any particular time. There is a fairly standard list of examples of doomsday predictions which were off target (Paul Ehrlich supplies about half of them). But which were all the optimistic forecasts which now look understated?

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