Polling the future

Looking back on the contents of the Rough Guide, as I now can, I find I am getting more interested in what people think about the future, as well as what might actually happen.

In that connection, just got round to reading the details of the survey of US opinion about Life in 2050, published back in June. This full-scale poll of American Citizens, done for the PEW Research Center, found a lot of people buying in to the kind of technological developments which often figure in the media, and in science fiction. So…

“Large majorities expect that computers will be able to carry on conversations (81% say this definitely or probably will happen) and that there will be a cure for cancer (71%). About two-thirds (66%) say that artificial arms and legs will outperform real limbs while 53% envision ordinary people traveling in space.”

Some of those are open to widely differing interpretations, of course – outperform on what criteria?  How many ordinary people? But there’s less ambiguity about another optimistic one: apparently 74 per cent of US respondents believe that by 2050 “most of our energy will not come from coal, oil or gas”. Ambiguity comes in here, though, when this seemingly fundamental misunderstanding of the how fast energy systems get renewed sits alongside the view, held by 72 per cent, that the world will face a major energy crisis.

Other analyses suggest differences between young and old on expectations of global warming and future environmental quality (the young are more pessimistic), and – more starkly – between republicans and democrats. The political divide in the US is so marked, perhaps it is not surprising that it extends to this aspect of the future as well.

That’s one feature of these findings which would not be replicated in a similar survey in Europe, I guess. There are plenty more questions – about general optimism and pessimism, national politics, race relations, global influence and so on. Most can be compared with responses to similar surveys in 1999.

Judging by this post at io9, none of this may tell people what they would really like to know about the future. Still, the excellent people at Rough Guides are fairly certain to stump up for a mini-survely along similar lines in the UK to accompany book launch in a month or so. I wonder which questions we should take from the US survey to offer the most interesting comparison?

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