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See Inside March 2011

The Future Is Now

Herbert Hoover was president when some big thinkers thought about today



Illustration by Matt Collins

As an understocked purveyor of large dried fruit might say, we’re out of big dates for a while. The Orwellian 1984 came and went, we partied like it was 1999, the most ominous monoliths in 2001 turned out to be ideological and the Clarkesque follow-up of 2010 recently ended without interplanetary incident. We have another five centuries before we judge the prescience of Zager and Evans, if we are still alive.

We are thus left with 2011, a seemingly nondescript little year—­except that the New York Times saw fit to publish predictions about it back in 1931. That year marked the Times’s 80th anniversary, so the editors thought it made sense to ask intellectual luminaries of the time to gaze into a future an equal period away, which, if you do the math right and don’t engage in any major Gregorian-style calendar recalibrations, gives you 2011.

(I’m indebted to the law firm of Gallivan, White & Boyd and their “Abnormal Use: An Unreasonably Dangerous Products Liability Blog” for bringing this whole four-score-and-no-more business to my attention. Faced with a mass tort or catastrophic loss claim? Call Gallivan, White & Boyd. But not during a thunderstorm. And not while you’re driving. And don’t hold the phone too close to your head.)

The Times recruited Henry Ford, perhaps on the premise that the man who said “history is more or less bunk” would have more generous thoughts about contemplation of the future. Ford wrote, “To make an eighty-year forecast may be an interesting exercise ... but its principal interest will probably be for the people eighty years on, who will measure our estimates against the accomplished fact.” Bingo.

The newspaper also published the musings of a couple of major physicists, Arthur H. Compton and Robert A. Millikan. Compton won the Nobel Prize in 1927 for his discovery of “Compton scattering,” which usually describes the behavior of x-ray and gamma-ray photons when they hit matter but which can also refer to the reaction of politicians in the California city of Compton upon the arrival of corruption investigators.

Compton wrote that “communication by printed and spoken word and television [will be] much more common than at present, so that the whole earth will be one great neighborhood.” What the great thinker did not predict was that the entire neighborhood would be transfixed by competitions involving second-rate singers, third-rate dancers and 400-pound dieters. Fortunately, the mass communications system also evolved an escape mechanism, namely, yet another viewing of the video of the sensational dramatic prairie dog (often taxonomically miscategorized as a dramatic chipmunk).

Millikan, winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physics, achieved everlasting fame for the oil-drop experiment, his brilliant determination of the charge of the electron. Not to be confused with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s earlier determination of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

“The task,” Millikan wrote, “of learning to substitute stored solar energy for muscular energy—the great underlying cause of most of the changes in man’s activities and living conditions—has been learned within the past eighty years and will never need to be learned over again.”

For Millikan, “stored solar energy” must have meant fossil fuel, a tank of which today could be exchanged for enough cash for what was then a down payment on a 1931 Ford Model A. Fossil fuels, of course, are just aged and tenderized organisms that long ago converted sunlight into energy or fed on organisms capable of converting sunlight into energy. In essence, substituting stored solar energy for muscular energy means that we can drive up a hill rather than having to walk up the hill. Or, to make the point clearer to many members of Congress, we can be driven up a hill rather than having litter bearers carry us up the hill.

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