A 1968 book predicts life in the year 2018

In 1968, the Foreign Policy Association gathered experts together to predict what life would be like in the year 2018 -- and issued their forecast in the book Toward the Year 2018.

The book jacket promised that the contents were "MORE AMAZING THAN SCIENCE FICTION," and, like a lot of sci fi, it wound up frequently missing the mark. The 1968 progrosticators figured that we people of the future would have TV ads for anti-gravity belts, the "suppression of lightning," a country powered heavily by nuclear, and the ability to launch "a man-made hurricane" as an offensive weapon.

But as this writeup in the New Yorker notes ...

But for every amusingly wrong prediction, there’s one unnervingly close to the mark. It’s the same Thomas Malone who, amid predictions of weaponized hurricanes, wonders aloud whether “large-scale climate modification will be effected inadvertently” from rising levels of carbon dioxide. Such global warming, he predicts, might require the creation of an international climate body with “policing powers”—an undertaking, he adds, heartbreakingly, that should be “as nonpolitical as possible.” Gordon F. MacDonald, a fellow early advocate on climate change, writes a chapter on space that largely shrugs at manned interplanetary travel—a near-heresy in 1968—by cannily observing that while the Apollo missions would soon exhaust their political usefulness, weather and communications satellites would not. “A global communication system . . . would permit the use of giant computer complexes,” he adds, noting the revolutionary potential of a data bank that “could be queried at any time.”

What “Toward the Year 2018” gets most consistently right is the integration of computing into daily life. Massive information networks of fibre optics and satellite communication, accessed through portable devices in a “universality of telephony”—and an upheaval in privacy? It’s all in there. The Bell Labs director John R. Pierce, in a few masterful strokes, extrapolates the advent of Touch-Tone to text and picture transmission, and editing the results online—“This will even extend to justification and pagination in the preparation of documents of a quality comparable to today’s letterpress.” And it’s Ithiel de Sola Pool—he of the free love and controlled economies—who wonders, five decades before alarms were raised over Equifax, Facebook, and Google, how personal information will be “computer-stored and fantastically manipulative” in both senses of the word: “By 2018 a researcher sitting at his console will be able to compile a cross-tabulation of consumer purchases (from store records) by people of low IQ (from school records) who have an unemployed member of the family (from social security records),” Pool predicts. “That is, he will have the technological capacity to do so. Will he have the legal right?”

They also predicted global warming and the fact that malevolent humans would abuse any newfangled communications technologies: “Applying technology, like all human efforts, bears bittersweet fruits," as one contributor notes.

That writeup is worth reading in full, as is this essay by the novelist Matthew Blackstad, who touches on Towards the Year 2018 while meditating on the original Six Million Man TV show, of similar vintage.

Image used with permission of Matthew Blackstad

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