Science magazine Tiede
The past is worse than you know, and the future is better than you can imagine.
No longer does anyone die of hunger anywhere in the world. Scientists grow fish, algae and seaweed in huge tanks to be processed into food. With the addition of suitable chemicals, the food can be made to taste like steaks or vegetables, or even like vintage whiskey. This is how food production of the 2000s was envisioned in Otava’s 1966 edition of the annual Mitä-Missä-Milloin.
Predicting the future is easy, but dating is extremely difficult. A bar of fish protein that tastes like whiskey is not likely to be available in your corner store in the foreseeable future.
The basic problem is that we cannot know in advance what inventions science and technology will produce in the future. If we knew the innovations that will revolutionise the millennium, they would have been made already.
Sometimes the prediction can be spot on. In 1969 Professor Osmo A. Wiio, an expert in communications and technology, envisioned a society around the year 2000 where reading newspapers, borrowing books, paying bills and shopping would all be done from home using “a reader not unlike a television set”. Sounds very much like the internet.
“We typically underestimate the future, imagining it to be much like the present except for a few small changes.”
A failed prediction is not necessarily a misguided attempt; it can also be an optical illusion. The adoption of new technologies seldom occurs overnight. Usually it takes it takes place gradually and goes largely unnoticed.
Telecommuting was all the rage in the 1980s, but the concept has not come into its own until very recently. Flying cars and 3D-printed human body parts are a reality today, although they have not made an impact on our everyday lives. If scientists are right, the first 3D-printed liver will be created this year.
We typically underestimate the future, imagining it to be much like the present except for a few small changes. Our imagination is unable to stretch further than that, although it should. For politicians the future horizon is the next election, and for investors the next quarter. For a future visionary, the shortest span worth looking at is somewhere in excess of a century. If you shift your gaze to look a bit further than your toes, you can see more clearly where the world might be headed.
Another thing we struggle with is our persistent pessimism. We often talk about the good old days and never about the bad old days. The past is seen as a paradise and the future as a road to destruction. Against our better judgment, we paint for young people a picture of the world that has no future and no opportunities.
In reality, more or less everything has developed in a better direction, thanks to technological advances: a better life for more people. Over the past few decades, hundreds of millions of people have risen up from abject poverty. Nor are things looking bad for ourselves, either. Research suggests that Finns are among the happiest people on Earth.
Far from ending, the world is only just beginning. With tools provided by science and technology, the future is bright – as long as we use the tools correctly and efficiently to benefit humanity and the planet.
The American futurist Edward Cornish put it aptly: Nearly everything that we do not know about the future is of little significance, whereas the little that we can know is extremely important, because it helps us make better decisions.
When the alternatives are laid out for us, we are able to make choices between possible futures. It is easier to go forward when you know which way is forward.
Jukka Ruukki is Editor-in-Chief of science magazine Tiede and Chief Science Editor at Sanoma Media corporation.