FOR FANS OF IRONY, it has long been a go-to punchline for noting occurrences that everyone, everywhere, should have seen coming — and probably did — but inexplicably were allowed to happen, anyway.
“Couldn’t have seen that coming!”
The story that inspired this look ahead: Seeing 2020: A vision of Seattle’s future from 1984
The phrase as dished out of late has an increasingly bitter aftertaste, morphing from wry observation to exasperated rejoinder, oft-delivered with a side of scorn.
Example: A government neglects to maintain some piece of public infrastructure, causing frequent cries of alarm from all corners, and said infrastructure inevitably fails (or, to cite one real local example, at least shows serious cracks).
Couldn’t have seen that coming! (Actually did. Ignored, moved on. Lather, rinse, repeat.)
Example B: A deadly virus circulates around the globe, national leaders predict it will miraculously vanish and hundreds of thousands of people die. (Repeat above observation.)
It says quite a lot about our current condition as occupants of planet Earth, does it not?
To a degree, it always has.
Look: We’re not perfect. (We are in fact so far from it right now, most of us would fail to recognize perfect if it flagged us down from the side of the road, opened our car door and jumped into our lap.) But allow us to give, for a few moments, a break to mankind.
When it comes to the complementary, and dueling, arts of history and futurism, we are increasingly absorbing what should be a dose of humility: There have been countless monumental events that we the people truly could not have seen coming.
It’s a tough thing to accept, especially for creatures of habit who have come to expect niceties such as 401(k) funds fattened by the very notion of charted courses, predicted outcomes — stability.
History shows us that while some facets of our lives should be (and in fact prove to be) predictable, it very often is the unforeseen curveball — that meteor strike from outside the bounds of our imaginations — that flattens us the most often, and the most profoundly.
ARGUING IN FAVOR of this theory is a look at our own modern attempts to predict our own futures right here in a place many of us used to accurately call Jet City.
A few months ago, we looked back at subjects tackled in Pacific NW magazine over the past 40 years. One of the yellowing magazine covers reproduced to illustrate that piece was a headline voice from the past, peering forward: “SEEING 2020: A vision of Seattle’s future.” It was the cover of this magazine on Jan. 1, 1984.
A number of Seattle Times readers responded with a burning desire to read that piece, to see how close the experts interviewed had come to predicting their future — our present. After some creative archival digging (the story didn’t seem to exist in our digital archive; see “Backstory”), an image of a hard copy of the magazine was unearthed, scanned and sent along to this reporter, who as a student of history and longtime chronicler of local events, shared the curiosity.
Why does it matter? Most of us have an innate desire to know where we’re headed, so we might set Outlook reminders accordingly. And one way to do so is to look back at previous looks forward. The light emitting from guesses from past prognosticators — both right and wrong — sometimes can illuminate the path of our present course.
(Also, to be honest, there’s some Schadenfreude at play here: “They predicted WHAT?” Insert your own “I-WAS-PROMISED-A-JET-PACK” refrain here.)
So here we go.
THE CONCEPT BEHIND Pacific NW’s “Seeing 2020” in the year 1984 was inventive: The magazine, noting the dawn of the year made famous by “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” George Orwell’s classic novel, worked from the obvious premise that Orwell’s dystopian vision had not (yet) been fully realized; this illustrated the folly of specific time-stamping of future events.
The idea was to borrow Orwell’s time frame — the roughly 36 years between his conjuring of a totalitarian civilization marked by perpetual war, government surveillance, denial of history and rampant propaganda, and its predicted arrival date — to test the Nostradamus skills of a broad range of local smart folks, each asked to peer the same distance into Seattle’s future.
This project fell into able hands: Seattle Times reporter Mary Ann Gwinn (who presumably did not predict her own near-term future, a 1990 Pulitzer Prize, when working on this piece). Like any smart reporter would, she began by acknowledging the obvious challenges inherent in mentally traveling almost four decades forward.
Gwinn consulted a history professor who laughed at the very notion.
“Go back 30 years, and look at the predictions of our time, and see how silly they are,” the person said. “Look at ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ On one level, it’s got some profound insights. But it simply isn’t what the world is today. No matter how hard you try, when you predict the future, all you really do is extrapolate on the present.”
And yet she persisted, taking a stab at prognostication based on the opinions of big-thinkers in a range of fields and professions. With those 36 years in play, the target year became the far-off date of 2020.
There we were. And here we are.
GWINN’S TWO PIECES took the form of a list of predictions for today’s Seattle, coupled with an often-prescient short story offering a glimpse into the daily life of “Amelia,” a fictional 68-year-old Seattleite who had emigrated from the Midwest (a means of inserting her personal experience into the story, she now admits).
The list offers a good starting point for both the usefulness, and peril, of future-casting. By the dawn of 2020 in Seattle, a range of local experts predicted:
● People would still be here, despite the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation. (A nod here to the end-stage, very warmish windup to the Cold War in the Reagan years, when nukes were very much a front-burner issue.)
● We would still “fall in love, get married, have children.”
● The region would be a center for computers and aerospace, with growth in both spreading throughout King County, not the city core.
● The population would be older and more diverse; especially notable: an influx of residents from Latin American nations, reflecting a national trend.
● The “greenhouse effect” (remember that terminology, with the specific concern being aerosol propellants creating an ozone hole?) had “come to pass,” already raising sea levels enough to dramatically redraw local waterfront lines.
● Fighting over the precious resource of water had become a national political flash point, particularly in the West.
● Many people would still believe in God, “though only sects with strong dogma are likely to survive in an age of flux.”
● Because of the growth of personal computing, many of us — “the highly educated, the computer literate, the middle and upper classes” — would be working at home, or “neighborhood work centers,” and also shopping, entertaining ourselves, managing our finances and learning from our own homes.
TO THIS, THE TALE of “Amelia” added these predictive elements for Seattle, 2020:
● Video phones and “voice boxes” are commonplace. (Alexa, tell me about your grandmother!)
● Regional education centers have emerged, in contrast to traditional district-based schooling.
● Amid a regional “ecotopia,” Seattle stands as an urban center dominated by a laid-back, senior-focused, residential/ecotopia lifestyle, with the city’s “Scandinavian-style reserve” still somewhat fondly remembered by elders. Downtown is “defunct” as a commercial center, the victim of home shopping.
● Despite a major seawall project, the waterfront is already inundated by rising seas from the “greenhouse effect,” i.e., climate change, although the term was not in use then.
● The Rainier Valley remains as a last enclave of Seattle’s urban poor.
● Much of Seattle’s heavy industry has died, giving way to “King County, the Silicon Valley of the 21st century.” And, oh yeah: Bremerton has a SPACE PORT.
● “ … you could work at home, or at a neighborhood work center. You could make your own movie — at home. You could make your own music — at home.” Further, the piece predicted, you could shop at home, get delivery from a “Nordies” (kids, ask your grandparents) neighborhood distribution center — or even get “serviced at home by a prostitute from a home-based classified ad system” (the presumed legality of which was not addressed).
● People still meet at Seattle’s corner taverns, “nodding about the old times into their beer, which the health-conscious young eschewed.”
● Major local employers are Boeing, NASA and Seafirst (!), with work distributed through cable lines to regional work centers throughout the county, leaving “a lot of open road” for computer-guided transport pods that have replaced most cars.
● Robotic dogs, more reliable, easier to train and devoid of poop bags, are a thing, although real ones still wag among us.
● Houseboats on Lake Union are entered via key card and fingerprint readers.
● Most of the state’s vaunted salmon runs have been decimated by warm water.
● Nationally, the government struggles to quell uprisings, works to combat regionalism, wrestles with the long-term environmental effects of nuclear accidents elsewhere on the planet — and is heavily impacted by a growing global peace movement. A strong nationalized space program continues to expand humanity’s habitat beyond Earth.
● Los Angeles, victim of a 2010 major earthquake that topped major buildings, and beset by water shortages, is a “wasteland.”
SO YOU CAN SEE how dicey all this becomes.
But in truth, one surprising realization is how much these predictors got right, half-right or sort of right.
Two things jump out through the lens of hindsight: The impact of personal computing on the way we work, learn, worship, celebrate, shop, eat and even have sex was spot on. But the futurists of 1984 didn’t really take it far enough, fast enough.
Although they did correctly forecast things like mobile phones and voice integration, they underestimated the pace of advancement and, especially, portability of digital tech — and its invisible link to “the cloud.” The omnipresence of the instrument that has arguably most shaped us in the past two decades — mobile devices that in 1984 would have qualified as highly advanced computers, and their offspring, wearable digital tech — was not part of this vision, at least outside the starry-eyed tech world.
It’s a significant oversight, as portability changed personal computing from a place-based tool used by choice to a physical attachment rarely escaped.
Nor, it seems, did the 1984 guessers seem to anticipate a related phenomenon — most of us gladly trading our privacy for convenience, wittingly or unwittingly allowing ourselves to be assimilated into a vast digital, data-hoovering web, which would form the basis of future marketing, media strategies, political tactics and other powerful forces too numerous to mention, and too frightening to imagine.
Likewise, as in most stabs at the future of the time, few prognosticators saw the dark side of the human spirit hijacking something designed for the good for the pursuit of what’s very often bad: A tool conceived as freeing — universal digital connectedness — is reverse-engineered to confine.
(Given all the current Big Brotherism, doublespeak, cults of personality and thought-policing, one subjective take is that Orwell’s primary failing in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was not one of imagination, but simple choice of year of arrival.)
Some other, more easily defensible, take-aways also are apparent:
● Human nature is the great wild card. Guessing the future tools of the trade is one thing; guessing how they might be used is another, entirely. (See above.)
● Scale is critical — and difficult to predict. This futuristic vision, like most others, failed to anticipate the degree to which a particular future outcome might succeed or fail in magnitudes never anticipated, creating a bow wave of social, economic or political change that swept through our daily lives in ways likewise unforeseen.
One example: The 1984 view sagely forecasts the rise of online shopping. But no one foresaw a single company — or a single person — dominating the field to an extent perhaps unseen before in national economic history; nor the way that this would be emblematic of an ongoing, unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a relative few present-day Americans.
Such concentration of wealth, and by its nature, power, has implications all across the societal board — beyond just economics. Witness: Amazon, and one Jeff Bezos, whose Bellevue garage enterprise would within two decades make him the wealthiest man in the history of the planet. The massive wealth generated by his company literally changed the physical face of Seattle, because the mushrooming occurred — mostly by his choice — in the urban core of the city, transforming it in a way that truly could not have been anticipated, except between the ears of a man with a net worth, at press time, north of $180 billion.
● Technology advances some predictable outcomes, but slows others. Things that seem likely to happen sometimes don’t, or are forestalled by technological workarounds or other intervening trends (the focus on the regional U.S. water shortage here being one example).
● There’s no accounting for those meteors. Ask any dinosaur: History shows us that the events proving to be the most cataclysmic — or beneficial — to society often tend to be asteroid-belt surprises completely outside the realm of predictability. Witness: the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, poised to reshape society to a degree not seen since the Great Depression. And in the political world, the near-total breakdown in the vaunted notion of American “common good,” exemplified by civil politics.
● Those impact craters are immense: That one thing you didn’t see coming can make all the rest of your carefully constructed futuristic Jenga blocks tumble into a pile in an instant, rendering the entire effort moot.
ALL OF THIS might be enough to make futurists seek another line of work — or perhaps dig in and think harder, asking the necessary, albeit cynical, question: What are the dark shadows of any potentially bright-light development?
People in the future business tend to be optimistic; there’s little money to be made spinning gloom, despair and misery. But as we have seen, an honest look even four decades backward reveals that for nearly any notably positive development, a less-obvious slew of negatives lurks.
Witness the modern “shrinking of the planet” — the interconnectedness, in-person, digitally or otherwise, of the world’s people, and the unquestionable societal benefits of same. An honest assessment would include related downsides of the same globalism: from reshaped economies that have squished America’s middle class; to the near-instant spread of disease; right down to that horrifying nest of menacing murder hornets in Blaine, with 200 dormant queens, ready to take flight. History suggests that smarter prognosticators should grant bad equal weight with good — and perhaps even err on the side of SNAFU.
WHAT, THEN, CAN be learned by looking back at our previous look forward? Humility is an important lesson. Fragility, another. But the exercise itself can be both cautionary and life-affirming, especially if we focus on ways we’ve done more with what’s been handed us than might have been expected.
Not everything the forward thinkers failed to grasp is/was/will be bad. “Good meteors” hit the target sometimes, too, and our own region can attest to it. Serendipitous tools, and creative ideas, that allow us to cope with those meteor-strike events are all around us.
Balancing today’s challenges of disease, for instance, is the blistering-pace rise of biotechnology, particularly the curative promise of immunotherapy, much of its potential being realized right here on the (alas, slowly rising) shores of Lake Union. In 1984, it seems safe to say, few of us could have seen that coming. But 36 years in the opposite direction, it literally could save us all.