YOU ASKED; we heard.
In September, a group of sharp-eyed Pacific NW readers, scanning our story about the 40th anniversary of this magazine, noticed a cover, from 1984, that seemed irresistible: “Seeing 2020: A vision of Seattle’s future.”
The story that inspired this look ahead: Seeing 2020: A vision of Seattle’s future from 1984
This being 2020 — and given people’s natural curiosity about predictions made in the past about how we live today — a number of them reached out to us, asking whether we could share the contents.
That turned out to be trickier than one might imagine: The piece was reluctant to appear in our digital archives; it seemed to exist only in yellowing-paper form. But our staff art whiz, David Miller, sent me a scanned image of the pages when I proposed creating a new story about what the “experts” of the past predicted about the future, our present day, 36 years later.
Fortunately, for additional insight, I was able to speak with that story’s author, longtime Times reporter Mary Ann Gwinn, then a reporter (and relatively soon to be a Pulitzer Prize winner — something she did not predict, but which surprised no one), now a longtime, noted book critic.
Gwinn remembered the piece, illustrated by Christine Cox and written to commemorate the dawn of the year, 1984, made famous by George Orwell’s famed novel bearing the same name.
She got a kick out of rereading it, 36 years later, and confessed that the short story she wrote then, about a fictional, 68-year-old Seattleite named Amelia, was based in part on her own experience as a Seattleite who then had only recently arrived. She was looking into the future at a person who might be her.
“Like Amelia, the claustrophobia of the winters drove me nuts for the first few years, as did the Seattle Freeze (a phrase that had not been popularized then; she dubbed it ‘Scandinavian-style reserve’). When I came here (1983), the influx of newcomers was a trickle. Now the immigrants outweigh the natives. I think the chemistry has changed. Of course, the influx of high-tech workers has meant that Seattle has not ‘gone gray,’ as I thought it might.”
Like many newcomers, she was “astounded” by the presence of water everywhere she turned, she says. This — and the focus on the potential rise of sea levels — figured heavily in her futuristic gaze.
The two stories she produced provided a delightful mix of expert predictions that were spot on, spot off and just downright interesting; Gwinn was told by a broad range of big-thinker sources that robotic dogs would be a thing; that Americans would be engaged in a potential hot war over cold water; and that major local employers would be Boeing, NASA and … Seafirst.
“I was most struck by the accuracy of one prediction,” Gwinn notes: “that we would increasingly do everything from home, and that our digital connection would isolate us in some ways. Like Amelia, today I mourn the days when I could actually talk to a bank clerk.”
The pandemic, of course, has heightened all of this. But even before it struck, we had largely retreated into our own spaces, compared with the Seattle of 1984.
Some other material in the piece, she says, proved “eerily predictive” for her — and likely will for readers, as well. Seattle became her longtime home; she raised a family here and became part of the very generation she had tried to imagine in 1984.
Gwinn adds one other important historical note — a development that probably made her a Seattleite for good as much as anything else she’d ever done:
“I finally got a dog!” Let the record reflect that it did not require batteries.