See if you can answer these four questions:
1) In 1950, a good computer cost $1 million. In 1990, it cost $5000. Today it costs $1000.
Question: What will a good computer cost 50 years from today?
2) Democracy as a form of government has been spreading for centuries. In the 1940s, Japan changed from an empire to a democracy. In the 1980s, the Russian Soviet system collapsed, and now the country holds multi-party elections. In the 1990s, China adopted free-market reforms. In March of this year, Iraq, a former dictatorship, celebrated a new democratic constitution.
Question: Fifty years from today, will a larger or smaller percentage of the world’s population live under democracy?
3) In the decade from 1983 to 1993, there were ten months of recession in the U.S.; in the subsequent decade from 1993 to 2003, there were 8 months of recession. In the first period, expansion was underway 92 percent of the time; in the second period, it was 93 percent.
Question: What percentage of the time will expansion take place during the decade from 2003 to 2013?
4) In 1970, Reserve Funds kicked off the hugely successful money market fund industry. In 1973, the CBOE introduced options on stocks. In 1977, Michael Milken invented junk bond financing, which became a major category of investment. In 1982, stock index futures and options on futures began to trade. In 1983, options on stock indexes became available. Keogh plans, IRAs and 401k’s have brought tax breaks to the investing public. The mutual fund industry, a small segment of the financial world in the late 1970s, has attracted the public’s invested wealth to the point that there are more mutual funds than there are NYSE stocks. Futures contracts on individual stocks have just begun trading.
Question: Over the next 50 years, will the number and sophistication of financial services increase or decrease?
Observe that I asked you a microeconomic question, a political question, a macroeconomic question and a financial question.
If you are like most people, you extrapolated your answers from the trends of previous data. You expect cheaper computers, more democracy, an economic expansion rate in the 90-95 percent range, and an increase in financial sophistication.
It appears sensible to answer such questions by extrapolation because people default to physics when predicting social trends. They think, “Momentum will remain constant unless acted on by an outside force.”
This mode of thought is deeply embedded in our minds because it has tremendous evolutionary advantages. When Og threw a rock at Ugg back in the cave days, Ugg ducked. He ducked not necessarily because his mind had inherited and/or learned the consequences of the Law of Conservation of Momentum. The rock would not veer off course because there was nothing between the two men to act upon it, and rocks do not have minds of their own. Earlier animals that incorporated responses to the laws of physics lived; those that didn’t died, and their genes were weeded out of the gene pool.
The Law of Conservation of Momentum makes possible our modern technological world. People rely on it every day. Despite its use in so many areas, however, it is inapplicable to predicting social change. For most people in most circumstances, the proper answer to each of the above questions is, “I don’t know.”
The most certain aspect of social history is dramatic change. To get a feel for how useless – even counterproductive – extrapolation can be in social forecasting, consider these questions:
- It is 1886. Project the American railroad industry.
- It is 1970. Project the future of China.
- It is 1963. Project the cost of medical care in the U.S.
- It is 1969. Project the U.S. space program.
- It is 100 A.D. Project the future of Roman civilization.
In 1886, you would have envisioned a future landscape combed with rail lines connecting every city, town and neighborhood. Small trains would roll around to your home to pick you up, and a network of rail lines would help deliver you to your destination efficiently and cheaply. Super-fast trains would make cross-country runs. You could eat, read or sleep along the way.
Is that what happened? Would anyone have predicted, indeed did anyone predict, that trains in 2004 would often be going slower than they did in 1886, that they would routinely jump the tracks, that they would be inefficient, that they would have little food and few sleeper cars, that the equipment would be old and worn out?
In 1970, the Communist party was entrenched in China. Over 35 million people had been slaughtered, culminating in the Cultural Revolution in which Chinese youths helped exterminate people just because they were smart, successful or capitalist. Would anyone have imagined that China, in just over a single generation, would be out-producing the United States, which was then the world’s premier industrial giant?
In 1963, medical care was cheap and accessible. Doctors made house calls for $20. Hospitals were so accommodating that new mothers typically stayed for a week or more before being sent home, and it was affordable. Would anyone have guessed that 40 years later, pills would sell for $2 apiece, a surgical procedure and a week in the hospital could cost one-third of the average annual wage, and people would have to take out expensive insurance policies just in case they got sick?
In the space of just 30 years, rockets had gone from the experimental stage to such sophistication that one of them brought men to the moon and back. In 1969, many people projected the U.S. space program over the next 30 years to include colonies on the moon and trips to Mars. After all, it was only sensible, wasn’t it? By the laws of physics, it was. But in the 35 years since 1969, the space program has relentlessly regressed.
In 100 A.D., would you have predicted that the most powerful culture in the world would be reduced to rubble in a bit over three centuries? If Rome had had a stock market, it would have gone essentially to zero.
Futurists nearly always extrapolate past trends, and they are nearly always wrong. You cannot use extrapolation under the physics paradigm to predict social trends, including macroeconomic, political and financial trends.
The most certain aspect of social history is dramatic change. More interesting, social change is a self-induced change. Rocks cannot change trajectory on their own, but societies can and do change direction, all the time.