Realist, not conformist analysis of the latest financial, business and political news

Getting The Future Wrong

When the first DeLorean rolled off the production line on January 21st, 1981, it looked gorgeous. With its gull-wing doors and brushed stainless steel finish, it looked like the car of the future. The UK government was convinced it would be, and put up about $120m of its estimated $200m start-up costs to have it produced in Northern Ireland, an area of high unemployment.

Robert Zemeckis wanted a futuristic car for his 1985 movie, “Back to the Future,” and featured a DeLorean as the time-travelling vehicle. As Doc Brown put it to Marty McFly, “The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” Indeed, had it featured the time travel app shown in the movie, I would have bought one. 

It looked superb, but it was under-powered and over-priced, with a top speed of 109mph, and taking 8.8 seconds for the stick-shift version to go from 0-60mph, and 10.5 seconds for the automatic. People expected better from something that called itself a sports car, and never bought it in numbers, leaving DeLorean with an unsold inventory. The company lasted only 2 years before it went bankrupt, and the UK taxpayers lost their money, as they usually do when their government “picks winners.”

In the second of the “Back to the Future” trilogy, Marty went in the car to the world of 2015, then far into the future. It was an amazing world in some respects, but less amazing in others. In addition to flying cars, there were hoverboards and self-tying sneakers, robotic litter-bins and dog walkers, small-scale fusion reactors, and Marty had a self-adjustable, self-drying jacket. Yet there was no internet and no mobile phones, both ubiquitous when the real 2015 came along, and both world-changing.

Many of the things that give the world its flavour and feel are inherently unpredictable, since they depend on technological innovations which, if we knew about them now, we’d have now. Popper uses that in his “Poverty of Historicism” to reject the notion that the world is moving to a predictable future. We can use inspired guesswork, but we often get it wrong.

What often happens is that the things we predict as developments take longer to appear than we think. Flying cars are not yet commonplace. The movie “2001 – A Space Odyssey,” expected faster scientific progress than we’ve had. We haven’t yet gone back to the moon in the near half-century since we last did.

On the other hand, if the expected things take longer, new and unexpected ones appear out of nowhere and have the capacity to transform our lives more than the anticipated ones do. If we want such new opportunities to appear, the best thing we can do is to clear some ground they can step into. Instead of putting money into projects that look as though they will be the future, we should be removing the regulations and roadblocks that make it harder for unexpected innovations to make their appearance and transform our world.

 

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Bloke on M4
Bloke on M4
1 month ago

“What often happens is that the things we predict as developments take longer to appear than we think. Flying cars are not yet commonplace. The movie “2001 – A Space Odyssey,” expected faster scientific progress than we’ve had. We haven’t yet gone back to the moon in the near half-century since we last did.” It’s also the case that we solve the human desires in different, often better ways. The gleaming futures of politicians, media and sci-fi writers generally only look at how to improve the current means of doing something. So high speed rail looks at a surface level… Read more »

Spike
Spike
1 month ago
Reply to  Bloke on M4

Yes, and it is the innovator who addresses “the actual problem,” as An Wang hoped adjusters would document an insurance claim by assembling digital media, only at a time when disks didn’t have enough megabytes to hold it and modems weren’t fast enough to share it.

While the politician pursues achievements like HS2 because he is lobbied by the proprietors of the status quo, to whom prosperity mostly means erecting barriers to the innovator.

Chromatistes
Chromatistes
1 month ago

Is there ANYTHING we have done since we last did it?

Spike
Spike
1 month ago
Reply to  Chromatistes

Well spotted, Mr Pendantic, but the operative phrase for trips to the Moon is not “since we last did” but “in the half-century.”

dodgy geezer
dodgy geezer
1 month ago

” The movie “2001 – A Space Odyssey,” expected faster scientific progress than we’ve had.” Mind you, 2001 did the best future-guessing ever to have been featured in a film or TV series. The space craft featured ‘glass’ instrument panels (which were just being experimented with on the latest military aircraft, intelligent fault diagnostic systems and hand-held tablets, which would not be invented for another 20 years. For a technical prediction this was astounding. 2001 did not only predict technology, however. The suits worn by the cast were styled to a future look predicted by Hardy Amis (note the medallions… Read more »

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