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Predictions are Hard, Especially About the Future

Via Tyler Cowen, some 1968 predictions about life in 2008. Some predictions are pretty good, but as Tyler observes there was a marked tendency of mid-century prognosticators who lived through the rise of the car and the jet to predict ever-increasing gains in transportation technology:

The car accelerates to 150 mph in the city’s suburbs, then hits 250 mph in less built-up areas, gliding over the smooth plastic road. You whizz past a string of cities, many of them covered by the new domes that keep them evenly climatized year round. Traffic is heavy, typically, but there’s no need to worry. The traffic computer, which feeds and receives signals to and from all cars in transit between cities, keeps vehicles at least 50 yds. apart. […] Private cars are banned inside most city cores. Moving sidewalks and electrams carry the public from one location to another. […] Tube trains, pushed through bores by compressed air, make the trip between modemixer and central city in 10 to 15 minutes. A major feature of most modemixers is the launching pad from which 200-passenger rockets blast off for other continents. For less well-heeled travelers there are SST and hypersonic planes that carry 200 to 300 passengers at speeds up to 4,000 mph. Short trips — between cities less than 1,000 mi. apart — are handled by slower jumbo jets.

This is, needless to say, all wrong. Our cars are nicer in many respects than the cars of 40 years ago but in general getting around is slower because traffic is much worse and our rail infrastructure is pathetic. Jet travel has become cheaper and more widespread, but the basic technology hasn’t really improved (indeed, it’s regressed since the end of the Concorde) and the quality of the air travel experience has declined.

I sometimes wonder about this with regard to computers. We live in a time of astounding advances in information technology, so the general assumption is that these advances will continue (until, of course, the computers become self-aware and rebel) apace. But people a few decades ago lived in a time of astounding advances in transportation technology, and generally assumed that those advances would continue forever.

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