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What Scientists Predicted 2018 Would Look Like 50 Years Ago


Here's a brief tally on how we're doing stacked up against some predictions made 50 years ago. One, that we would all be using pocket computers. Check.


Another - the coming of a widely adopted universal language. Yeah, no.

KELLY: Face-to-face communication across long distances? Check.

CORNISH: Technologies that allow us to control the climate. Ooh, yeah, not so much.

KELLY: These predictions were all made in 1968 in a report with input from leading scientists. It was titled "Toward The Year 2018." Harvard historian Jill Lepore has been reading the report and writing about it for The New Yorker. And she joins me now. Hi there.

JILL LEPORE: Hey. Happy New Year.

KELLY: Happy New Year to you. Now, your takeaway from reading this report is that it makes for somewhat distressing reading.

LEPORE: (Laughter).

KELLY: So I'll start there. Why distressing?

LEPORE: Well, distressing, I mean, fascinating. It's sort of the lore of science fiction - fascinating and fun in that so many of the machines that these guys - and that were all guys - predicted would be around by 2018 are around but distressing because they all thought they would be wonderful. And, of course, many of them are not so wonderful. And it's that failure to think about the practical consequences and to make ethical decisions about whether or not to invent these things that got us into, I think, a lot of the fixes and the jams that we're now in.

KELLY: There's one political scientist at MIT in this report who predicted with, I have to say spooky, prescience that by 2018, quote, "You could find out anything about anyone without ever leaving your desk." And I read that and thought, hello, Google. Hello, Facebook. I mean, it does make you wonder, should we have been better prepared if people were imagining this all those years ago?

LEPORE: Yeah, we should've been. But it's easy for us to say. But this guy, Ithiel de Sola Pool, is a fascinating political scientist. He did a lot of work on ARPANET, you know, of course, which leads to the Internet. And so he knew a lot about what was going on that was classified at the time that involved schemes for data collection. And he says, well, we will be able to do these things by 2018. The question is whether we should do those things. And then he kind of leaves that hanging there. I mean, he thought a lot about what he called the tension between knowledge and privacy, which (laughter) is - that's the trap that's, like, the finger trap that we're all caught in right now. So it's really good to think about people anticipating that. And then it's maddening that that conversation didn't go where maybe it might've gone.

KELLY: I'm struck how, with the exception of one doomsayer, they're all pretty optimistic, which is interesting because 1968 was a pretty rough year on all kinds of fronts. Do you think this was a collective, you know, guys, it's got to get better looking 50 years out?

LEPORE: Yeah. So many of the devices that were predicted in 1968 these scientists thought were either to one side of or maybe possible solutions to political problems of hunger, economic inequality or political division. And, in fact, we, from our vantage, see them as contributing to so many of these problems. But I guess that's the chastening reason to read a set of predictions from a half-century ago - is the humility that it inspires. Like, what are we misconstruing about what we're doing and its possible effectiveness? And maybe we're too much swung in the other direction, where we cannot imagine fixes to overwhelming problems.

KELLY: Well, that prompts my last question, which, is any thoughts on if a bunch of scientists were brainstorming right now toward the 2068, what kind of themes or ideas they might come up with?

LEPORE: (Laughter) That's, like, a planted question because, of course, it's the humanists that you need to ask. It's the literature professors and the historians. We're the women. We're the activists and all the people that are not part of the predictions made in 1968 'cause it was a moment that tried to advance the theory that all good in society would be derived from technological change. So much of how I as a historian understand change happening doesn't actually come from technological change. So I wouldn't - if I were redoing this, I would ask a whole different group of people aside from scientists and technologists.

KELLY: Harvard history professor Jill Lepore. Her article for The New Yorker is titled "What 2018 Looked Like 50 Years Ago." Jill Lepore, thanks so much.

LEPORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.