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Evaluating 2020 Predictions From Decades Past


Pretend for a second that we are back in 1999, and someone tells you that by the year 2020, your wristwatch will know how much exercise you get, and there will be no more books. Futurists made some of those predictions two decades ago.

Grace Hauck reports for USA Today, and she dug up some of these predictions made for the year 2020. Hey, Grace.


KING: OK. So let me start by asking you a question that seems necessary here. What is a futurist? Who gets to call themselves that word?

HAUCK: (Laughter) You know, I'd say they're mostly self-described. Oftentimes, a lot of the people that I have researched for this project have been part of developing fields, are in tech or are involved with the future of something - the future of work, the future of health.

KING: You have several predictions from Ray Kurzweil, who is one of the more well-known futurists. Tell me about him.

HAUCK: Yeah, sure. So Ray is very well-known, mostly because he's written five bestselling books. The one that I pull from most is from 1999, "The Age Of Spiritual Machines." And Ray is - been affiliated with MIT. He also works as the director of engineering at Google.

KING: One of the predictions made by Ray Kurzweil that you unearthed - he made it back in 1999 - was that books would be dead. Here he is predicting. He said, quote, "paper books and documents are rarely used and accessed." And then he said everything's going to be scanned and available through a wireless network.

HAUCK: Right.

KING: So this is super interesting because he's right about that - that everything is scanned and available through wireless. And yet books - not so dead.

HAUCK: Right. I mean, we, since 2014, have seen the steady decline in the print book publishing industry, but they're not dead yet, as you and I know. I'm sure your bookshelf at home is full as well.

KING: Oh, my God - so many (laughter).

HAUCK: I'm getting so many books for Christmas this year and giving them as well. I think they're the best gift. Just last year, the industry sold 675 million print books and brought in nearly $26 billion in 2018. Now, of course, we're seeing audiobooks doing very well. We're seeing Amazon and other Internet retailers taking over the traditional print-and-mortar bookstores. But the books themselves are still rolling off the presses.

KING: Sticking with Ray Kurzweil for a minute...

HAUCK: Sure.

KING: ...He also predicted, quote, "each individual's practically every move will be stored in a database somewhere." That one feels very, very true.

HAUCK: Yeah. I mean, it really is. We have crazy reports about, you know, smart TVs watching you, your smartphone tracking everywhere you go. Pew Research Center actually did a survey recently and asked people if they thought they were being tracked. Most said yes, and 80% of respondents said they think the potential risks because of data collection outweigh the benefits.

KING: There was one prediction for 2020 that I was really obsessed with after I read your article. It was a prediction. It was also kind of a promise. So in 1997, a 32-year-old British columnist, a writer, said that he wanted to change the relationship between the U.K. and the European Union so that it would be more like the U.S. and Canada, meaning the U.K. would be a separate country, separate from the EU.

HAUCK: Yes. Oh, yes, he did.

KING: And that 32-year-old writer's name was...

HAUCK: Boris Johnson.

KING: That's 23 years ago. Boris Johnson - young Boris Johnson is predicting that he's going to do Brexit in the late '90s.

HAUCK: Yeah. And not only is he predicting it, but these two journalists saw it, and they included his name on a list. They called it the cabinet of tomorrow. They really nailed him. And it's surprising because they published this in 1997 when the Conservative Party was not doing well. Boris Johnson had never held public office.

KING: Yeah, he was just a guy. He was like - they note that he is an associate editor.

HAUCK: Right. I mean, he was well-known on television. He was a funny guy that people were paying attention to.

KING: There were two big China predictions on your list. Two futurists, Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden, said that China would be the world's biggest economy by the year 2020. Now, this actually raised a question in my mind, which is, is that true?

HAUCK: Well, so by nominal GDP, China is not the world's largest economy.

KING: The U.S. still has it.

HAUCK: The U.S. still has it. There are reports that by 2030, both China and India will overtake the U.S. by nominal GDP.

KING: OK. So maybe they could've held that prediction for another decade.

HAUCK: Right. Right.

KING: Now, these same two futurists predicted that China, by the year 2020, would be on the path toward more democratic policies.

HAUCK: Right.

KING: And they did say not necessarily Western-style democracy...

HAUCK: Right.

KING: ...But more democracy overall. Did you rate that as a right, wrong, semi-right?

HAUCK: Well, you know, what I rated it as was a not really because what they said is, like you mentioned, it would be democracy but not in the image of the West. And they didn't actually elaborate on that at all. They left it at that, kind of for your interpretation. But they did say that they anticipated, given China's growth and rapid modernization, it would go through this period in the first decade of the century, where China would need to take, quote, unquote, "draconian measures" to avoid an internal crisis. And you know, we're kind of seeing that now.

KING: Yeah. Yeah.

HAUCK: It's almost like they were a decade too early because not only is the internal crisis breaking out in Hong Kong, which has been a, you know, major story this past year; we're seeing the crisis with the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

KING: The last one for you - in 1968, a political scientist at MIT named Ithiel de Sola Pool said nationalism would be a waning force in the world.

HAUCK: Right.

KING: Now, he was predicting for the year 2018.

HAUCK: Right.

KING: We should be honest about that.

HAUCK: Right.

KING: That one seems way off the mark.

HAUCK: Right. Yeah, I would say, you know, this prediction that came from de Sola Pool - it came from a book by the Foreign Policy Association. And a lot of the predictions were optimistic, and this one certainly was. It's very easily argued that nationalism is not waning in 2019. We're seeing, you know, not only the rise of far-right populist parties across Europe - you've got Matteo Salvini in Italy, the Vox party rising in Spain and the AfD in Germany. And while parties like Vox and the AfD are not the majority, they're rising, and they have a surprisingly large percentage in their respective governments.

KING: I'll tell you what I thought was interesting, though, about that prediction - is that some of what he said - some of what de Sola Pool said - is actually true. We do communicate better because of digital technology. And he said we'd have a better understanding of human nature. You could make the argument that all of those things are true.

HAUCK: Right.

KING: It just hasn't led to the outcome that nationalism's on the wane.

HAUCK: Yeah, exactly. And you know, I think to his credit, he released a book called the "Technologies Of Freedom," where he seemed to recognize that, you know, all of these great modes of progress and technological advancement - that may not lead to freedom. And the entire book was really about weighing privacy and human rights against modernization. So I think he realized later on that he may have been a bit off.

KING: Grace, thank you so much for your time.

HAUCK: Thank you so much, Noel. Nice to chat with you.

KING: Grace Hauck is a writer for USA Today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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