Predicting The Present

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Surveying the volume overall, there are some striking omissions. Most of the writers assumed that transportation facilities would get bigger, better, and faster, but for them that mainly meant steam-powered trains that would go more than a hundred miles an hour. Hardly anyone dreamed, like the Kansas Populist senator William A. Peffer, that men would “navigate the air.” (Would that the rest of his essay had been equally accurate; he foresaw, among other things, a five-hour workday, the abolition of war, the limitation of taxation to “natural sources of livelihood,” and a humankind “wiser, better and purer.”) Octavus Cohen, a music and drama critic, described a device called a “telephote” that would be in the home of every “reasonably well-to-do man” by which “the entertainment at any place of amusement in that city [might] be seen as well as heard.” But no one else dreamed that sounds, much less pictures, might’ be communicated without wires, although Marconi and radio were only a few years away. The private gasoline-powered automobile? Not one respondent seemed to know of its existence or had the slightest intimation that it would become universal and dominating. And computers that infinitely multiplied the powers of the mind? No one had a glimmer. Space travel? Not even a hint, though Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon had been around since 1865.

The surprising thing, in fact, is that these optimists failed to see some extraordinary breakthroughs that lay ahead, especially in health care, even though some of them directly ad- dressed the issue. The Reverend T. DeWitt Talmage, of Brooklyn’s Central Presbyterian Church, for example, expected that “cancer and consumption will be as easily cured as influenza,” but neither he nor any other contributor imagined organ transplants, bypass surgery, antibiotics, and other discoveries that eliminated—in developed countries, that is—one of the crudest aspects of premodern life, the frequent death of young children from illness.

One respondent predicted a “telephote” in every home, on which the “entertainment of any place of amusement” could be seen and heard.

There were other positive aspects of progress that they may have missed too, but the most powerful impression that stays with me after reading the book is how innocent the authors seem of impending catastrophes. Only twenty-one years ahead were the disasters of World War I, a great collapse of the European civilization, whose superiority they all took for granted, that would lead to the even greater horrors of totalitarianism and World War II, which their own children lived to see.

Not that I want to fault them, even the most bombastic ones like first comptroller of the Treasury, Asa Matthews, who expected a United States that embraced all of North America and would shelter “the most perfect civilization and the most prosperous and happy people that the world ever knew.” He and his cohort simply were on what was then the universally popular affirmative side of an age-old debate over whether human nature can be changed as outward circumstances improve. Very, very few Americans of the 189Os thought otherwise. In this book, only a journalist, Joseph Howard, Jr., dares to say: “So long as men are built as they are today—mentally, morally, and physically—human nature cannot change. And until human nature changes the outwork, the output cannot be expected to alter.” And only John J. Ingalls, a former Republican senator from Kansas, was grouchy enough to forecast wonderful material advances (like air travel, global telephone networks, and cheap power) but still deny that they would make any great improvements in politics. “Wealth will accumulate, business will combine, and the gulf between the rich and the poor will be more profound,” he warned, and nothing would be done about it because “the differences between men are organic and fundamental . . . they result from an act of God, and cannot be changed by an act of Congress.” The attempt to cure the ills of society by statute, he went on, would be “the favorite prescription of ignorance, incapacity and credulity for the next 100 years—as it has been from the beginning of civilization.”

But these, I remind readers again, were rare voices. The fair was a wedding celebration; humankind was getting married to technology. Who was mean enough to suggest that the match would not be happy, or the children anything but beautiful?