Why bother with reason and evidence to make predictions when you can put your faith in a chance roll of the dice? These two methods could be said to represent the vastly divergent ways of science and superstition, two realms that rarely intersect except, perhaps, when it comes to fortune-telling — or, in the argot of the 20th century’s soothsayers, “Futurism,” where predictions seem to rely as much on wishful thinking as they do on intuition and intellect.
In the 1967 short documentary film, The Futurists, above, scientists and visionaries quite literally combine the scientific method with random chance operation to make predictions about the 21st century. Host Walter Cronkite explains:
A panel of experts has studied a list of possible 21st century developments, from personality controlled drugs to household robots. They have estimated the numerical probability of each, from zero to 100 percent. The twenty sided dice are then rolled to simulate these probabilities. A use of random numbers known as the Monte Carlo technique, often used in thinktank games. All of this is highly speculative.
Indeed. The glimpse we get of the future — of our present, as it were — is very optimistic, “and so very, very wrong,” writes Billy Ingram at TV Party — at least in some respects. “Sadly, those past futurists forgot to factor in human greed and the refashioning of Americans’ way to be less communal and more self-centered.” The very medium on which the documentary appeared helped to center selfishness as a cardinal American virtue.
Yet in 1967, the federal government still required major networks to run educational content, even if “network executives understood these programs would end up at the bottom of the Nielsen ratings.” Hence, The Futurists, which aired on primetime on CBS “when the 3 networks would occasionally preempt popular programs with a news feature/documentary.” Despite low expectations at the time, the short film now proves to be a fascinating document.
The rolls of the dice with which it opens are not, it turns out, a “crap game,” but a “serious game at the University of Pittsburgh,” Cronkite tells us before introducing the august panel of experts. We see a number of scenarios predicted for the coming century. These include the vague “increased importance of human concerns,” sci-fi “teaching by direct recording on the brain,” and ominous “tactical behavior control devices.”
Buckminster Fuller even predicts bodily teleportation by radio waves, something like the technology then featured in a brand-new TV show, Star Trek, but not scientifically probable in any sense, either then or now. Nonetheless, there is surprising prescience in The Futurists, as its opening panel of futuristic experts announces their conclusions:
We wind up with a world which has the following features: fertility control, 100-year lifespan, controlled thermal nuclear power, continued automation, genetic control, man-machine symbiosis, household robots, wideband communications, opinion control, and continued organization.
Apparently, in 1967, all the Futurists worth talking to — or so it seemed to the film’s producer McGraw Hill — were men. Theirs was the only perspective offered to home viewers and to the students who saw this film in schools across the country. Those men include not only Fuller, who gives his full interview at 14:30, but also frequent maker of accurate futuristic predictions Isaac Asimov, who appears at the 20:50 mark. Aside from the exclusion of 50% of the population’s perspective, and an overly rosy view of human nature, however, The Futurists is often an uncannily accurate vision of life as we now know it — or at least one far more accurate than most 21st century futurisms of the past.