Buckminster Fuller, Isaac Asimov & Other Futurists Make Predictions About the 21st Century in 1967: What They Got Right & Wrong

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

In 1964, Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts What the World Will Look Like Today: Self-Dri­ving Cars, Video Calls, Fake Meats & More

9 Sci­ence-Fic­tion Authors Pre­dict the Future: How Jules Verne, Isaac Asi­mov, William Gib­son, Philip K. Dick & More Imag­ined the World Ahead

Octavia Butler’s Four Rules for Pre­dict­ing the Future

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • yes says:

    Now the­o­ry, what is now?

  • Molly Marks says:

    Always a big fan of si-fi. Asi­mov my favorite. They all have a propen­si­ty to allow their minds to trav­el where they go- with­out inter­rup­tion. The cur­rent zeit­geist is trou­bling…

  • Dahlia Reveron says:

    been there to a future from far­ther time .in future com­ing we will have a under­ground con­ti­nen­tal rock­et train ‚seats on one side arrived at domed city sol­diers guard­ed entrance went received full body scan by rotat­ing mass machines scoped cells ‚blood type, brain ‚etcetera domed city under dark­ness .pub­lic trav­el on small tracks used very small vehi­cle run­ning on two tracks above streets through build­ings only com­mer­cial traf­fic on ground great expans­es of desert areas out side of dome. gov­ern­ment always on high vig­i­lance and con­trol as aliens not all known .met Buck­min­ster Fuller and expressed or rather tear­ful­ly said I know you will pass and nev­er return ( to this life).he knew my mean­ing bowed his head and said nev­er lose your sen­si­tiv­i­ty.

  • Ally Roberts says:

    Views only of men or, more specif­i­cal­ly, white men?

  • David says:

    Please, apprise me of the long list of promi­nent female / POC futur­ists of the 1960s that the film­mak­ers snubbed.

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