How to Predict What the World Will Look Like in 2122: Insights from Futurist Peter Schwartz

“It’s very easy to imag­ine how things go wrong,” says futur­ist Peter Schwartz in the video above. “It’s much hard­er to imag­ine how things go right.” So he demon­strat­ed a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry ago with the Wired mag­a­zine cov­er sto­ry he co-wrote with Peter Ley­den, “The Long Boom.” Made in the now tech­no-utopi­an-seem­ing year of 1997, its pre­dic­tions of “25 years of  pros­per­i­ty, free­dom, and a bet­ter envi­ron­ment for a whole world” have since become objects of ridicule. But in the piece Schwartz and Ley­den also pro­vide a set of less-desir­able alter­na­tive sce­nar­ios whose details — a new Cold War between the U.S. and Chi­na, cli­mate change-relat­ed dis­rup­tions in the food sup­ply, an “uncon­trol­lable plague” — look rather more pre­scient in ret­ro­spect.

The intel­li­gent futur­ist, in Schwartz’s view, aims not to get every­thing right. “It’s almost impos­si­ble. But you test your deci­sions against mul­ti­ple sce­nar­ios, so you make sure you don’t get it wrong in the sce­nar­ios that actu­al­ly occur.” The art of “sce­nario plan­ning,” as Schwartz calls it, requires a fair­ly deep root­ed­ness in the past.

His own life is a case in point: born in a Ger­man refugee camp in 1946, he even­tu­al­ly made his way to a place then called Stan­ford Research Insti­tute. “It was the ear­ly days that became Sil­i­con Val­ley. It’s where tech­nol­o­gy was accel­er­at­ing. It was one of the first thou­sand peo­ple online. It was the era when LSD was still being used as an explorato­ry tool. So every­thing around me was the future being born,” and he could hard­ly have avoid­ed get­ting hooked on the future.

That addic­tion remains with Schwartz today: most recent­ly, he’s been fore­cast­ing the shape of work to come for Sales­force. The key ques­tion, he real­ized, “was not what did I think about the future, but what did every­body else think about the future?” And among “every­body else,” he places spe­cial val­ue on the abil­i­ties of those pos­sessed of imag­i­na­tion, col­lab­o­ra­tive abil­i­ty, and “ruth­less curios­i­ty.” As for the great­est threat to sce­nario plan­ning, he names “fear of the future,” call­ing it “one of the worst prob­lems we have today.” There will be more set­backs, more “wars and pan­ics and pan­demics and so on.” But “the great arc of human progress, and the gain of pros­per­i­ty, and a bet­ter life for all, that will con­tin­ue.” Despite all he’s seen – and indeed, because of all he’s seen — Peter Schwartz still believes in the long boom.

Relat­ed con­tent:

In 1997, Wired Mag­a­zine Pre­dicts 10 Things That Could Go Wrong in the 21st Cen­tu­ry: “An Uncon­trol­lable Plague,” Cli­mate Cri­sis, Rus­sia Becomes a Klep­toc­ra­cy & More

Pio­neer­ing Sci-Fi Author William Gib­son Pre­dicts in 1997 How the Inter­net Will Change Our World

In 1922, a Nov­el­ist Pre­dicts What the World Will Look Like in 2022: Wire­less Tele­phones, 8‑Hour Flights to Europe & More

In 1926, Niko­la Tes­la Pre­dicts the World of 2026

M.I.T. Com­put­er Pro­gram Pre­dicts in 1973 That Civ­i­liza­tion Will End by 2040

Why Map­mak­ers Once Thought Cal­i­for­nia Was an Island

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Roberto says:

    This guys seems to most­ly just be in love with him­self and enam­ored by his own sto­ry. Noth­ing here real­ly inter­est­ing or of learn­ing val­ue.

  • Zach says:

    “The great arc of human progress, and the gain of pros­per­i­ty and a bet­ter life for all―that will con­tin­ue.”

    Pie-in-the-sky blovi­a­tion from a priv­i­leged and out-of-touch white man. He seems to exist in an intel­lec­tu­al bub­ble; far removed from the world most peo­ple wit­ness.

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