Or, more accurately, a relatively distant yesterday's vision
of a more recent yesterday.
Trolling around eBay recently trying to find ideas for Christmas gifts, I ran across a bargain that I couldn't pass up for myself -- a stack of 30 issues of Penthouse founder Bob Guccione's Omni magazine (which ranks behind only Spy among defunct titles whose loss I most lament) dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s, all for only $3.
Betwixt and between the hilariously dated ads for the Apple II, Intellivision ("Intelligent Television!") and Sony's very first Walkman, as well as some classic short fiction from the likes of William Gibson, Frank Herbert, and Harlan Ellison, I found this fascinating little nugget from the March 1979 issue -- a sampling of survey results submitted by 20,000 readers offering predictions on when certain scientific and social milestones would be reached.
So with the benefit of hindsight, how did they do? On the whole, I guess…not so well. But in at least a few cases, the results were better than you might expect.
Predictions Shared By More Than 50% of Omni Readers
- PREDICTION: We're in for a female president in 1992
- OUTCOME: Well, no, it didn’t happen, but I would note that they did manage to virtually pick the date of the notorious "Year of the Woman," which featured not only the Senate wins of Dianne Feinstein, Carol Mosely-Braun, Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray, but also the coronation of co-Counsels Bill & Hill....so that's got to count for something.
- PREDICTION: 1992 will also see a man landing on Mars.
- OUTCOME: Not even close. It would still be five more years before even the first successful rover mission would touch down on the Red Planet. But it's easy to see how this overly optimistic estimation could have been made from the standpoint of 1979. The Soviets had already landed two rovers on Mars a full eight years before the survey was taken. It turned out that neither of them worked, but that was generally seen as a problem with the rovers themselves, not with the impossibility of the trip. Who could have foreseen then that it would take another 17 years before the U.S. would even attempt a rover mission of its own?
- PREDICTION: By the late 1980s, cloned human beings will become a reality.
- OUTCOME: They clearly didn't hit the mark, but how far off they were is tough to judge. If you count embryos as humans, then Advanced Cell Technologies claimed to have done it in 2001 and Hwang Woo-Suk definitely did it in 2004, making them off by a decade and a half. If the claim is for a truly viable, post-embryonic human, then I guess it depends on what you think of the claims made by Panagiotis Zavos and Severino Antinori, or those of the Raelians.
- PREDICTION: By the late 1990s, commercial flights on orbiting spacecraft will be possible.
- OUTCOME: MirCorp. launched its commercial service by flying Dennis Tito to the International Space Station on April 28, 2001, which is awfully close to the target. If you count Japanese reporter Toyohiro Akiyama’s 1990 flight aboard the Soyuz TM-11 – for which his employer, the Tokyo Broadcast System, paid $28 million – then space tourism is even older than that. Granted, Omni’s readers were likely envisioning a far more robust market than what we now have, but a hit is a hit.
- PREDICTION: Gas prices will top $1-a-gallon by 1982.
- OUTCOME: The one prediction readers were likely hoping wouldn’t come true, and it actually arrived two years early…at least, in California, which is the only market for which I have data. The average nominal price of gasoline jumped from $0.89 in 1979 ($1.98 in today’s dollars) to $1.23 in 1980 ($2.49) before going on to hit a peak price of $1.66 ($3.08) in 1981.
Predictions Shared By More Than 90% of Omni Readers
- PREDICTION: Extra-sensory perception will be shown to be fact, rather than fiction.
- OUTCOME: A big fat swing and a miss. Actually, one of the more remarkable things in reading through all of the Omni back issues is noticing just how popular the concept of ESP was in the 70s, and how completely it has disappeared from the culture ever since. We still have more than our share of cranks and charlatans, but no longer do those claiming special abilities cast them in the SciFi glow of ESP. They’ve switched genres and gone occult, dubbing themselves “mediums.” I would have to ascribe this shift to the fact that ESP’s adherents actually made claims (telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, remote viewing) that could be tested (and falsified) in a laboratory setting. Dead men, on the other hand, tell no tales. Except, of course, to James van Pragh, Sylvia Browne, and John Edward.
- PREDICTION: A computer will win the world chess championship in 1985.
- OUTCOME: They were off by a dozen years. Belle became a master in 1983, and Deep Thought defeated a grandmaster in 1989, but a computer did not defeat a reigning world champion in a full match until the new and improved Deep(er) Blue took its rematch from Gary Kasporov in May 1997. Of course, in this case, the genius of Kasporov might have been the more difficult anomaly to predict than the growth rate of computing power.
- PREDICTION: Life expectancy will reach 100 by the year 1998
- OUTCOME: Here, Omni’s readers were furthest off in their prognosticating, highlighted by yesterday’s bulletin from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touting that U.S. life expectancy hit a new record of 77.6 years -- disappointing, by the prognosticators' standards. This particular prediction underscores the old adage that it’s best to be cautious when extrapolating recent trends into the future, particularly the distant future. After rising 5.7% in the 70s, life expectancy more or less plateaued in the 80s, rising only 1.3% over the decade. We've since returned to a steadier growth trend, rising 3.5% since 1990, but nothing like the advances seen during the Me Decade.
So, all in all, not too shabby. Just think what they might have been able to forsee if they actually had some money on the line!