My brother-in-law recently gave me a copy of The World in 2030 as written by Lord Birkenhead. Here’s a Spectator article written about it in the year it came out.

It’s a quick fun read with, as you can imagine, a number of hits and misses that you get by trying to extrapolate current trends 100 years in the future. As the man himself said “I believe in them because I have been assured their truth by people of credence.”

I got along better with it when I realised how much of the commentary was actually just a very dry sense of humour.

Ultimately though, it’s what it doesn’t say, but instead implies by style, that is more interesting.

The hits:

  • Technology
    • Wireless telephone and television (for the watching of cricket)
    • Television shows on demand rather than just broadcast
    • 3D TV
    • Synthetic food
  • Medicine
    • Huge increase in anaesthetic, especially for use in childbirth
  • Economics
    • Mass movement from the countryside to cities globally
    • No more household domestic servants
    • Efficient manufacturing leads to relative high wealth for many and low cost of goods
    • International  industry on a vast scale will control the world
    • Men of business will develop a jargon as secret as higher algebra (true also for tech and many other disciplines)
  • Democracy
    • The important of politicians doing well on television
    • Voters will support individual projects on their merits rather than blocks of ideas grouped by political parties
    • We will continue to see outcries about things like waltzing, votes for young women, etc none of which will actually have negative effects
    • An industrialised china can undersell every industrial competitor in the world
  • Military
    • Soldiers have significantly better conditions both before going into battle and after any injury
  • Sociology
    • Fashion for men will become much less important they will have 3 costumes, work, formal and recreation
    • Africa will become strongly christian
  • Ecology
    • Poison fumes from factories will be gone, the foundry and abattoir will be as clean as a hospital

The misses:

 

  • Technology
    • Limitless cheap power via atomic energy and renewable sources
    • Using airships for Atlantic crossing as petrol plane can’t reach that far (no concept of jets) – until atomic motors or electrical ones powered by Tesla transmissions
    • The arrival of the fast and cheap family aeroplane removing the needs for cars
    • It’s possible Mars supports luxurious fauna – we should investigate
  • Medicine
    • Pharmacists producing side-effect free, legal new pleasure-drugs (alcohol has terrible side effects but tobacco is ‘pleasant and harmless’)
    • Rejuvenation
    • Babies grown in labs a-la Brave New World (which was written long after and may have been influenced by)
    • The implementation of eugenics to remove the “congenitally criminal” before they are born
  • Economics
    • The two-hour work day
    • Cheap power means mass devolving of factories out across the nation as transportation of resources and goods costs almost nothing – such factories being pleasing to the end by blending in with the countryside
    • The world as a single economic unit will prevent future war (there were strong economic ties across Europe and less than a decade later WW2)
  • Democracy
    • Fox hunting will not be banned as the next step would be to legally force everyone to become vegetarians
  • Military
    • Use of harmless knockout gas by police and during war
  •  Sociology
    • People comparing gene charts before getting married to ensure they have good offspring
    • Psychology will rank amongst the exact sciences meaning that, to start with, it will be used to manipulate people in politics but then everyone will be able to use it massively evening out all forms of influencing and negotiation
    • However, being able to use psychological science does mean that people will be able to predict book and play endings early on rendering many forms of entertainment useless
  • Ecology
    • The end of mass agriculture due to genetically engineered efficiency creating food in local area labs including artificially grown meat
    • Digging a vast canal into the African interior, flooding the Sahara to fill it full of fish and make the surrounding areas fertile

The “maybe coming soon”s

  • Technology
    • Limitless cheap power via atomic energy and renewable sources
  • Medicine
    • The elimination of all infectious disease
    • Full understanding of human genetics
    • Everyone will live to 120 then die via painless euthanasia
  • Democracy
    • Using technology to empower democracy via numerous referendums (possible now, but probably unlikely given…)
  • Military
    • War will be fought using remote controlled weapons such as tanks and planes

Beyond the predictions its fascinating to read into the text what the prevailing culture was like at the time.

Race:

  • Africa
    • We believe in our physicians as much as the naked African believes in his witch doctor
    • By 2030 the negro may possibly be on the way to dispossess the white ownership of Africa
  • China
    • Yellow peril – via the Empire the white man will win but with China will remain strong
    • Unless the ideas of the Asiatic people change their current attitudes there will be no end to epidemics
    • A stream of half educated eager Chinese youth come to the west, pick up terrible ideas and go home
    • China could unite like Germany under a Bismark or Napoleon
  • India
    • The natives too illiterate to embrace nationalism – if we left just disorder and bloodshed – Hindus and Muslims fighting
    • The British Raj is “a successful benevolent Tyranny “

The book has a whole chapter on “The future of women” in which the author predicts that many will will become highly educated and successful in science, academia and politics. However:

  • Who would trust a woman doctor or lawyer?
  • Women’s devotion to education and their husbands and family will leave no time for domestic duties
  • The average woman worth more to state than average man but best woman worth less than any exceptional man
  • History yet to record examples of female genius
  • Statesmanship is not possible for the female of the species
  • People living in communal establishments with refectories, nurseries, etc – the women who, to the eternal benefit of their fellows, find their greatest happiness as a housekeeper or nurse
  • Women will not alter their attire until their work is done and she feels at liberty to become purely ornamental

Nationalism:

  • Empire as the way to solve nationalism – soon there will be only 4 or 5 empires in the world that can negotiate peace much more easily
  • Will the commercial centre of the British Empire move to Canada, India or Australia?
  • All empire citizens will be equal
  • Nationalism must be solved satisfactorily or it will destroy our civilisation
  • Nations will still maintain arms but at a much smaller number than in 1930 (yes, except for the US)
  • A war requires a man of ego, a fighting force and a country that supports the war – not any more for the last part

Towards the end of the book Lord Birkenhead says “To predict beyond a 100 years is madness.” Many people, particularly the late lamented Alvin Tofler, have said that as time goes on the ability to look into the future only gets harder. Now, I’d find is all but impossible to predict much of anything even 10-20 years from now. By the time I’m the age Birkenhead was when he wrote this book, 14 years from now, I imagine looking ahead will be even harder – but it’ll be fun finding out.

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