December 31, 2010

Looking forward

The New York Times celebrates 160 years in 2011 and congrats on that accomplishment.

When the paper celebrated its 80th in 1931, the editors asked a lot of famous people to predict what the world would be like in another 80 years.  Most of those well-known names are forgotten now – no one predicted that  – although we do remember Henry Ford and William Mayo.

NYT newsroom, 1942. Photo by Marjorie Collins

But others, like Willis Whitney, Arthur Keith, Michael Pupin and William Ogburn, have all become footnotes.  Pupin, an inventor and academician, was the most off-base in his conviction that wealth would be more equally distributed in 2011.  Keith, a Scottish anatomist, shrewdly anticipated that medicine would become overspecialized.

William Ogburn, however, gets my vote for Nostradamus of his time.  Ogburn was a sociologist, a professor at Columbia University, president of the American Sociological Society and the American Statistical Association. And he had this to say about the future:

Technological progress, with its exponential law of increase, holds the key to the future. Labor displacement will proceed even to automatic factories. The magic of remote control will be commonplace… The communication and transportation inventions will smooth out regional differences and level us in some respects to uniformity. But the heterogeneity of material culture will mean specialists and languages that only specialists can understand. The countryside will be transformed by technology and farmers will be more like city folk…

-The New York Times, September 13, 1931.

Ogburn, who also predicted that government would grow,was really paying attention.

William Ogburn looking ahead.

He’d invented the concept of ‘cultural lag’ in 1922 – the idea that there is a delay between a new technology and its incorporation into the culture.  During that delay, the technology itself is changed to some degree by the society that adopts it.

Ogburn wasn’t exactly psychic – born in 1886, he had already seen his world transformed by the car, the electric light, the telephone and radio.  But he was certainly smart enough to extrapolate from those changes to a future that was much more of the same.  (By the time he died in 1959, he had also lived through color movies and television, chemical and mechanical agriculture, the atomic bomb and the start of the space race.)

Henry Ford, btw, bailed on the question, saying no one could really predict the future.  But Ogburn gave it a shot and was impressively accurate.  So, who is ready to do the same for 2091?



  1. very very interesting and a happy new year


    Comment by avery — December 31, 2010 @ 4:04 pm | Reply

  2. Not me! I’m just barely around for Ogburn’s prediction.


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — December 31, 2010 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

  3. “The role of government is bound to grow. Technicians and special interest groups will leave only a shell of democracy. The family cannot be destroyed but will be less stable in the early years of married life, divorce being greater than now. The lives of women will be more like those of men, spent more outside the home.”. William Ogburn got in right in a lot of his predictions. His predictions/ quotations about life in the future was quite remarkable – its not easy to make these predictions in a time so different.


    Comment by Mmm — August 20, 2012 @ 2:21 am | Reply

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