The 1968 Book That Tried to Predict the World of 2018

From The New Yorker:

If you wanted to hear the future in late May, 1968, you might have gone to Abbey Road to hear the Beatles record a new song of John Lennon’s—something called “Revolution.” Or you could have gone to the decidedly less fab midtown Hilton in Manhattan, where a thousand “leaders and future leaders,” ranging from the economist John Kenneth Galbraith to the peace activist Arthur Waskow, were invited to a conference by the Foreign Policy Association. For its fiftieth anniversary, the F.P.A. scheduled a three-day gathering of experts, asking them to gaze fifty years ahead. An accompanying book shared the conference’s far-off title: “Toward the Year 2018.”

The timing was not auspicious. In America, cities were still cleaning up from riots after Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination, in April, and protests were brewing for that summer’s Democratic National Convention. But perhaps the future was the only place left to escape from the present: more than eight hundred attendees arrived at the Hilton.

. . . .

Invitees were carefully split by the F.P.A. between over-thirty-fives and under-thirty-fives—but, less carefully, they didn’t pick any principal speakers from the under-thirty-fives. As their elders mused on a future of plastics and plasma jets, without mention of Vietnam and violence in the streets, there was muttering among the younger attendees. Representatives from Students for a Democratic Society demanded time at the mike and circulated a letter questioning whether the conference was for “discussion or brain washing.”

. . . .

If participants on either side emerged from the Hilton ballroom confident of what 2018 would look like, they soon found themselves disabused about predicting 1968. A week later, Bobby Kennedy was shot dead, and the prospect of grasping the present, let alone the future, seemed further away than ever. And that was about when “Toward the Year 2018” arrived in bookstores.

more amazing than science fiction,” proclaims the cover, with jacket copy envisioning how “on a summer day in the year 2018, the three-dimensional television screen in your living room” flashes news of “anti-gravity belts,” “a man-made hurricane, launched at an enemy fleet, [that] devastates a neutral country,” and a “citizen’s pocket computer” that averts an air crash. “Will our children in 2018 still be wrestling,” it asks, “with racial problems, economic depressions, other Vietnams?”

. . . .

The Stanford wonk Charles Scarlott predicts, exactly incorrectly, that nuclear breeder reactors will move to the fore of U.S. energy production while natural gas fades. (He concedes that natural gas might make a comeback—through atom-bomb-powered fracking.) The M.I.T. professor Ithiel de Sola Pool foresees an era of outright control of economies by nations—“They will select their levels of employment, of industrialization, of increase in GNP”—and then, for good measure, predicts “a massive loosening of inhibitions on all human impulses save that toward violence.” From the influential meteorologist Thomas F. Malone, we get the intriguing forecast of “the suppression of lightning”—most likely, he figures, “by the late 1980s.”

. . . .

Oettinger is now the sole surviving “Toward the Year 2018” essayist to witness the era he predicted so well fifty years ago. For some attending the accompanying conference, the changes didn’t need nearly that long to unfold: Edwin Yoder saw the news profession digitize with a speed that rendered the most ambitious predictions quaint. “The huge press room at the G.O.P. convention in Kansas City in 1976 was a noisy din of typewriters,” he recalls now. “Four years later, it was eerily quiet, as if cushioned.”

Just as conspicuous, though, is what was missing altogether from the book. Not a single writer predicts the end of the Soviet Union—who in their right mind would have?

. . . .

 “We can see it now,” one newspaper mused. “Sane people in the year 2018 will be yearning for a return to simpler times and the ‘good old days’ of the 1970s.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

PG suggests that items like the OP should be a source of humility for those living in today’s world.

In every era, large numbers of people believe that, unlike people of previous generations, their day’s consensus has finally understood what’s important and not important, true and untrue, what will work and not work.

Fifty years ago, in 1968 (part of the era included in the good old days of the 1970s), one of the driving forces for craziness on college campuses was the Vietnam War. It was certainly not the only craziness, but the war and the likelihood of students having to serve in the military amplified the intensity of the craziness.

For male college students, the military draft could be avoided so long as they were full-time students. Those who graduated from or dropped out of college in 1968 lost their student deferments shortly after graduation. More than a few, regardless of their opinion about the war, were required to become soldiers and obey the orders they received to shoot other people, accept the likelihood they would be shot at in return, blow up other people, burn other people, etc., etc.

About 10% of those who served in the military in Vietnam became casualties, either killed or (more likely) wounded so severely they could no longer perform military duties. In part because of the nature of the war, mental illness, either short-term or long-term, was also common. For these and other reasons, avoiding the draft was a frequent topic of male student conversations as graduation neared.

In 1968, PG suspects most men who would be subject to military service knew someone who had been severely wounded, permanently disabled or killed in Vietnam.

Some college students would enter the military voluntarily to have some control over what branch of the service they would be a part of and how they would serve – a man who joined in the enlisted ranks was at the bottom of military hierarchy but could be finished with his mandatory military service sooner than an officer who enlisted would be. However, serving as a draftee generally involved a shorter period of service than enlisting into the military.

The Army and Marines included most foot soldiers directly involved in ground combat. Most draftees served in the Army, almost always as enlisted men. Junior officers in the Army and Marines were more likely than others to be shot at by enemy soldiers because they were directly involved in leading soldiers in battle.

The Navy was a mixture of enlisted personnel serving on ships or in shore installations generally isolated from the fighting and pilot officers who could describe exactly what a surface-to-air or air-to-air missile looked like when it was fired at them and how they tried to avoid being killed by the missile. Plus, the “Brown-Water Navy” consisted of officers and seamen who were assigned to small boats that patrolled marshy areas with heavy vegetation. The men of the Brown-Water Navy were subject to frequent ambushes and intense firefights with enemy soldiers who were hiding only a few yards away.

The Air Force was generally regarded as the safest service in which to serve. Anyone but a pilot could be pretty certain that he would not come under direct enemy first. The Air Force was also the most difficult service in which to serve.

Returning from service was also very strange. In prior wars, a group of men would train together, serve together for the duration of the war and return together when the war was over. During the Vietnam war, when a draftee or enlistee finished his term of service, unless he elected to continue his military duties, he would often go home by himself. A few days earlier, he might have been on a dangerous patrol in the jungle and today, he was walking through the airport in San Francisco, trying to resolve the contradictions, still jumpy with his battle reflexes warning him of danger lurking around every corner.

After the Vietnam War was over, the military draft was eliminated and all members of the military, male and female, are volunteers today. The Afghan and other middle eastern wars have been fought solely by volunteer soldiers and, unlike earlier eras, the demographics of members of the military and those who are not not are no longer similar.

Male Privilege would not be a thing on college campuses until many years after 1968. Male students during that era would have found rich irony in the concept.

The OP does not include any mention of the likelihood of large-scale wars in the future in 2018, 50 years after 1968. PG suggests this is unrealistic.

Here is a timeline of wars that have involved a significant percentage of the US population in the fighting.

American Civil War – 1861-1865 – More US casualties than any other war – 646,000 US casualties (2.385% of US population)

World War One – 1914-1918 – WWI began 49 years after the end of the Civil War – 320,518 US casualties

World War Two – 1939-1945 – WWII began 25 years after the end of the WWI – 416,800 US casualties

Korean War – 1950-1953 – Korean War began 5 years after the end of WWII – 128,650 US casualties

Vietnam War – 1964-1975 – (11 year duration) Vietnam War began 11 years after the end of the Korean War – 211,454 US casualties

War in Afghanistan – 2001-present – (17 years and counting) Afghan war began 26 years after the end of the Vietnam War – 20,904 US casualties (to date)

Iraq War – 2003-present – (15 years and counting) Began two years after the beginning of the Afghan war – 36,710 US casualties (to date)

PG suggests the history of wars in which the US has been and is involved does not suggest a future in which all major problems will be solved and the world can focus its efforts and resources on the improvement of humanity.

While PG is generally optimistic about the future of the human race, he finds it interesting that most major predictions for the future of the type exemplified in the OP do not mention anything about the armed conflicts of the future as if such conflicts will not have any impact on future society.

26 thoughts on “The 1968 Book That Tried to Predict the World of 2018”

  1. “While PG is generally optimistic about the future of the human race, he finds it interesting that most major predictions for the future of the type exemplified in the OP do not mention anything about the armed conflicts of the future as if such conflicts will not have any impact on future society.”

    Sci-fi seems to be divided into two general camps: optimistic and pessimistic. However, even the optimistic/utopian camp (see: Star Trek) never envisaged a universe without armed conflict. At best, it banished the conflict outside of the utopia and made it about utopia (and who wouldn’t want that?) vs. the bad guys. Later on, of course, people questioned even utopia.

    Closer to home, the idea at this particular event that war would be irrelevant showed how much of an echo chamber it was. Without trying to ignite a political debate, I have to wonder if the speakers were too much of the optimistic/liberal/utopian/academic school, an echo chamber deliberately ignoring the reality of the Vietnam War and Cold War staring them in the face. All the while, more conservative sci-fi writer/editors such as Pournelle plowed ahead with novels and anthologies focused on future warfare, much of which material has been borne out–though even he didn’t foresee the fall of the Soviet Union.

    • The main issue isn’t necessarily the political inclinations of the prognosticators, whether Hobbesian or Locke followers, but their linear thinking. In almost every case the methodology used took a handful of data *they* considered relevant and plotted it out, blithely accepting as gospel whatever their extrapolation revealed.
      Basically they all assumed the future would be just like the past.

      The most laughable (yet sadly influential) example is the CLUB OF ROME’s 60’s vintage THE LIMITS TO GROWTH that was already anachronistic by the time it was published on 1972.

      It totally failed to even consider basic effects such as resource substitution, technological advances, learning curve efficiencies and, well everything that made the 90’s and beyond not be the 50’s.

      By their predictions global civilization should be on the verge of collapse with half the planet starved, parched, and fighting for trickles of gasoline ala MAD MAX.

      For all the criticism heaped on it, LTG became a bible to hordes of western luddites and anti-growth politicians and helped bring on the stagflation and “malasise” of the late 70’s and early 80’s.

      Today’s prognosticators have better computers, more sophisticated models, and better publicists to promote their “consensus” peddling but they are still hampered by limited data, hard-wired assumptions, and unwillingness to credit contradictory data, preferring to ignore “outliers” instead of admitting their models are incomplete.

      There is, however, a different class of prediction models that work much like Science Fiction by highlighting specific issues and trends and how they might play out over time if things *don’t* change. The intent being to inspire consideration and policy debate rather than predict specific outcomes. Sort of like cautionary fiction.

  2. Not everybody looking at the future discounts the possibilities for war. One example I’m familiar with is the STRATFOR INSTITUTE’s: THE NEXT 100 YEARS, from 2009.

    It actually focused on how countries’ long term strategic interests can lead to conflict with a few examples like a possible mid-century war in eastern Europe between a US/Poland alliance vs a German/Turkish/Japanese alliance and a late century US-Mexico war.

    No utopian or dystopian scenarios invoked. Just basic demographics and economics.

  3. Knew a lot of SDS in 1968. Generally, I sympathized. I thought the Vietnam war was stupid, fought for no reason I could divine. The war reports were obviously fabricated. I remember thinking that if the reports were true, the war would be over in days, but the list of acquaintances who would not return grew longer.

    I marched a few times, did my bit writing a few critical essays on the war that no one wanted to read.

    In the end, I walked away from the Movement because it reminded me more of a pep rally for a basketball homecoming than anything serious. I thought I could predict who would join the SDS based on the looseness of their thinking.

    But what did I know? In those days, I still had dried cow manure on my boots. Come to think of it, I wish still did.

    • “But what did I know? In those days, I still had dried cow manure on my boots. Come to think of it, I wish still did.”

      some days, me too Democritus.

  4. “The Air Force was generally regarded as the safest service in which to serve. Anyone but a pilot could be pretty certain that he would not come under direct enemy first.”

    My father was a navigator on 10 man B17 in WWII. He was enlisted after Pearl, stayed on for years, highly decorated, became a Lt Col. 75 missions, his highest medal for foreseeing Mess ambush while flying to bomb target of heavily defended munitions factory deep in germany–through his calculations by stars and other measures, he detoured the entire contingent of 29 planes of ten men each to avoid the ambush.

    They flew on into the night to target, the german bombers taking 9 b17s down, 20 returned home. 90 usaf men lost in one night. 200 young souls alive.

    There is no safety in flying in war, not from under, or above, behind or head on. Nor is any flying crew safe from ground to air fire.

    As for Nam, my brothers and cousins all served, enlisted, many ‘tours’. They chose to be marines, usaf. Some few chose which arm of the military, that is where the ‘choices’ ended. Those drafted from the lottery were sent into direct line of fire. Not everyone could come home.

    My dearest cousin lost half his squadron one night. He is home, but has never come home. We are all in our seventies now.

    The old song about senators’ sons, the sons of the wealthy, those who were married like Romney and had suddenly a bunch of kids, those who were in college were deferred. Nam was an indecent war wherein again, people in charge lied, and took the most vulnerable of our population, the poor, to the draft.

    There is so much to say to make the record accurate, but then we’d be here for weeks and years. Re ‘volunteer army’ for afghanistan and iraq and etc.

    Bush called up the reserves, the best of the young; they were so often young mothers and fathers who joined the reserves only for a second income to help support their family. They never dreamed in a thousand years that again, those atop would deceive. But, they took the oath, and they went. Many did not come back.

    The deaths of soldiers from the rez here where I live, are beyond sad, for the tribes are treated miserably and yet the young were trying to pull themselves up with that reservists’ income, in a place of dust and more dust and no employment.

    There is much more to add from eye witness and being part of the communities and families, but will leave it there.

    • It’s not just the reserves getting drafted to combat over the last ten years: the national guard, too. Not exactly what they signed up for, either.
      But the politicians needed a “peace dividend” from “the end of history” and somebody has to make up the shortfall for a military that can no longer deal with two regional conflicts at once. Not even with mercenaries.

      Worth keeping in mind if we end up nuking the hell out of North Korea.

  5. There is no safety in flying in war, not from under, or above, behind or head on.


    My father-in-law flew missions into Germany in WWII, and he and his fellows knew that the likelihood of surviving their entire tour of duty was slim. Each mission could easily be their last, and was for many.

    • I’m currently reading a book on RAF Bomber Command in WWII and this very much bears out your comment (even though I guess that you are talking about the USAAF). The loss of life was devastating with 55,000 dead out of 125,000 aircrew (and then there were the – admittedly much smaller – numbers of wounded and POWs.)

      In 1943 the chances of an RAF Bomber Command airman surviving a 30 sortie tour were less than 20% and by the time they’d done their second tour it was down to 5%. There was definitely no safety in the air! And flying against a modern air defense – not the one sided combats we’ve seen recently – will be just as bad (though maybe in future only AIs will go down with the planes.)

      • In the near future each manned airplane will be the C&C hub for a cluster of attack drones. The AirForce is already testing the concept. They’re called GREMLINS.

        Essentially it is a middle ground between conventional combat with only manned systems and fully autonomous killer robots that retains human judgement in the loop but multiplies their effectiveness with semi-autonomous platforms.

        Similar concepts are being planned for ground combat. The Russians even brag that their next generation main battle tank will be fully autonomous. Effectively baby BOLOs.

        (What could possibly go wrong?!)

        • “(What could possibly go wrong?!)”

          very right you are Felix

          I still hark back to the idea that all the old farts of the world who like to rattle their nuclear sabres, just go and duke it out, mano a mano, hombre a hombre, and who ever didnt die, wins.

          My dad used to say, Never give a king an army if you want peace.

          I think I wrote a sci fi short story when I was in high school [about 55 years ago, gulp] about robot powered missiles, but the enemy developed a wizard missile named Merlin that lived backward from the future, and could in midair, reprogram an enemy missile to turn back to the home it came from, and bomb its own people. The mission was to learn the enemy tech of Merlin. They did, and that…

          Something about deus ex machina in that story Im afraid, was the end of the world, as the dictators on either side just kept killing their own people by not being able to deflect all the millions of Merlins in the sky and underground.

          Were I to write that story today, I think I’d just have the dictators strip down with their white frazzled chest hair and swaying pecs, and put on the diaper and go duke it out.

          I hope you are smiling with me.

        • Felix, I can always rely on you to come up with a good SF reference. And now I need to go back and re-read those old Keith Laumer paperbacks just to remind myself what did go wrong (and my TBR pile is already far too large!)

          • A search for BOLO on the BAEN ebookstore pops up 18 titles. BOLOs are alive and well much like the Saberhagen BERSERKERS.

            It is something of a public service to keep those warnings alive.

        • The book is “Bomber Command” by Max Hastings. I picked it up for £0.99 about four years ago on an Amazon daily deal and I’ve finally got round to reading it. I’m a sucker for special offers on military history so the non fiction TBR list keeps growing and this isn’t the only WWII bomber book on the list!

          By the way, I should have pointed out that quite a few of the dead were not Brits, lots of Canadians as I recall plus Aussies and Kiwis (and no doubt Poles and other Europeans.)

    • JM, I bless your father in law for being crazy brave, and am glad he could come home. Is he still alive? My dad has walked on, but we still remember him every day. Do you ever go to the reunions of the old guys who were in your fil’s division, squadron? They are a trip, the old ones are so decent and often so tender and still strong.

      • My father-in-law is 93 and still with us, for which I am so grateful as I love him dearly. He went to a reunion of his squadmates several years ago, and really enjoyed connecting up with them. The reunion was held in England. I would have loved to talk with them. He and his fellow airmen really were crazy brave, just as you describe them.

        • Im glad you have one another JM, you and your fil. That is just right

          If they have another reunion you would very likely be welcome too. My experience at the meetups is the old vets love to see the offspring of their brothers and sisters.

  6. My health prevented me from serving active duty, though I was in the USAFA (Air Force Academy) for a bit. My whole family are marines. Father, brother, cousin, all wartime (‘Nam and Sandbox). It still bothers me I didn’t serve active.

    I don’t know if I’m pessimistic or optimistic, but I do think the chances of us being lied into another war are pretty high. Sadly.

    • My dad used to say Jo, that some pine trees hang ten from the precipice, some stay close to the ground inland, that they all have their duties to protect and preserve the land they are rooted in, to slow the wind, to hold the floods back.

      Your health had to come first for your sake. Ive no doubt you held the land in your own ways as called at that time, and honorably. My dad also used to say that you never know what your life is being saved for, who and what it is being saved for, that is good, that will bring good.

      I agree with you and JM Ney Grimm that the likelihood of being lied to again in order to unleash war, is present. But I do believe sincerely that there are enough awake to not only protest sending a generation of our young to another war, but even more so, to hit those who lie where they live: thunderously threatening not to re-elect them. They come to live like kings, and too often forget they are representatives of the people, you know, for the people, by the people. I believe there are enough awake, including our grandchildren’s generation, to shake prevaricators out of their tree castles, hard.

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