In October 1930 Edmond Hamilton, the legendary fabulist of science fiction’s pulp age, published “The Man Who Saw the Future” in Amazing Stories magazine. Hamilton’s title always stuck with me . . . because I know a man who saw the future. He still does.
John Petersen is an American original. Commissioned in the Navy out of liberal arts college, he’s a combat veteran of naval aviation in Vietnam where he flew as a bombardier-navigator in A-6 Intruders. He later served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the National Security Council staff during the Carter administration, started a couple of companies, became a music producer, ran a national nonprofit and then a defense contractor, advised the Democratic presidential campaigns tilting at Reagan, and around 1989 founded The Arlington Institute. He still runs it.
We met when he was just back from call-up as a Naval Reserve officer during the first Gulf War. I was an active-duty commander working for the Secretary of the Navy and John was hip-deep in the earliest rumblings of the Clinton campaign, an effort that at the time didn’t seem to have much of a shot at the Democratic presidential nomination, much less at dislodging the soaring-popular President George H. W. Bush. Petersen had recently completed a client project that left him with a whole lot of extra material addressing diffuse trends and future “profiles.” He told me that he was organizing his identified trends to be useful. A couple of weeks later he handed me a four-inch thick loose-leaf notebook bearing the title The Road to 2012. It was a bold, fascinating, sometimes crazy 20-year look-ahead . . . about everything.
Two years and many refinements later John Petersen published The Road to 2015: Profiles of the Future.
Today is the day we send the year 2015 into history. With one-seventh of the 21st century now past, we are a country and a people proving to be unfailingly retrospective. Societally we are deeply unsettled—a characteristic that has not let up since 9/11. We Americans also like look-backs much more than looks forward. So now may be the perfect time to look back and forward.
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Let’s see what my old friend John Petersen got right.
Short answer: pretty much everything.
Here’s what Petersen wrote and published in September 1994:
Computing “Unlike the printing press, telephone, or any previous information technology, the microprocessor is fueling its own revolution. Printing presses, for example, did not directly produce more capable printing presses, but each new generation of computer chips is used to make more capable computer chips, compounding the rate of change.”
The World Wired Up Petersen predicted . . . Local and wide-area networks, “wireless terminals” [Wi-Fi], cellular networks “through the larger global information network,” fiber-optic backbones that will “move some remote locations from the medieval world to the Information Age almost overnight,” large-scale low-earth orbit satellite systems, and interchanging “mail, documents, books, pictures and photographs, voice and music, video and television images and programs, and films on the Internet.” On “large commercial networks (connected into the Internet)” people will be able to “pay bills, shop at thousands of stores, make reservations and buy airplane tickets, monitor the stock market, and research large databases of newspapers, magazines, and encyclopedias.”
Information is the Capital Commodity “Acting much like a body’s nervous system, this global network will pulse with data and will be the prime conduit for the capital commodity of the coming age: information. It will allow new ideas to sweep the globe and give extraordinary access to information to those who are connected . . . the very concept of power is shifting away from being defined by money to being information-based. This, by the way, is exacerbating one of the major problems of the coming decades, the increasing disparity between haves and have-nots.” Future economies will be “knowledge-based.”
New Technologies “Expert systems” as stand-ins for people. Artificial intelligence, massive parallel processing, holographic neural technology, “voice recognition systems operating at a complexity far beyond” our 1995 imagination (“Hey, Siri“), virtual reality that “will revolutionize many areas of life” including a Petersen prediction of “the virtual office,” “biotechnology shaping organic life” in gene-splicing, and the Human Genome Project that will “map the entire human genetic code” in fifteen years. (The HGP was completed in April 2003.) Materials science will dominate—catalysts, alloys, plastics, composites, ceramics and new materials will abound. “Molecular nanotechnology” will bring about a “revolution times a revolution.” Robotics. Bioelectronic devices. Advanced pattern recognition. Shrinking electronics. In 1995 “we are entering a super renaissance—a time when we are changing life, creating life, linking people together much closer and faster, changing the meaning of reality, time, space, and location . . . What will this all mean to us as human beings?” That’s the “important question that we should be asking about this new age of information and technology.”
What about society, economics, government, global affairs?
Globalism “By the year 2000, trading blocs will have taken over from national governments as the new focus for international trade.” The “top ten companies” are “big economic players today, and as their global clout grows, they will flex their muscles increasingly in the international arena, in some cases overriding the sway of national governments,” especially in “telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, and financial services.” Sovereignty will “spread among many smaller, semiautonomous physical and ideological regions. This reduces large-scale conflict, but ultimately leads to special interest warfare.”
“A Reversion to Religious Fundamentalism” Petersen wrote verbatim . . . “A worldwide Islamic revival threatens to put conservative fundamentalists in the leadership of an increasing number of governments, isolating them even further from the rest of the world. The main tenets of this trend are: (1) increased emphasis on viewing Islam as an all-encompassing way of life; (2) the goal of a global Muslim community; (3) heightened fundamentalism in values, ideals, and political solutions; and (4) organized movements mobilizing Islamic political power.
Terrorism “Urban terrorism comes to the United States.” “There are more people, there’s not the cohesive effect of shared spiritual/moral beliefs, a greater percentage of the population is near the breaking point, and even in ‘good’ times the anxiety level is extremely high.”
9/11 An eerie predictive near miss—that we’re all grateful was not completely correct. Petersen postulated and warned that there might be a “small nuclear device” detonated on a ship in New York harbor. “An Islamic fundamentalist organization claims responsibility for the blast, suggesting that this was just God’s way of punishing America for its godless philosophy. New York City panics and effectively shuts down all activities.” “Implications: Extraordinary blow to the United States, its economy, and its national psychology. A very serious, if not mortal blow to the global financial system.”
Politics and Society A “super Renaissance” will be “many times more significant than the last one, producing major changes in every significant aspect of life. The very underpinnings of reality—philosophy, theology, ethics, sociology, and so on—will all be assaulted by a new set of ideas.” Individuals “will become increasingly autonomous, unlinking themselves from institutions (which are naturally conservative).” Conservative groups, “in the face of rapid increases in threatening information, will try to revert to simpler, more familiar themes.” “Religious denominations and other conservative institutions will dig in deeply and defend their principles vigorously.” And “large numbers of people will be confused about the rapidly emerging new ideas. Many will find this destabilizing, producing an increase in compensating behavior. ” “Growing tribalism” and “a loss of communal ties” will define an America in 2015 fragmenting “along the lines of race, sexual preference, gender, ethnicity, and psychological infirmities . . . reflecting their sense of loss of more traditional communal ties—family, church, community.”
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There’s much more, of course—rich, dense, complicated, frustrating, alternating between startlingly pessimistic and spiraling optimistic—in The Road to 2015. But by this point you know where we are headed.
What about now?
I called John Petersen. Two old Navy fliers and Washington friends catch up . . . and then by agreement slip into journalism mode.
First things first. What did he think that he got wrong?
John laughed out loud. For a very confident guy, an engineer and a predictive social scientist, he is remarkably humble, self-effacing, and wry.
“Climate change,” he says, not missing a beat. “The nature of climate change. I had those hockey-stick predictions on CO2 and global warming wrong. We are on our way to a mini-Ice Age. Some of the propositions I made were unsupportable by the science of the time. The temperature correlations that I had going along with the CO2 increases were just wrong. You know, sometimes science jumps on a bandwagon early, and I did too.”
“The overwhelming nature of the Internet . . . compelling in its comprehensiveness, a real life-changing level of experiences. There are very few times when we humans are able to see things from an integrated systems point of view, and this is the first time we are able to do so in a global perspective.”
The impact of the book since 1995?
“I think its greatest impact was in the national security arena. Before then, no one was doing any work in the sharp social values shift and its effect on how we think about security. The wild cards were especially important.” (In The Road to 2015, wild cards are revolutionary events that will inevitably occur—with “a low probability of occurrence but a very high impact.”) “This was, in a way, the very earliest systems approach when I staked out that ground.”
Did Petersen even think about 9/11 as a possibility?
“No. I couldn’t possibly see that specifically—no one could. But I did write about US policies being framed, being put into place then, where we might be in a situation to have events of that sort.”
What about the future? What’s John Petersen working on now?
“The emergence of a new world and a new human. We are on the edge of the most extraordinary shifts in the history of the planet, and they are affecting everything—economics, agriculture, health care, the legal system, ecology, banking. We are seeing how every set of legacy systems we have is fundamentally flawed and now imploding. And what it’s all producing is a vacuum. What’s more, the principles underpinning these systems have the embedded incentives that encourage the behavior creating the implosions. We need to address, in every area, the structural aspects of values. The present economic system is changing, for example—from one where there is no consideration other than profit, to one of larger social structure and integrity. This stuff is not of the future. It’s fundamental to who we are and where we live now.”
The next time someone asserts that he’s a “big picture kind of guy”—and it’s always a guy who say that—smile and nod. You know that there are even bigger picture thinkers.
Petersen and I both love thought experiments. One of them we played out this week was this: Is the first 200-year old human being alive now? John says yes. I once chaired a biotechnology company. I agree.
So let’s check in with John Petersen again in 2035.
Hey, we plan to be around.
We’re optimists. We persevere.
Why else would we be identifying future trends if not to act upon them? . . . In enterprise, in our narrative art, in the Academy, or in the public square.
Happy New Year.