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Future Shock

The New York Times is reporting (free registration required) that the Census Bureau targets October as the month when the 300-millionth American will be born.

What I find most interesting is the outlook from 1967, when the 200-million mark was reached. The Times quoted David E. Lilienthal, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, as having said then that the United States' quality of life will be threatened at 300 million. Now, 38 years later, we see that this is not the case (though some may argue that point).

Lilienthal likely fell into the trap that inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil described. Kurzweil has said that when most people look to the future, they extrapolate from current rates of progress. Such predictions fail to account for future changes—for technological advances that speed progress exponentially. With that in mind, consider what Lilienthal had to work with: From the year 1967, with the difficulties of Vietnam and an atomic war a possibility, the outlook was grim—things could only get worse, or so it must have seemed.

But Vietnam ended. Technology improved. And as we stand here in 2006, projected to reach a population of 400 million in just 30 years, we should avoid such short-sightedness. Life will be different in 2036, in ways we can't yet predict. Technology will improve and we will be living longer, and hopefully better, lives. I'm looking forward to hitting 400. How about you?