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Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Future Is Unimaginably Better than Expected

We have come much farther than Marty and Doc Brown

Yesterday was “Back to the Future Day” the date Marty McFly and Dr Emmett Brown visit when they travel 30 years into the future via a DeLorean-turned-time machine in the 1989 film Back to the Future II.

You are probably aware of this because nearly every news organisation has a piece exploring which predictions about 2015 the film got right and which it got wrong.

But though the film accurately predicted that print newspaper would still exist, I doubt print is where you first learned of Back to the Future Day. You might have seen it on Facebook or Twitter, neither of which could have been foreseen in 1989. You very likely saw it somewhere on the internet and perhaps via your mobile phone, both fledgling, unwieldy and prohibitively expensive technologies in 1989.

Or perhaps you did not need someone else to remind you of Back to the Future Day because you are a big fan of the films. Maybe you watched the trilogy by streaming video on Netflix or Amazon, which could not have been foretold in 1989 either.

Still don’t know what I’m talking about? I’ll pause for a moment while you google it (“to google” – not a verb that would mean much to a time traveler who has just arrived from 1989.)

My point is not that screenwriters are bad at predicting the future. In fact, given the impossibility of that task, it is remarkable how much they get right. My point is that all things considered, 2015 is much, much better than they — or anyone — could have predicted 30 years ago thanks to the engine of free enterprise and the power of human ingenuity.

Today’s televisions are far superior to the ones shown in the film. Video calling is cheaper and easier than predicted, with apps like Skype and FaceTime. Virtual reality is not yet mainstream, but it may soon be, and we already have plenty of wearable tech such as Google Glass. We don’t have fax machines in every room because we have a far cheaper, easier and more environmentally friendly alternative in email.

We have not abolished lawyers and in fact they are more prolific than ever — you can thank your legislators and regulators for that — but they are easier than ever to bypass thanks to an ever-expanding number of online legal services. Robot waiters aren’t really a thing but a few restaurants have electronic ordering from your table, and you can use your phone or tablet to have nearly any food delivered nearly anywhere.

Speaking of phones, the movie thought we’d still have functioning phone booths in 2015! Instead London tourists use their smartphones to take selfies with these historical relics.

Hoverboards aren’t commercially available at children’s stores, but hovercrafts do exist, as do maglev trains and innovative modes of personal transport like Segways. We don’t drive around in flying cars, but we know how to make them. When a product is technologically feasible yet not on the market, it is either because no one has sorted out how to make money from it (in other words, there is probably not that much demand for it), or because there are regulations standing in the way. The barrier to flying cars is not the technology, it is air traffic control.

Back to the Future II is a sci-fi comedy, so naturally it focused on spoofing tech and fashion and didn’t touch on more serious issues. But here too we’re far better off than in 1989. Halving the number of people living in extreme poverty makes my short list, as does the collapse of communist regimes around the globe.

Nobody can predict the future, not even sci-fi screenwriters who are paid lots of money to try. Free enterprise is a dynamic process of discovery and it often leads to outcomes impossible to predetermine. Entrepreneurs respond to our wants and needs today, but they also tap into our latent demands — creating amazing new stuff we didn’t even know we wanted.

Envisaging the future based on how markets are today is a comic endeavour and therefore perfect for entertainment. Policymakers, however, should avoid specific bets on the future and instead ensure our framework encourages innovation via free enterprise.

Time travel may never be possible, but we have travelled much farther than Marty and Doc Brown, and we didn’t need to outfit a DeLorean with a flux capacitor and Mr Fusion to do so. We needed the power of human imagination and the freedom to use it.

So let’s heed Doc Brown’s advice: “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.” I’d like to think that Doc Brown would be quite pleased with the 2015 we have created.

A version of this post first appeared at the Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK’s premier free market think tank.

  • Chad Wilcox is COO at the Institute of Economic Affairs.