Hail John Watkins

In the 1900 Ladies Home Journal, railroad engineer John Watkins offered unusually insightful predictions for a hundred years hence. His example seems a great place to learn lessons on sources of insight, and systematic biases, in forecasting. Yet while many have commented recently on Watkin’s forecasts, I haven’t seen any drawing lessons.

I see these as Watkins main mistakes:

  1. Overestimating coordination capacities. Watkins said we’d cut underused letters like C,X,Q from our alphabet, eliminate mosquitoes and house-flies by ending their breeding grounds, put all city traffic below or above ground, and accept many American republics into the USA union. All of these require far more coordination than we seem capable of.
  2. Underestimating wealth indulgence and signaling. Watkins said we’d adopt an engineer’s efficiency attitude toward food preparation and personal fitness. People unable to walk ten miles at a stretch would be weaklings, and we’d use central cooking instead of personal kitchens. But rich folks don’t want to work that hard, and humans have long asserted wealth and autonomy via personalized vs. communal dining. Institutional communal food, such as in dorms, ships, military bases, boarding-house, etc., has long been avoided a sign of low status.

Added 10a: The institutional food that is cheapest, and lowest in status, makes you eat where they say, when they say, and what they say. Yes of course a restaurant is “institutional” in some ways, but it costs more because it offers customers more flexibility in time, location, and food.

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  • MichaelG

    Mosquitoes, not misquotes.

    • Owen Biesel

      Clearly they haven’t been eliminated either.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Thanks – fixed.

    • http://lesswrong.com/user/Jayson_Virissimo Jayson Virissimo

      Arguably, we have the technology to eliminate misquotes, but we aren’t utilizing it.

  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    Personally, I think Watkins did a pretty good job of predicting our modern eating habits. Sure some people like nice restaurants, and some people still learn to cook to show off their cooking skills, but most of us don’t have our own cooks and spend as little time cooking as possible. We eat fast food, or heavily processed food that doesn’t need to be cooked at all.

    Watkins’ big mistakes on the food front seem to be:
    (1) Thinking we’d use pneumatic tubes, and overestimating the popularity of having food delivered by automobile.
    (2) Failing to predict the mircowave oven.
    (3) Failing to predict disposable packaging.

    On the whole, Watkins’ biggest mistake seems to have been underestimating the extent of technological, and to a lesser extent cultural, change. He predicts pictures sent by telegraph, but not video streaming on Netflix. He predicts listening to music on the telephone, but not iTunes. And he thinks we’ll still be listening to opera, rather than genres of music that hadn’t even been invented in his time.

  • http://www.michaelwstory.com MWStory

    I wouldn’t use communal dining as an example of always low status activity- boarding schools, yacht crews, traditional universities, gentlemen’s clubs, learned societies, the diplomatic corps and the officer’s mess all involve institutionalised eating, with rituals and traditions which reinforce high status and foster ingroup loyalty (special rules regarding eating, going to the bathroom, ways of describing the food or courses, toasts songs sung, etc)

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    On the whole, Watkins’ biggest mistake seems to have been underestimating the extent of technological, and to a lesser extent cultural, change. He predicts pictures sent by telegraph, but not video streaming on Netflix.

    I’ll grant you the distinction between video and still images. But is the Internet anything other than the telegraph as it ought to have evolved? I am always struck by the number of times we have invented the telegram: telexes, emails, social network inboxes. Best of all is the SMS – mobile providers thought it would be a niche service and were surprised to find that people often preferred resonably priced telegrams to voice calls. Imagine if they had figured that out a few decades ago.

    • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

      Yes, it does make a lot of sense to see the internet as an evolution of the telegraph. Watkins had the direction of the developments right, he just didn’t see how far it would go: not just sending pictures but entire movies. Not just sending music, a convenient way to store received transmissions, thousands of them, on a pocket-sized device. And so on.

  • Vaniver

    eliminate mosquitoes and house-flies by ending their breeding grounds,

    Um, remember when the CDC did that from 1946-1951, and eradicated malaria in the United States? Obviously, all mosquitoes and and all house-flies was too much to expect, but it’s not clear the coordination problem is the issue, rather than the value involved. Once you get rid of malaria, mosquitoes really aren’t that bothersome.\

    The ones that I noticed as obviously wrong were the technical ones. We still burn coal (drat), and drugs are often given orally (though I suppose I can grant him injections as going through the skin).

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      They already had immunization back then, needles don’t sound like that’s what he was talking about for “through the skin”.

      • Jayson Virissimo

        Many people take nicotine “through the skin”.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    For “institutional communal food”, think: restaurant – which is surely not
    “a sign of low status”.

  • arch1

    Remarkably prescient list. That said, it seems that there may have been a strong optimism filter on the list. With the possible exception of #8: Aerial War-Ships and Forts on Wheels and #28: No wild animals, these all seem to be things that would be welcomed with open arms by the typical WHJ reader of that time. I doubt that >90% of significant changes which did in fact occur would be so welcomed.

    That those were heady times could explain a lot of this. Alternatively, this may be more a result of the publication path chosen (and Watkins’s interaction with it) than on his prognostication skills and methods.

  • Robert

    Oh, dear, #3 (universal gymnastics)!

    Overall, I see a strong techocratic bias — wise bureaucrats making the best decisions for all, and removing choices from people, either directly or by framing the possible options.

    So, yeah. He was pretty much on target.

    Anybody care to try a similar list for 2100?