What Happened to the Future?


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I’ve been playing around with Google Labs’ Books Ngram Viewer and I wanted to try a few keywords to see what this amazing new tool for nerds could do. Basically, it lets you look up how often certain words and groups of words were used in Google’s book database.

After numerous attempts and a few anomalies (like typing “internet” generated results pre-1950), the results were fascinating. Lets take it for a spin:

According to the following graph, the future is behind us.

Future Raw

Future related (more like, future mentioning) books have taken giant steps back since the beginning of the millennium. According to the data, “future books” peaked around the year 2000. The latest data available, 2008, demonstrates that the level of future mentioning books is back to where it was in the 1970s era. Could it be that there was structural change after the tech-wreck bubble (2001 recession) or even slightly before that period in anticipation of the crash?

Strangely, however, I look at the technological improvements over the past ten years and I see revolutionary ideas one on top of the other (for instance, the iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Google stuff, Social Networks…). My first reaction is to blindly hypothesize that our current technological prowess may distract us from the future. If it is the case, could it be that technology is a detriment to forward-looking thinkers?

Note:  the data in the graph is unsmoothed (raw) “Future” data from 1800 to 2008.

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19 comments

  1. Chris H.

    Just got sucked in for a while after reading your post. Interesting to look at the trends around historical figures. I tried Churchill and a few others as well as the phrase time travel :)

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  3. Mitch Skinner

    “My first reaction is to blindly hypothesize that our current technological prowess may ditract us from the future. If it is the case, could it be that technology is a detriment to forward-looking thinkers?”

    Well, if those forward-looking thinkers are all busy doing cool stuff (like the google stuff) then that seems pretty useful and worthwhile to me. If I had to choose between building the future, and talking about the future, I’d take the former, hands down.

  4. misterxroboto

    Is it possible that this refers to the term “future” in commodities trading? It may explain the late 20th century boom…

  5. Brett Thomas

    Actually, I’ve noticed that a *lot* of words fall suddenly post-2000, even words that it doesn’t make much sense to do so (such as “Internet”). I’m suspecting there’s a fundamental change in the nature of the books in the sample-set from pre-2000 and post.

  6. tay

    Just so you know, future vs Future (capitalized F) will give you 2 separate results.

  7. Philippe Bertrand

    @david: Very interesting post! For so long the future was the year 2000. Everyone allowed themselves to dream up what the 21st century had in store for us. From hovercrafts to time travel, anything seemed possible in the supposed age of metallic jump suits. Maybe the free spirited notion that anything was possible was a major catalyst for the innovations of a late but I certainly hope that the thinkers of our age have not lost that child-like wonder to do the impossible.

    @tay: They do give different results however have you considered that the reason would be because the “Future” with a capital F would refer more often to the books that have the word “Future” in the actual title of the book? In that case, that would further support the fact that major ideas have lost sight of what is to come…

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  9. D. Boucher

    Great stuff. Let’s figure this out:

    First, the data anomaly is a good point (some series do fall after 2000), unfortunately it’s out of my control, but definitely something to look into.

    @philippe: I agree with your capitalized “F” Future analysis, interesting point regarding titles and major ideas. That being said, obviously, results have to be further analyzed, there are certainly a few caveats regarding the definitions of future and its use in a given book.

    @mitch: I think you raise a good point, but thinking about the future and ”doing the future” aren’t, in my opinion, mutually exclusive. I don’t know a whole lot about the background of this, but it seems to me that if the pre-2000 period was filled with literature looking ahead to the future, it might have led, some 10 years later, to the technological phenomenon we know today. Therefore, in the same line of thought, if the volume of ”future books” is considerably lower in our current era, the technological improvements might take a hit in the coming decade or so.

    However, getting back to the original idea my post, the point that I was trying to make is that perhaps the latest breakthroughs in technology have lead us to believe that we are “closer to the future”, creating an overall feeling of content. It’s as if we had gotten sucked in our own success that we are less inclined to imagine what could be.

    • Winter Bagel

      Could it be that in the relatively short time-period running up to the dawn of the new millennium, more books were written about ‘the future’, discussed ‘the future’, and predicted ‘the future’ because it was a popular topic at the time?

      How many writers wanted to tap into the impending Y2K disaster in 1998 and 1999? Just have a look here: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=Y2K&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

      Similarly, during the past week, how many mentions on blogger have there been of the “year’s top ten”, or the “best of 2010″, or the “best (or worst) of the decade”? These trends can be made more visible through Google Trends and Blogger search, which depict a circular pattern of media consumption and production: people search for things that they watch, listen, and read about, which in turn causes more people to write about those things. Book Ngram just allows us to see the trends we see in search today, in a medium that we have been until now unable to plot on a graph. A cool tool, to be sure. But not an indication that people aren’t thinking about or writing about ‘the future’.

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  12. Brett Thomas

    @Enrico Forti,

    Thanks for the link. I’m glad to hear that – I’d decided to simply discount post-2000 in my own searches because the results just seemed so wildly improbable.

    So, bottom line, “What happened to the Future” is “it appeared to vanish because of a data anomaly.”

    I’ve seen some similar weirdness in really old books (c. 1700s), and it’s worth noting the “Science” abstract says “between 1800 and 2000″, and, if you just go to ngrams.google.com, the default date range is 1800-2000. From all that I think it’s safe to say that it’s probably not useful to look at data outside the 1800-2000 range, or in any event, not useful if you’re going to include the 1800-2000 range (perhaps comparing 1700 – 1750 might be meaningful, though I have no idea).

    • D. Boucher

      @Enrico and Brett,

      Thanks for looking into it. I skimmed through the paper that Enrico suggested (I’ll take a closer look later) and it is said that the best data is between 1800 and 2000 and that after 2000, one should be more careful in interpreting the results. I didn’t find anything (yet) that said that the data wasn’t reliable. Did you find anything that said so?

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  14. KitINStLOUIS

    Maybe the present is just too shaky a platform from which to project the future.

  15. kerrysmallman

    I have found that just about everything I search for peaks around the late 90s and then goes into decline into the new millennium. I would be interested to know if we’re seeing a large scale change in society – the end of (post) modernity, the growth of China, that sort of thing – or if it’s a data problem.

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