“The Balkan strife is settled and events of the last few months have shown that belligerent nations realize the cost of war in men and treasure and appreciate that practically no nation in the world is prepared today for huge war expenditures. Hence the fear of war in the immediate future can be set aside.”
Except for the start of the First World War, he was spot on.
I’ve been scouring predictions from a year ago, searching in vain for anyone who foresaw the goofy sideshow antics of Toronto
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Mayor Rob Ford, whose behavior in 2013 had about as much to do with running a city as Dennis Rodman has to do with North Korea’s nuclear intentions.
Even the extremist web sites — the ones that regularly predict martial law, the takeover of the New World Order and the repeal of the Second Amendment — didn’t predict Ed Snowden and national revulsion over the collection of data on virtually every American. Nor did they foresee the mainstream media being the target of “big brother,” as the Justice Department admitted to secretly gathering phone data from the Associated Press.
But as important as these were, they give a distorted view of life at the end of 2013. One of the reasons predicting the future is so difficult is because it’s so difficult to understand the present. The future tends to be incubated in places we never think to look.
This is why, 110 years ago, end-of-the-year editorials focused on foreign affairs and the discovery of radium. The New York Times noted with disappointment that people were still struggling to achieve heavier-than-air flight, “in which no useful progress has been made or can be considered 'in sight.' " Only days earlier, the Wright brothers had set a course for the modern world with the first successful flight at Kitty Hawk. There was no CNN there to report it, but there generally are no lights and cameras around to record such things today, either.
The miracles of the future begin as hardly detectable manifestations of someone’s imagination and optimism. That optimism tends to characterize our individual views of the future this time of year, and that tone, more than anything, becomes self-fulfilling.
That is true for the long term, not necessarily the short term. Our counterparts a century ago were heading into a year of challenges that eventually would drag the United States into gas-filled European trenches. Even victory years later would be hollow for some as a worldwide influenza epidemic spread to hometowns.
The intervening years have been marked by a depression, wars even more devastating, catastrophes, economic hardships and a host of other problems, scandals and disappointments. But it would take a unique sort of blindness to miss how life today, in most aspects other than perhaps spiritual literacy, is better than a century ago.
The past tells us to expect good times to be interrupted and to prepare for hardships and tragedy. But it also says that optimism and hard work, in the long run, tend to be rewarded. We seem to be listening. In 2012, the U.S. Patent Office granted 276,788 patents, and there is every reason to believe the number will be higher in 2013. In a free society, people continue to see reasons to profit from the discovery of ways to make life better, and they continue to believe such improvements are possible.
I’m not sure someone in 1914 would be buoyed by that if he or she were to hear exactly what was about to happen in the near future. Similarly, the immediate future may tax our best efforts to tackle government corruption, the antics of belligerent nations or unforeseen disasters.
But as long as we work on these problems with optimism and faith, hope for the long-term future is bright.