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Time Essay: A Remebrance of Things Future

6 minute read
Frank Trippett

It is written: Jackie Onassis will become an ambassador. Bralessness will sag in popularity. Kidnapers will threaten Donny Osmond. Dr. Jonas Salk will find a cure for the common cold.

Translation: The eternal prognosticating game has just finished going berserk again. It does so at every turn of the year. The result, as the honest-to-God gleanings from the popular press above and below suggest, is that 1979 stands revealed in marvelous detail. Even before the old year has been digested, the new can thus be consumed. A few of the prophecies—who knows?—may even tell something of the future. In any event, the reveling in revelations tells a good deal about Americans.

Jerry Brown and Linda Ronstadt will marry. Amelia Earhart will turn up in a Japanese jail. A thought-reading machine will be produced. A dentist will romance Olivia Newton-John. Burt Reynolds will get hurt making a rodeo shot. The achievement of formal peace between Israel and Egypt will be thwarted.

In their insatiable hunger for news about the future, Americans surely prove themselves kinsmen of their remotest ancestors. Humankind, archaeology has long since made clear, began trying to penetrate tomorrow as soon as it dawned on men that there was one. The oracle and prophetic magic were invented before the wheel. Today, entrails are about the only thing not widely sifted for inklings of things to be. The soothsaying fraternity conjures all year long to supply the public addiction. The orgiastic bumper crop comes as a sort of special start-of-the-year fix. One effect of the overdose is that it makes everyone momentarily forget that public dependence on prognosticating is not just seasonal but chronic.

Silicone wrinkle shots will come in style, eyelifts will go out. Telly Savalas will marry a starlet. John Travolta is heading for a surprise wedding. Dinah Shore will marry. Israel and Egypt will sign a peace treaty.

The demand for foreknowledge of practically everything supports a professional industry whose size is barely hinted at by the hovering legions of astrologers, fortune tellers, palmists, mystics, clairvoyants, tarot cardists and stock-market analysts. In fact, the craze for foretelling (and being foretold) runs so deep that it has incurably infected the one profession whose redeeming mission is actually to discover what happened yesterday: journalism. Even though this obligation regularly taxes its competence, journalism today spends a surprising amount of its energy transmitting what it cannot possibly know for sure. Not only tabloids like the National Enquirer but sober organs like the Christian Science Monitor love to prophesy.

Teddy Kennedy will announce for President and then withdraw. John Jr. and Caroline Kennedy will each take on spouses. A new child ice-skating star will emerge. Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors will split. The N.F.L. will take on a woman referee. Jimmy Carter will decide not to seek reelection.

Sports and weather are only the two most glaring beats whose coverage is profoundly colored by the prophet motive. Fashion news is primarily about things that have not yet happened, and the writer who dwelt on the reportable facts of the present would be viewed as quaint. The book reviewer, though stuck with palpable volumes of the moment, is happiest when proclaiming how posterity will treat a work. The food critic verily feeds on the unreliable assumption that a future meal, whether in a restaurant or out of a recipe, will be as palatable as the past one. Political writers share such a weakness for looking ahead that they often settle the forthcoming presidential election well before they have understood the last. Moreover, those who are both writers and political creatures often prophesy with a purpose. Thus, anti-Carter Columnist William Safire last week ventured, in living choler, the following for 1979: “Bert Lance gets indicted, convicted, pardoned and whips Andy Young for the Georgia Senate seat of Herman Talmadge.”

There will be a recession. The economy will continue as is. The economy will boom.

Economics commentators have long been more preoccupied with forecasting the quirks of the economic apparatus than with reporting how it actually works. In fact, they probably do the former poorly because they do the latter so little. To be sure, economic prophecy even at its most serious level is not, even with its computer printouts, all that far from tea-leaf reading. Only last week the New York Times mourned that the forecasts for 1978 it obtained from eight top-grade professionals “read like a nostalgic collection of unfulfilled hopes and unwarranted fears.” (Examples: The Council of Economic Advisers’ forecast of a 4.7% G.N.P. growth was a hopeful near-point above the actual 3.8%, and Chase Econometrics’ estimate of 7.4% unemployment a gloomy plateau above the actual 6%.) The most meticulous scientific methods of forecasting economics—so says one of the foremost prophets, Boston Econometrician Otto Eckstein—produce results with errors only 35% to 40% smaller than those arising from careful guesstimating. Perhaps unnecessarily, Eckstein adds: “There’s plenty of room for humility.” The humbling failure of scientists to predict surely either the course of nature (as in the weather) or cultural dynamics (as in economic and social change) may be one factor that licenses the numberless irrational prophets who proliferate in today’s age of ostensible reason.

The year will be a big one for forecasting the 1980s.

Plainly, though everybody is obsessed with divining tomorrow, no one on earth can yet reliably do it. Even the woolly bear caterpillars have been ambiguous in predicting (via the size of their black stripes) the intensity of the gathering winter. The amazing thing is that although everybody learns early that the future always arrives with a sequence of astonishments, the appetite for imagined glimpses of those surprises remains unabated, unblunted even by repetitious disappointment. Some observers, pointing to the fact that the poor are the biggest clients of fortune tellers, suspect that discontent with the present accounts for much of the longing to know the future. Yet this is at odds with the obvious fact that heralds of future disaster are also popular. More likely, the universal wish to know the future only betrays a deeper but just as impossible wish to control it. That, however, is not in the cards. But be consoled, because . . .

Cheek-to-cheek dancing will come back this year. Cream of frogs’ legs soup will begin to gain on cream of mussel. The movies are going to show an upbeat trend. John Travolta will marry Priscilla Presley. It is written.

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