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Predictions sometimes prove a mere bump in the road of history

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Most people confine their predicting behaviour to the month of January, as though they were required to by law. It is unclear why January was chosen as the month of reckless license. It was probably to do with New Year's resolutions, which in turn are inextricably tied up with desk diaries, those epic works of fiction that have such a poor record of dealing with next week, let alone next year.

An interesting example of this surfaced in the year 2000 when the former head of a famous think tank broke with tradition and released a load of predictions before Christmas instead. As if by magic his predictions made him a laughing stock. They included a new political alliance between the Greens, the Euro-agriculturalists and the trades unions; the resignation of Tony Blair, and a new government devoted to devolution and environmentalism that would dissolve into chaos by 2004. If only he had waited!

Clearly, successful prediction calls for the precision of a master bowls player coupled with a long view that refuses to be swept off course by storms in teacups. But bring this sort of expertise into play and you will quickly come to understand that it is one thing to predict minor perturbations and quite another to predict the general course of events over centuries and still be posthumously on target.

Take the case of the speed bump or sleeping policeman.This Second World War tank trap masquerading as a road safety measure should surely only appear on history's radar screen for an instant, even though many who still suffer from its proximity may claim that their lives have been ruined by it.

Fascinating though it may be, the history of the speed bump cannot be allowed to distort the course of events for ever.The oldest speed bump in the universe cannot have been laid more than 25 years ago and now, while enlightened London boroughs are already busy removing theirs, only the most remote and benighted villages in north Oxfordshire are still laying down new ones.Within another quarter century they will be entirely forgotten by everybody, except perhaps the corps of heritage historians who will still be prepared to point out the minor depressions in the road where once a speed bump lay in wait.

On a larger scale, consider this preview of England in 2048, written more than 100 years ago.

It is one that I have quoted from before. The protagonist is a passenger in a flying machine, when such things were themselves still science fiction.This is what he sees:

'The cities had drawn away the workers from the countryside with the gravitational force of seemingly endless work, the employers with their suggestion of an infinite ocean of labour. . .

And as the complexity of the mechanism of living increased, life in the country became more and more costly, narrow and impossible. . . After telephone, kinematograph and phonograph had replaced newspaper, book, schoolmaster, and letter, to live outside the range of the electric cables was to live like an isolated savage. In the country were neither means of being clothed nor fed.

Mechanical appliances in agriculture had made one engineer the equivalent of 30 labourers?' These extracts are taken from The Sleeper Awakes, by H G Wells, a novel published in 1898 which I have quoted from before because it describes our new century in about 50 years' time in terms that are startlingly recognisable today.

This is not only because his vision of a world of cities is now more or less the planning policy of every local authority in the country, but also because it has become an example of prediction at its most seductive: detailed and convincing, but dead wrong.

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