What We Talk About When We Talk About the Future

Here are two graphs I made with Google’s Ngram Viewer. The graphs show how frequently a number of future-related terms occur in the more than 100 billion words of Google Books’ English-language corpus from 1950-2008. The charts are moderately smoothed to highlight longer-term trends. Although these terms are not all completely comparable with one another, the relative frequency of broad popular phrases like these tells us a lot about what’s on our collective mind.

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    1. Frequency of promising technology terms in the English-language Google Books corpus from 1950-2008.

Talk of space travel peaked around the time that President John F. Kennedy called on the US to commit to the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth”. With the development of computers, artificial intelligence became the hot technology of the future. But when progress came slowly, talk of artificial intelligence gave way to excitement about genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 12.37.04 PM    2. Frequency of potential catastrophe terms in the English-language Google Books corpus from 1950-2008.

Nuclear war was our main concern throughout the Cold War, with peaks around the Cuban Missile Crisis and the middle of the Reagan administration. When the Cold War ended, concerns about nuclear war gave way—even though nuclear war remains a real danger—to concerns about the effect of human activity on the global climate. By 2008, climate change was by far the most talked about potential catastrophe. But outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and avian influenza also got us talking about the danger posed by emerging diseases.

As I’ve written before, we need to take potential catastrophes seriously. For more on what I think the greatest dangers are and what we need to do to avoid them, please take a look at my recent submission to the Foundational Questions Institute’s 2014 contest for the best essay answering the question “How should humanity steer the future?”

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