The Failure of Futurism

There is one thing that all widely read futurists have in common: they are wrong, most often spectacularly so. The first is inherent in the limitations of predicting. The second is inherent in the approach futurists seem to universally take.

Perfect prediction requires perfect models, which in turn require complete information. But information is infinite (c.f. irrational numbers) and can only be approximated (c.f. uncertainty principle.)

Accuracy is the measure of a prediction’s success. The closer the prediction matches the observed behavior, the higher the accuracy. The smaller the number of interactions in the behavior being predicted, the less information is necessary to predict the behavior. Applying quantum physics, for example, often entails predicting a single interaction of two particles and can be breathtakingly accurate. Weather, on the other hand, consists of myriad interactions of trillions of objects. Predicting weather can be breathtakingly inaccurate.

Futurists are spectacularly wrong because they consistently predict exponential trends in technology growth when that growth is never exponential. They are wrong because they predict continuous growth when growth will have interruptions. They are wrong because they emphasis the wrong trends. They are wrong because they do not account for side effects.

Study the history of any specific technology. It will start with a discovery or invention that enables it. At first a few will experiment with the invention and growth will be slow. Next a point will be reached where widespread interest in the novel technology develops and growth will accelerate in what appears to be an exponential fashion. It is this part of the growth curve that futurists base their prediction on.

But as more is accomplished, room for improvement retracts and improvement becomes more expensive to accomplish. Eventually the cost of improving the technology exceeds the benefit achieved by the improvement and growth slows to a trickle. It is this leveling off that futurists do not incorporate in their models.

Growth is interrupted by catastrophe. Malthusian population explosions pause for pandemics and the massive death toll of wars. Growth is interrupted by alternate technology that solves the same problem less expensively. Diesel replaces steam. Transistors replace vacuum tubes.

The Google search engine provides a clear example of side effects. Larry Page made two conjectures: that the best order to present search results was to rank them according to their usefulness; that utility could be correlated by the number of existing links to each result. This resulted in a very successful search engine. Result owners wished to have their results presented earlier in the list. They found ways to increase the number of links. This lead to search engine optimization (SEO) which amounts to an arms race between Google, extending the ranking algorithm to account for existing SEO, and page owners, changing their strategy to account for changes in the ranking algorithm.

Futurists find themselves in a trap. Dramatic predictions lead to widespread readership. Dramatic predictions easily result from exponential extrapolation of trends.The only cost of being wrong is embarrassment. Embarrassment is avoided by predicting far enough into the future that you will not be remembered as making them when they fail to materialize.  Do you know who predicted flying cars in 2000, earlier in the 20th century? Neither do I, nor did I in 2000, when they failed to materialize.


I have not described all of the causes of the spectacular failure futurists, nor have I described their successes.

Mining in Butte, a potted history


Gold was discovered in the Montana territory in 1863. Striking out from the original find, near Virginia City, Montana, prospectors eventually found Silver Bow creek, in what is now Silver Bow county, Montana. Gold was found in 1864. Gold quickly played out, to be replaced by silver. A few hardy prospectors tried to mine the quartz veins for silver, but lacked the technology to extract ore. Butte appeared ready to become a ghost town.

The hill about Silver Bow creek, that would become Butte Montana had a massive amount of copper, in addition to the silver. Electrification made copper important. Eventually, dozens of vertical shafts would be sunk, smelters would be built, and hundreds of miles of tunnels would be dug in search of ore.

In 1868, Andrew Jackson Davis began funding development in Silver Bow county.  His arrival might be considered the start of the period of growth and consolidation, known as The War of the Copper Kings, that would include combat in the tunnels, legal and other trickery, and long court battles.  The war would result in the complete consolidation of mining in the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, usually called the ACM, or simply, the company, under the leadership of Marcus Daly, in 1899.  The Standard Oil trust had won. Butte became a company town.

Although underground mining would continue long into the 20th century, it became clear in the 1950s that another form of mining would be more profitable.  In 1955, the Berkeley pit was started. It continued to operate until all ACM mining in Butte halted in 1983. The underground pumps were turned off. The pit flooded, becoming one of the larger Superfund sites in the country.

Mining has never completely stopped.  Montana Resources continues open pit strip mining to this day. The scale is tiny compared to the peak of mining operation, and Butte has ceased being a company town.

One of Butte’s slogans is “A mile high and a mile deep.” This derives from one of its famous mines, The Mountain Consolidated(Google Maps). Situated at over six thousand feet above sea level, the mine’s vertical shaft reached a depth of 5380 feet.

Some references

There are many good web sites that discuss Butte’s mining history. Some are linked to above. In addition, I have a modest collection of books.  Three of the books I’ve consulted for this potted history:  (The links go to Amazon, but I don’t get a referral for them.)

Glasscock, C B. The War of the Copper Kings, unknown: unknown, 1935. — I first read this as a child in the 1960s. It is a breezy, approachable account.

Malone, Michael P. The Battle for Butte: Mining and Politics on the Northern Frontier, 1864-1906, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981. — This is a scholarly publication that has great detail and many references.

Marcosson, Isaac F. Anaconda, Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc, 1957. — an official history of the Anaconda Company from 1875 through the late 1940s.





Some thoughts on learning Montana history.

Recently, my wife and I visited the Big Hole National Battlefield, near Wisdom Montana. The site is part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. I first became aware of the Nez Perce in the 7th grade, in Montana history class. We learned about the band under chief Joseph attempting to flee to safety in Canada. The story of Chief Joseph’s band’s exodus was a simple descriptive gloss, leaving out the reasons for the flight, the atrocity, and the consequence of the surrender.

The story told at the visitor center is more balanced and complete than what I learned in school in 1967, but it does not judge the events of  August 9th, 1877, leaving the observer to reach their own conclusion. I documented some of the displays, mostly individual quotes, in my photo gallery Photographs from the Big Hole National Battlefield. Some, including myself, will see the events as a terrible tragedy. Others will see them as a necessary evil in the colonization of the West by Europeans. The government has chosen to avoid controversy by not drawing a conclusion either way.

It has been fifty years since that class, and I have wondered how the Nez Perce flight is taught now. I don’t have access to Montana educators, but exploring the state’s teaching resources, I discovered a companion web site and online teacher’s guide for a text meant to be used to teach middle school Montana history classes. I was led to this site by a blog entry in the blog Teaching Montana History“Teaching Montana History in Fourth Grade”

The Montana Historical Society commissioned Krys Holmes to write such a history of Montana, including the Indian perspective,  resulting in the publication of Montana: Stories of the Land in 2008. Chapter 7 of the book, Two Worlds Collide, 1850 – 1887 discusses the interactions of the native peoples and the European colonialists during the period of greatest strife.  The section on the Nez Perce war of 1877 is brief:

1877: The Nez Perce War


In 1877 several Nez Perce bands fled their homeland in a four month campaign for freedom that began in Oregon and ended in Montana. These bands of Nez Perce had never signed a treaty with the United States. When they were ordered to leave their homeland in Oregon and go onto a reservation in northern Idaho, they refused to go. “The white man has no right to take our country,” one of their leaders, Chief Joseph, told the government agents. “We are free. We will go where we please.”

About 700 Nez Perce men, women, and children traveled nearly 1,400 miles across the Rocky Mountains. Many times they outwitted the pursuing army. When soldiers lay in wait at the mouth of Lolo Canyon (near present-day Missoula), the Nez Perce silently walked around them in the middle of the night.

One August dawn, the army attacked the Nez Perce camp on the North Fork of the Big Hole River. [NOTE: This is the event commemorated by the site. – MF] The army overwhelmed the sleeping camp, burned lodges, and shot at the fleeing Nez Perce, including women and children. But their military leaders, White Bird and Looking Glass, urged
their warriors to fight instead of run. After a day-long battle, the army retreated.

Nursing their wounded, carrying their children, and in mourning for their dead, the Nez Perce fled south and east, then threaded their way to the Bear’s Paw Mountains—just 40 miles from the Canadian border, where they would be safe. Here Colonel Nelson Miles and an army of 350 soldiers caught up with them and led a surprise attack on the resting camps.

The Battle of the Bear’s Paw Mountains lasted for days and killed many fighters on both sides. Some of the Nez Perce people slipped away during the battle. This group made it to the Milk River, where they met a band of Métis. The Métis gave them food and helped them across the Canadian border. Descendants of these Nez Perce still live there today.
Others, including Chief Joseph, surrendered on October 5, 1877.

This gloss is barely different than the one I was taught. It does not judge. It does not mention the deaths of women and children caused by the surprise attack. It does not describe what happened to those who surrendered.

The book’s handling of colonial behavior towards Native Americans is not always the white wash that the above excerpt might lead you to think. Chapter 11, The Early Reservation Years, 1880 – 1920 tells the story of the reservation system. It would not have been written in a book in the 1960s.  It’s stated goals are

Read To Find Out:

  • How Indians survived without the bison
  • How the U.S. government tried to destroy Indian culture
  • What Indian people did to keep their cultural traditions alive
  • Why non-Indians own so much land on some Indian reservations

In 1967, this information would have been hard to find even in undergraduate history classes. It is good to see Montana, at last, presenting the Native American perspective.


The soldiers “burned lodges, and shot at the fleeing Nez Perce, including women and children” should be amended to read “burned lodges, and shot at and killed the fleeing Nez Perce, including women and children”. Between 60 and 90 Nez Perce were killed that day. Most died during the massacre “surprise attack”.

A more complete telling would describe that the Nez Perce who surrendered were told they would be sent to the reservation in Idaho. Instead, they were badly mistreated. They were sent to Oklahoma and Kansas, where more than half died during the eight years they were there before being sent to the Colville reservation in Washington. “Leavenworth was the worst; not enough food, no shelter, and a malaria-infested land. During this time more than half of our people died.” –  A sign at the visitor center.

Direct mistreatment of Native Americans in Montana, and the rest of the U.S. as well as Canada, continues to this day. The abuses described in chapter 7 continues in different form on the seven reservations in the state, most notably Rocky Boy. Off the reservation, Native Americans are targets of bigotry similar to that exercised against other people of color.