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Life and politics, Media

I vividly remember 1969


The future has great past
Stefan Bratkowski

When looking toward 50 years ahead of us, it is worth to look 50 years back. In 1969 I was 18 years old, still in high school, in Gdańsk, Poland. As the future was just in front of me, I remember vividly what was predicted to happen in the next 20, 30 or 50 years. Most of these predictions did not materialize.

When looking toward 2069, which most likely I will not see, let me notice that in 1969 my chances of surviving until 2069 were predicted as much more likely than today. The first heart transplant was in 1967 and despite the fact that the patient died 18 days later, there was an optimistic consensus that this was just one of many revolutionary developments in medicine. Speculations were that within the next 30 or 50 years medicine would advance to the degree that many would live up to 150 years old, believed as the physiological limit. Just recently, I saw a billboard advertising some retirement services with a message that the first person who would live until age 150 has been born already. I doubt that the author of this slogan had in mind someone of my age. But I had heard that around 1969 already.

I took it seriously then and, for most of my life, conducted a relatively healthy lifestyle to give myself a shot at a long life. I see the benefits of it now, and I appreciate how advanced medicine helps me with medical conditions that could have been life-threatening 50 years ago. But even my most optimistic doctors do not give me much chance to survive much longer than 100 years, which was the limit for previous generations as well. But then, similar to today, many people died much earlier, often due to a lack of a healthy lifestyle. There is a saying that bankers lend money to people who already have it. It applies to advanced medicine as well, which can help one to live longer and healthier, but mostly for those who already take care of themselves. It was true in 1969, it is true now, and I doubt it will be different in 2069.

I attended a technical high school, which besides college preparation, taught me to be a radio and TV repairman. Ours was the last year that we learned the fundamentals of electronics based on vacuum tubes; classes following us learned it on transistors. In the hallway, there was a board where the school posted cutouts from the technical magazines. I remember that we were excited to read that every month the number of transistors that were put in one electronic chip was jumping like crazy. It was obvious that something important was coming.

It was commonly agreed that computers would change everything around us. In the multitude of speculations about how it could turn out, there might have been voices that predicted what happened but I do not have any clear recollection of someone predicting smartphones. For example, speculations about the expansion of robots were fulfilled, despite the fact that they look different than what many had predicted. I remember one of my college professors outlining to us in 1973 the global communication system, which we know now as the internet. I asked then, how we all would be connected. “Over the phone lines,” he answered. At that time, my family had already been waiting six years for having a phone line installed; hence, I thought that it might be possible elsewhere but unlikely in Poland. My family had its phone installed finally in 1987. Most important of all, the rule of socialism collapsed there in 1989, just in time for Poland to join the internet expansion without any major delay.

Looking toward 2069, we can expect that devices connecting us will become smaller, smarter and cheaper. There will be many surprising twists hard to predict, and many new applications hard to imagine, but the very concept of it will not be much different than it is today.

In February of 1969 the Boeing 747 made its first flight; a month later, it was the supersonic Concorde. No wonder futurists fantasized how amazing traveling would be 20, 30 or 50 years later. The flying cars did not materialize, but now we might be closer to having them, at least by 2069. Despite many improvements, most of us still drive combustion engine cars as it was 50 years ago. But the recent developments indicate that by 2069, most of us will be driving electric cars, if we will be using cars as we do now at all.

The last of the Boeings 747s are still in service. Concorde produced only 14 commercial airplanes, because American politicians had been convinced that the sonic boom caused by the airplane reaching the speed of sound was dangerous to people. Without wide access to the American market, Concorde was retired in 2003. Now, when American manufacturers are working on their own supersonic planes, they convinced politicians that the sound boom caused by the American-made planes would not be so bad; hence, we might have supersonic travel coming soon, likely before 2069.

After the Soviets launched the first satellite in 1957, the space race started. Americans won it on July 21, 1969, by landing on the Moon. I remember us sitting in front of the TV for several hours, as the landing was postponed several times. By the way, we could see it thanks to the satellite TV transmission, which became available first in 1963. Since then, hundreds of communication satellites have orbited Earth, and likely will be doing so in 2069.

After the landing on the Moon it was obvious to expect that the space exploration would accelerate. One could read about colonies on Mars as almost certain, if not 20 or 30, then for sure 50 years later. Today, there is still a lot of talk about it. But, the chances that people will land on Mars are now much more realistic. We might have a colony there in 2069.

Fascinated with the technological progress, in 1969 futurists were predicting that it was just a few decades away that most of us work part-time only, making enough money to enjoy life and explore our other interests. It stacked in my mind that people would learn to play violin and do it for fun in their leisure time.

Predictions of this kind did not take human nature into consideration. If people would accepted the standard of living as it was in 1969 for the next 20 or 30 years, they might have been able to afford to work part-time and have a creative hobby. But they wanted larger housing with air conditioning, with more than one bathroom and more than one TV. They wanted the most impressive cars as well. They did not want to cook as much, enjoying dining out. As a result, most of us work harder than in 1969, having less time for fun and hobbies. With most families smaller now, we might be approaching a moment when most of us might decide to have houses that are not as large as we can theoretically afford, but only large enough as needed for basic comfort. We might select cars based on our needs, not on our desire to impress others. I see signs that this kind of thinking is gaining popularity; it might become a mainstream trend by 2069.

Since the industrial revolution in the 19th century the technological progress changed in relation to the typical life span of a person. In the past, whatever a young person learned at a young age it was enough to be successful during one’s whole life. It was somewhere in the late 1960s that we began realizing that for most people living in developed countries the pace of technological progress requires continuous major adjustments. We need to change professions, learn new skills, relocate and adapt to the fast-changing world around us.

Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler, published in 1970, was the book of the day. I read it in 1973 in a Polish translation. Surprisingly, I was not shocked. My high school teachers and university professors for years had been pounding into our heads that whatever technological applications we learn in school most likely would be obsolete the day we graduated. The onus was put on us learning the basics and developing the problem-solving skills. We were told that the rules of physics would not change, that math is needed for abstract thinking and that with an ability to logically analyze problems in front of us, we would be well-equipped to deal with whatever the future could bring to us.

I fixed our family TV twice but I did not work even one day fixing TVs. I believe I was well-prepared to live in the ever-changing world. But, please do not assume that was common for all youngsters growing up in Poland half a century ago. In order to be admitted to technical schools, I needed to be better than most in mathematics. In brief, it was a barrier for most. Thanks to my father, who coerced me to become good in math, I attended elite schools.

I elaborate on this subject because this is still the key issue when we try to guess what 2069 could be like. It will be whatever we will make it. Most of the problems that American society experiences today could be linked to Americans’ inability to adapt to the fast-changing technology, economy and social circumstances. Instead of finding a new opportunity in a factory closing, in a new construction or a lack of it, Americans try to return to the good old times. Instead of fearing the future, Americans might be wise to reach to “Future Shock” in order to shape it. There will be no return to the 1950s in 2069.

Just let us look back at 1969 to realize how risky it is to guess what might happen before 2069. But knowing what happened, we can speculate about some possibilities.

In 1969 Poland was a socialistic country, in a sphere of Soviet domination. In private conversations I often heard many extremely pejorative opinions about socialism. Occasionally, I heard that socialism by itself is not bad but its Soviet version is. And, obviously, the official propaganda was telling us that we lived in the best political system possible. Confused by mixed messages, in 1969 I decided to study the case and get to the bottom of it. I read a lot, and signed up for the four-semester study of philosophy and sociology at the Evening University of Marxism and Leninism. The end of the third semester coincided with the bloody labor riots in Gdańsk in December of 1970. When the classes reconvened in January of 1971, I realized that the main purpose of this Evening University was obligatory political indoctrination for people aspiring to take middle-level management positions. About half of the students were young engineers from the Gdańsk shipyard, where workers just had been killed during a peaceful political demonstration. It was the same shipyard that 10 years later started “Solidarity.”

These young engineers had no fear of grilling party officials. We had honest to-the-bone debates. Those were the moments I realized that socialism, regardless of its version, would never work anywhere. I am bringing it up because today, for many young people, all over the world, socialism again is an attractive proposition. When asking what might happen within the next few decades and how a given country might end up in 2069, we have to ask for a political temperature today. The more there is leaning toward socialism, the more likely that the economic strength and political significance of this country will diminish.

In particular, in the 1970s I observed closely the deepening crisis in Poland and was able to see some similarities to the processes in the Soviet Union. This led me to the conclusion that the fall of the Soviet Union was unavoidable. In 1980, I wrote a book (available in Polish only) speculating what the possible scenario could look like and how Poles should be prepared for it. Some reviewers of my book told me straightforwardly that I was crazy; some just rolled their eyes. None of the leading political scientists saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming. In their defense, I saw this coming, but in my wildest thoughts did not expect it to happen so soon.

About 50 years ago I read a book presenting China as a sleeping giant. No one could predict in 1969 that China would wake up 20 years later. Chinese leaders managed this by formally staying with some ideas of socialism. Still, they applied many free-market economic mechanisms to revitalize the economy and skillfully supported this transformation with references to the ancient Chinese tradition of Confucius. It has been working so far. I am afraid to speculate how long this spectacular growth can last. China became one of the leading technological powers and, more likely than not will maintain its strength through 2069.

The shaky politics of today causes us to worry about the position of the United States in 2069. We might expect that the United States still will be a major economic and military power but that its overwhelming dominance will be gone.

Lastly, to all who hope to be around in 2069, please be prepared that it will arrive much sooner than you can imagine.

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