We Cannot Predict the Future, But We Can Invent It

Dennis Gabor? Ilya Prigogine? Alan Kay? Steven Lisberger? Peter Drucker? Forrest C. Shaklee? Anonymous?

gaborkay02Dear Quote Investigator: I have seen several different versions of an adage about prediction and invention. Here are some examples:

The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.
We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it.
The way to cope with the future is to create it.
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
The best way to predict the future is to create it.
You cannot predict the future, but you can create it.

These sayings are not identical in meaning, but I think they fit together naturally as a group. Could you explore the origin of these expressions?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in 1963 in the book “Inventing the Future” written by Dennis Gabor who was later awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in holography. Boldface has been added to the following passage and some excerpts further below: 1

We are still the masters of our fate. Rational thinking, even assisted by any conceivable electronic computors, cannot predict the future. All it can do is to map out the probability space as it appears at the present and which will be different tomorrow when one of the infinity of possible states will have materialized. Technological and social inventions are broadening this probability space all the time; it is now incomparably larger than it was before the industrial revolution—for good or for evil.

The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man’s ability to invent which has made human society what it is. The mental processes of inventions are still mysterious. They are rational but not logical, that is to say, not deductive.

In March 1963 the book was reviewed in the periodical New Scientist by the editor and writer Nigel Calder who found the saying memorable enough to include it in his review. Calder presented a rephrased version: 2

His basic approach is that we cannot predict the future, but we can invent it, hence his title. He is essentially optimistic.

In 1968 Orville Freeman, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, employed the same concise version of the saying during a government conference, and he credited Gabor: 3

Dennis Gabor once said, “We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it.” And it was Wilbert Moore, the great sociologist, who told us that “Revolutions thrive on utopian images, and without such images they will fail.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1970 a book containing speculations about the near future included an essay by Garrett Hardin who used the phrase three times: 4

As the engineer Dennis Gabor has aptly pointed out, we cannot predict the future but we can invent it. We are, in a word, responsible for what we say.

Answering these questions would require prediction, and (as Gabor pointed out) we cannot predict the future. We can only invent it.

We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it—and we had better start now.

In 1979 a variant of the saying was credited to a different Nobel Prize winning scientist during a speech at a meeting of the Society of Actuaries held in Bal Harbour, Florida. The speaker was on the staff of the Congressional Research Service, and he ascribed the adage to Ilya Prigogine who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977: 5

I end on a note from Prigogine, who said that the way to cope with the future is to create it.

In April 1982 the periodical InfoWorld covered a conference about computers in schools. Alan Kay, chief scientist at Atari and formerly a member of famed research organization Xerox PARC, spoke at the conference: 6

At Xerox PARC the researchers’ maxim was “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” and Kay talked of the efforts made there to design a truly personal computer.

Alan Kay has stated that he originated the maxim of the form: The best way to predict the future is to invent it. He also indicated that he began using it by 1971. The details of this assertion are given further below in this article.

In July 1982 Steven Lisberger, the director of a new movie called Tron, spoke with a newspaper reporter and used a version of the adage: 7

That’s right, beneath its gaudy exterior “Tron” has a message: that computers could become “big brothers” which run our lives, and that the best way to counter this is “from the inside,” by understanding the machines so well they can’t mislead or divert us. “It’s like saying the best way to predict the future is to create it,” Lisberger says.

Bonnie MacBird and Steven Lisberger shared the story credit for the film Tron. MacBird stated that she arranged a meeting that included Alan Kay, Steven Lisberger, and herself during the development and creation process for the film. She heard Kay use a version of the saying at the meeting, and she believes that Lisberger’s version of the adage was derived from Kay’s statement. Kay was later hired as a technical consultant on Tron. Before the meeting MacBird had not met Kay. They are now married. 8

In August 1982 InfoWorld covered another conference that featured Alan Kay as a speaker: 9

Kay went on to delight the crowd with various metaphors and slogans. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” was his response to managers wanting to know how to plan future products.

In September 1982 Atari ran a large advertisement in InfoWorld magazine that boldly displayed a variant of the maxim: 10

THE FUTURE IS HERE.
The Best Way to Predict the Future Is to Create It.

In 1983 an article by Alan Kay was published in the EDUCOM Bulletin, and he included the adage: 11

First, the best way to predict the future is to invent it, because we can then say, “the future’s there for us to shape — we’re not helpless.” As long as we don’t violate too many of Newton’s laws, we can probably make new technology work out. We should decide what we want and then make it happen.

By 1986 a version of the adage was being ascribed to the famous management guru Peter Drucker: 12

Today’s businesses are learning from the science of change that they must recreate themselves even when they would like to believe that the old business will go on forever. As Peter Drucker put it, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

In 1991 the attribution to Drucker appeared in multiple newspapers through the Scripps Howard News Service: 13

We will either succeed or fail together as a nation. According to management expert Peter Drucker, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

The website smalltalk.org has a webpage dedicated to the computer researcher Alan Kay. Peter W. Lount is listed as the website editor, and a version of the maxim is presented together with the date of 1971. This date is apparently based on the memory of Alan Kay as given in an email sent to Lount in 1998: 14

The Full Alan Kay Quote
“Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything that doesn’t violate too many of Newton’s Laws!”
— Alan Kay in 1971,
inventor of Smalltalk which was the inspiration and technical basis for the MacIntosh and subsequent windowing based systems (NextStep, Microsoft Windows 3.1/95/98/NT, X-Windows, Motif, etc…).

Alan on Alan
“The origin of the quote came from an early meeting in 1971 of PARC, Palo Alto Research Center, folks and the Xerox planners. In a fit of passion I uttered the quote!”.
— Alan Kay, in an email on Sept 17, 1998 to Peter W. Lount

In 2009 two versions of the expression were given in the book “Drucker on Leadership”, and the author indicated that Peter Drucker used the first while teaching: 15

Peter admonished us in class: “You cannot predict the future, but you can create it.” More popularly, this is stated as “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Either way, his method of creation was through strategic planning by the leader.

The website pickthebrain.com attributed a version of the adage to Forrest C. Shaklee who founded the Shaklee Corporation which initially marketed nutritional supplements. A snapshot in the “Internet Archive: Way Back Machine” database indicated that the quotation and attribution were accessible online by October 2010: 16

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
–Dr. Forrest C. Shaklee

In conclusion, the first quotation on the list at the top of this article was crafted by Dennis Gabor and published by 1963. A stylistically improved version was assigned to Gabor in the 1960s. Multiple variants and attributions entered circulation during the ensuing decades. There is good evidence that Alan Kay crafted the popular statement: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”.

Notes:

  1. 1964 [Copyright 1963], Inventing the future by Dennis Gabor, Page 207, Alfred A, Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper) [The spelling "computors" was used in the book.]
  2. 1963 March 28, New Scientist, Books: How to be dignified though useless, by Nigel Calder, [Review of "Inventing the future" by Dennis Gabor], Page 712, Column 2, Published by Reed Business Information. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1968, National Manpower Conference, [Held at the Student Union, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, May 17-18, 1968], The Rural to Urban Population Shift: A National Problem, Statement of Orville Freeman, Secretary of Agriculture, Start Page 111, Quote Page 112, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust)
  4. 1970, Toward Century 21: Technology, Society, and Human values, Edited by C. S. Wallia, Making Error Creative by Garrett Hardin, Start Page 68, Quote Page 70, 74, 79, Basic Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1979 October, Record: Society of Actuaries, Volume 5, Number 4, Prospects for Social Discontinuity, Speaker: Dr. William W. Whitson, Start Page 753, Quote Page 758, Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1982 April 26, InfoWorld, Volume 4, Number 16, Experts speculate on future electronic learning environment by Deborah Wise, Page 6, Published by InfoWorld Media Group, Inc. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1982 July 15, Christian Science Monitor, Walt Disney’s ‘Tron,’ the ultimate computer movie by David Sterritt, Page 18, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  8. 2012 September 28, Comment left at the QuoteInvestigator.com website by Bonnie MacBird on the entry “We Cannot Predict the Future, But We Can Invent It”, [Identity of commenter MacBird was checked via personal communication using an email address at the domain macbird.com]
  9. 1982 August 16, InfoWorld, Software innovation and marketing spotlighted by Maggie Canon, Page 14, Published by InfoWorld Media Group, Inc. (Google Books full view) link
  10. 1982 September 20, InfoWorld, [Advertisement for Atari Corporation], Page 68, Published by InfoWorld Media Group, Inc. (Google Books full view) link
  11. 1983 Fall/Winter, EDUCOM Bulletin, Number 3/4, “Learning vs. Teaching with Educational Technologies” by Alan Kay, Start Page 16, Quote Page 17, Column 2, Published by EDUCOM, the Interuniversity Communications Council, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1986, The Leader-Manager by John N. Williamson, Page 149, John Wiley and Sons, New York. (Google Books Preview; Book was switched to snippet mode)
  13. 1991 December 1, Deseret News, Well-trained Workers Crucial to US by Jim Freedman of Providence Journal, Page A28, Scripps Howard News Service, Salt Lake City, Utah. (NewsBank Access World News)
  14. smalltalk.org website, Webpage about Alan Kay featuring the quote: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”, Website editor Peter W. Lount. ["Internet Archive Way Back Machine" snapshot of the webpage with the quote dated May 8, 1999, Archive URL: www.smalltalk.org/alankay.html ] (Accessed smalltalk.org and web.archive.org on September 27, 2012) link
  15. 2009 [Copyright 2010], Drucker on Leadership: New Lessons from the Father of Modern Management by William A. Cohen, Page 4, John Wiley and Sons, New York. (Safari Books Online; Accessed September 27, 2012 at safaribooksonline.com)
  16. Internet Archive: Way Back Machine, Web capture date: October 21, 2010, Archive download URL:  www.pickthebrain.com/blog/25-of-the-most-inspiring-quotes-ever-spoken/ Title: 25 Of the Most Inspiring Quotes Ever Spoken, [Written by Mr.SelfDevelopment on October 18, 2010 (date on website)] (Accessed at web.archive.org on September 27, 2012)

One thought on “We Cannot Predict the Future, But We Can Invent It

  1. I can assure you that Alan Kay is the author of “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” This is well known in the computer world and a number of people at Xerox Parc heard him say it at the time he claims he did.
    Much later, I was present at the meeting where he said this to Steven Lisberger, who was quoting Alan at the time of his later interview in 1982. I am now married to Alan but at the time was writing the early drafts of Tron and had set up the interview with Alan, whom neither Steven nor I had met before. I later caused Alan to be hired as the technical consultant on Tron and he worked with Steven and me for some months. Those are Alan’s words which Steven is quoting, but not attributing. Perhaps he did attribute them, who knows, journalists often edit.

Comments are closed.