Category Archives: Alan Kay

We Cannot Predict the Future, But We Can Invent It

Dennis Gabor? Abraham Lincoln? 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.

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  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)