A few weeks ago, when Walt Disney Co. announced its $52.4 billion acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox, lots of people took to Twitter to point out that the merger had been foretold almost two decades earlier, in a 1998 episode of the cartoon comedy show “The Simpsons.”
This was far from the first case of a joke from “The Simpsons” coming true. In the March 2000 episode “Bart to the Future,” for example, newly inaugurated President Lisa Simpson complains that “we’ve inherited quite a budget crunch from President Trump,” thus anticipating not only the presidency of Donald Trump but the now-almost-certain increase in the federal deficit during his time in office (although in the Simpsons version, the budget problems were caused by overspending on school breakfasts and midnight basketball).
There are many more such examples. There’s “Every time The Simpsons predicted the future — ranked in order of weirdness” from NME, which has 13 examples; “14 Times The Simpsons Accurately Predicted the Future” from Time; “15 times ‘The Simpsons’ accurately predicted the future” from Business Insider; “17 times ‘The Simpsons’ correctly predicted the future” from Syracuse.com; “21 Times ‘The Simpsons’ Bizarrely Predicted The Future” from BuzzFeed; “25 Times ‘The Simpsons’ Predicted the Future” from the Cheat Sheet; and “Disney buying Fox — and 29 other times real life has imitated The Simpsons” from the Telegraph. Can anybody give me 31?
This is not because “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and his teams of writers through the decades are sinister geniuses. They are, of course, but the phenomenon of jokes coming uncannily true is not at all unique to “The Simpsons.” So at this time of year, when lots of people are making forecasts or looking back at how last year’s predictions went, I’d like to make the case that humorists may make the best futurists of all.
I owe this belief mainly to a book that was one of my formative intellectual influences: “The 80s: A Look Back at the Tumultuous Decade 1980-1989,” a bestseller published in 1979 by a team of writers led by humorists Tony Hendra, Christopher Cerf and Peter Elbling. Somebody in my family got it for Christmas in 1979, and I remember reading it over and over again during the subsequent months (it was very funny and somewhat off-color, and I was a high school sophomore). I also remember being astounded during subsequent years when many of its joking “reminiscences” of the 1980s seemed to more or less come true.
Most significant was the oil glut that the book said would begin with the December 1985 announcement by the government of Chad that it was sitting atop more than a trillion barrels of oil.
“Pitcairn Island followed Chad with a bulletin that it had reserves exceeding Mexico’s. The Vatican reported a gusher was spouting out of control from the gardens behind Saint Peter’s, where secret drilling had gone on. Denmark for a time appeared to be the world’s leading oil power when it revealed that Greenland, beneath the ice, was solid petroleum. Finally, the Seven Sisters Corporation confessed that the reported “dry holes” it had abandoned in the Baltimore Canyon were actually deliberately closed-off strikes into “a subterranean Mississippi of oil” that could satisfy U.S. needs for 10,000 years.”
I cannot overemphasize how utterly fantastical all this sounded in 1979, when oil scarcity and rising prices seemed to have become immutable facts of life. The end to the oil squeeze actually came sooner than the book predicted, with prices beginning a decades-long decline in 1980. It was also admittedly less dramatic, with slowing demand growth and rising production from already discovered fields in the Soviet Union, North Sea, Alaska and elsewhere playing a bigger role in driving down prices than gigantic new finds. But an oil glut it was.
Other real-world phenomena of the 1980s and beyond that featured in the book included the turn to jihad in the Islamic world; the death of print; the rise and rise of gossip journalism; growing hostility to wind energy; ubiquitous TVs in elevators and other public places; no-frills air travel; snow at a World Series game; and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The writers of “The 80s” would not have won one of Philip Tetlock’s forecasting competitions: The great majority of their “predictions” were wildly wrong. Congress didn’t ban the consumption of meat, Muhammad Ali didn’t become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Disney didn’t buy the United Kingdom, a musical version of “1984” starring Leif Garrett, Tracy Austin and Marlon Brando (as “Big Brother”) did not become the movie of the decade, cancer was not cured with “a substance secreted in the cranium of the baby harp seal when its head was struck repeatedly.” But given that the aim of the book was not to make predictions but to entertain, that was OK. It’s like with “The Simpsons”: You’re not watching it to get a rundown on the world to come; the fact that you sometimes do is a happy bonus.
Writer Matt Novak, whose Paleofuture blog chronicles past visions of what is to come, has a post on satirical visions of the future advertising landscape that illustrates this nicely. A series of cartoons from the late 1800s and early 1900s, most from the humor magazine Life (which went out of business in the early 1930s, clearing the way for Henry Luce to acquire the rights to the name in 1936 and found that other Life magazine), show roads with garish billboards every few feet, skies choked with flying advertisements, and a Statue of Liberty covered with advertising slogans. All the cartoons over-predicted how bad things would get. But they were amusing, and they did accurately foresee some of the directions in which advertising would develop.
The humorist’s approach to looking into the future bears some resemblance to scenario planning, a practice developed in the 1950s and 1960s at the Rand Corp. and Hudson Institute and adopted most famously by Royal Dutch Shell Plc in the years leading up to the 1973 oil crisis. Scenario planning involves coming up with alternative story lines of how things might plausibly develop in the future, and thinking about how a business or other organization can adapt to them. It’s not about picking the right scenario, but about opening your mind to different possibilities. To make stories about the future funny, they usually have to be pushed beyond the bounds of plausibility. If they’re not pushed too far beyond, though, they can sometimes come true — with the advantage that few “serious” forecasters will have predicted them. The Trump presidency is a classic case of this. He had been talking about running since the late 1980s, but those in the media and political circles had learned over the years not to take him seriously. So it was left to the jokers.
Paleofuture’s Novak was one of them. In an April 2015 satirical post (set in 2020) on “the fifth anniversary of the single most important event in tech history — the release of the Apple Watch,” he mentioned in passing that “both President Trump and Labor Secretary Travis Kalanick were on hand to celebrate the joyous occasion in the newly created state of Silicon Valley.” A few weeks later, Trump actually announced his candidacy, to widespread derision. On July 5, as a joke, Novak tweeted: “hard to believe there’s just 564 days until donald trump is sworn in as president of the united states.”
He then updated the tweet daily for the next 563 days. “I love just drilling a joke into the ground,” he said in an interview with the Atlantic just before Trump’s inauguration.
He also said this: “Someone tweeted at me once that they’ve never seen the same collection of words change their meaning with every given day. One day it’s the funniest thing in the world — who could believe Trump is going to be president? The next it’s terrifying that Trump is going to be president. Then there’s some scandal and you think ‘Oh okay, well, he’s not going to be our president anymore.’ And that was the past year and a half, I think, for most people. Denial, shock, disbelief. I’m still in the shock phase quite frankly.”
Still, seeing Novak’s tweets most days did help prepare me for the eventuality. Which is what talking and thinking about the future is supposed to do. And when it’s done as a joke, it’s more fun.
Fox, a Bloomberg View columnist, was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”