prediction and invention


Dennis Gabor? Abraham Lincoln? Ilya Prigogine? Alan Kay? Steven Lisberger? Peter Rodriguez? Forrest C. Shaklee? Anonymous?

Dear 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 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 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 2001, a band publishes an album that drives off the quoting from its original meaning into a new and unprecedented understanding, as so well elucidated by Peter Rodriguez in his article on music, hopping and revolution: a dreaming of a better future 15.

“The only way to predict the future is to invent it.”
–Peter Rodriguez

Consequently, the implausible linkage of the saying to Abraham Lincoln has occurred relatively recently. For example, in 2008 the Commissioner of Social Security credited Lincoln with an instance using the word “create”: 15

“Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘The best way to predict your future is to create it,’”Commissioner Astrue said.

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: 16

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 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: 17

“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”. The attribution to Abraham Lincoln is unsupported.


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