In 1900, Ladies’ Home Journal ran a bold piece that would have a rich afterlife. Its headline: “What May Happen
in the Next Hundred Years.”
The author was an engineer named John Elfreth Watkins, then the Smithsonian’s curator of mechanical technology. Futurist articles like his are usually fanciful, if not fishy—but Watkins got a lot right. He predicted something uncannily close to the Internet, GMO foods and cellphones. Then again, he was sure that C, X and Q would be gone from the alphabet.
In 2012, BBC News Magazine responded to that 1900 piece, and asked readers to make their own guesses for the 2100s, which two futurologists rated for plausibility. As I followed this convoluted (but fun) exchange, I wondered what Amherst faculty and staff might make of it. Not a big leap: they’re in Bicentennial mode anyway, wandering with the ghosts of past, present and future.
So I chose a few predictions, from 1900 and 2012, and e_pressed my _rafty _uestions. (Dear X, C and Q: wish you were here.)
Strawberries Will Be as Big as Apples
One of my favorite prophecies was that fruit would be much bigger in our time. Watkins believed strawberries would grow as large as apples and that “one cantaloupe would supply an entire family.” I turned to Maida Ives, manager of farm education and operations at Amherst.
“My first reaction was why do we want big strawberries and cantaloupes?” said Ives. “Genetic breeding for crops is usually for flavor, disease resistance or yield. What value does a big strawberry bring except for novelty?” If anything, she added, chefs now prefer smaller produce. (See: Honeynut squash, marketed since 2015 to fit snugly on plate.)
“Food trends are a combination of consumer demand and the way media writes things,” Ives said. “In the ’90s at Amherst, students wanted fat-free foods. In the 2000s it was all about sustainability and how crops were grown. More recently, the trend is toward nutritious power foods.” She guesses that Watkins thought bigger fruits might offer proof that future farmers had learned how to defeat disease microbes.
Marriage Will Require an Annual Contract
On to a BBC reader prediction for 2100: “Marriage will be replaced by an annual contract.” Paging Catherine Sanderson, the Poler Family Professor of Psychology, who has taught her “Close Relationships” course since 1997.
“We talk a lot in class about how marriage is very different now than it used to be,” she said. A century ago, life expectancy was around 50; now you can be married to someone for 50, even 80 years: “That’s a long time to be tied to one person. But I actually have a much more optimistic take. I think the meaning of marriage is changing in ways that are really healthy and good.”
Studies show that marriage has historically been more advantageous for men than women, because women did all the cooking, cleaning and childcare. Today, it’s more often a shared responsibility. Recent research on same-sex marriages report even more equity at home. “People are going to be able to stay married, in part, because it’s going to be more fulfilling for men and women,” she added.
And that annual contract idea? “It might be a little bit extreme,” Sanderson said. “Maybe instead of a contract, you treat it like getting an annual physical. Each year you say to your spouse ‘Hey, let’s check in and see how we’re doing. Are there things we could be doing differently?’”
C, X and Q Will Be Gone From the Alphabet
Finally, I asked Christopher Grobe about Watkins’ premature obituary for C, X and Q. He’s an associate professor of English who specializes in the “entanglement of literature, performance, media and technology in American culture,” to quote his bio. “At first, I thought the logic behind this is that these letters are either ambiguous or redundant,” said Grobe. “C can be pronounced as K or S. And Q and X feel like combinations of other consonants we have.”
But then he realized that, in 1900, they were well into the terse age of the telegraph machine: “Also, many were pressing for a more fanatically compressed and pure way of writing. George Bernard Shaw had an elaborate interest in phonetics and dialects and, when he died, left a pot of money for anybody who could create a synthetic writing system in a more compressed form.”
Grobe figured that C, X and Q stayed with us because language has never developed in the direction of simplicity. If anything, it tends toward complexity, ambiguity and inefficiency: “When the internet brought us all back to a text-only mode, that just involved the creation of more and more modes of writing to make up for how inadequate an alphabet is to transcribe our communication. So emoticons and then emoji are a reaction to all of that.”
To which we say:
And we wish you the very best in the future.