The past and present are shaped in large part by our beliefs about the future, but these beliefs themselves have a history. In this seminar, we will investigate a variety of past human attempts to anticipate events still to come. The accuracy of predictions will be less interesting to us than the methods, cultural settings, and intellectual worlds of their production. By exploring futuristic visions, we will gain a window into the concerns of the present moments in which they were created. Moreover, we will consider how these forecasts and imaginations were not just passive reflections of their present worlds—they have also been active forces in history, shaping views of the future’s possibilities, as well as individual and societal responsibilities.

Tracing both intellectual and cultural threads, we will survey the history of prediction methods from late antiquity through the rise of statistics to the era of computer simulation, with a particular focus on predictive strategies in the 19th and 20th centuries. We will work closely with a range of primary and secondary sources, from almanacs to science fiction, from genetic codes to financial speculations, and from prophecies to scientific treatises. Through these sources, we will be guided by the key questions: How have people in different times and places identified the phenomena that most urgently required prediction? Which experts have they looked to for glimpses of future events? Have these projections been utopian, dystopian, or even apocalyptic—and why? And what happens to our belief systems when predictions fail? As we wonder about the future trajectories of our environment, the human species, our economy and society, and our own individual lives, this course will show that these concerns are connected to a long history of decision-making in the face of uncertainty.