Looking ForwardPrediction and Uncertainty in Modern America

Looking ForwardPrediction and Uncertainty in Modern America

Jamie L. Pietruska

Print publication date: 2018

ISBN: 9780226475004

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book is a history of forecasting in the United States from the 1860s to the 1920s that examines how methods of prediction and ideas about predictability changed as Americans reckoned with new uncertainties in post-Civil War economy and culture and debated whether it was possible to predict the future with any degree of certainty. The book examines crop forecasting, weather forecasting, economic forecasting, utopian literature, and fortune-telling and considers forecasts as forms of knowledge production and tools for risk management. The book’s main argument revises the historical interpretation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a “search for order” by demonstrating that a search for predictability yielded the opposite: acceptance of the uncertainties of twentieth-century economic and cultural life. It demonstrates how routinized forecasts of everyday life became ubiquitous in a late-nineteenth-century culture of prediction, revising scholarly accounts that locate the origins of professional forecasting in the Cold War. The book also uncovers rural origins of modern bureaucratic rationality in the histories of crop and weather forecasting, both of which depended on large-scale government information networks that are an overlooked example of the size and reach of the nineteenth-century American state. The book emphasizes controversies over forecasts’ meaning and value, contests over forecasters’ authority and expertise, and epistemic debates over the nature of forecasting itself.