Italians, especially the younger generation, predict that the future will be worse than the present. But they have confidence in science and technology and regard them as likely to bring improvements in the future.
This period of the year is traditionally devoted to taking stock and making predictions. It is therefore a good occasion to reflect on the role of science and technology in the construction of our future. For once, however, we can set aside the opinions of experts and see what ordinary people have to say.
We may begin by looking at what Italians expect the future to be like. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that pessimism is widespread: only 23% of Italians believe that things will get better in the next five years, while more than half of them think that things will get worse. For almost one in every five Italians nothing will change.
The younger the age, the greater the pessimism, so that the youngest Italians are also the most pessimistic about the future. This pessimism is expressed mainly by the 20-to-29 age group (65.6% of whom believe that things will get worse, while 47.3% of Italians aged over 65 do so). The youngest interviewees (aged between 15 and 19), however, express an attitude that can be interpreted as resignation or disillusionment, given that almost one-third of them believe that there will be no change in the future.
But the findings of greatest interest concern the reasons given for these differing predictions. The two factors most frequently cited, for good or ill, were science and technology on the one hand, and pollution on the other.
In fact, the majority of interviewees who foresaw an improvement attributed it to scientific and technological progress. Their proportion in the sample was almost twice as large as the proportion of those who instead saw the main cause of today’s worsening situation as being loss of control over technoscience (11.5% against 6.6%).
The opposite emerged in the case of pollution: whilst its increase was seen by interviewees as the main factor responsible for deterioration in the quality of life and the environment, its decrease was regarded as a key factor in improvement by only 18.9% of the interviewees expressing optimism about the future.
Finally, the economy was also considered important, especially by interviewees who expected things to get worse; all the more so on considering that the development or increasing backwardness of the poor countries can be interpreted in economic terms.
Hence, given this confirmation that science and technology are two key components of the public imagination, and moreover that they are viewed quite positively, it is worth investigating which sectors of research are regarded as most likely to succeed.
As we know, visions of the future are populated by inventions and discoveries which embody people’s desires regardless of their scientific and technical plausibility. From this perspective, the predictions made by Italians merge with their hopes for the future.
Not surprisingly, therefore, more than half of the interviewees predicted that a cure for cancer would be discovered, while around one-quarter thought that clean and renewable energy sources would become available within fifty years.
The rest of the sample divided almost equally among the other response options, although there was a slight predominance of interviewees who believed that the accurate prediction of natural disasters will be possible in the future. Human cloning, the advent of robots to perform household chores, and the conquest of Mars, however, were regarded as much less likely.
A larger percentage of women selected a cure for cancer as most likely (54.5% compared to 49.6% of men), while men gave greater importance to innovations in the energy field (27.3% regarded them as likely, compared to 22.5% of women). Moreover, women placed the prediction of natural disasters in third place, while men ranked it last, attributing greater likelihood to human cloning (almost 8%).
Also age was a discriminatory factor, confirming that young people tend to be more idealistic and somewhat less pragmatic despite their pessimism about the future. It was young interviewees, in fact, who attributed greater likelihood to a landing on Mars, the advent of intelligent robots, or human cloning, although they still ranked a cure for cancer and the discovery of new energy sources as the most likely developments in the future.
Further differences emerged when educational level and religious orientation were considered. A cure for cancer was chosen mostly by Catholics and lower-educated interviewees, while the discovery of clean and unlimited energy was selected by non-believers and higher-educated interviewees.
These differences notwithstanding, the findings of the survey send a clear and forceful message to the world of science and technology: the Italians hope that the usefulness of research will soon be apparent in their everyday lives.
This article was published by La Stampa’s TuttoScienzeTecnologia on the 28th of december, 2005.
The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 1021 subjects, stratified by gender, age, and geographical area of residence, and representing the Italian population aged 15 and over.