WITH the approach of every new year, the soothsayers of the day - including economists, social engineers, and, alas, journalists - come onto the noisemaking scene with lists of predictions about what the next 12 months, or for that matter, the next decade, will bring. Those who peer into the mist of the future should give an honest answer concerning what they see: mist. But the pressure on soothsayers is enormous to report that they see visions - and what visions!
Who can forget such folk heroes of prophecy as the early 19th-century scientist who committed a double gaffe by declaring it to be as unlikely that an iron ship could float as that a man could travel to the moon?
Well, soothsayers, at least, do forget - a healing process that allows them to go on predicting year after year, no matter what their rate of failure. Few, it seems, are able to resist playing this power game in which one can beguile or terrify little children by the mere phrase ``I see in your future...''
In 1965, the best and the brightest of experts were assembled by the National Academy of Arts and Sciences to tell the rest of us what life would be like at the turn of the century.
There were cheerful predictions of a hovercraft in every garage and disposable clothing in every closet - actually you wouldn't need a closet, would you?
Famines were not foreseen - quite the contrary.
Nobody anticipated the homeless - least of all in America, where the ``war on poverty,'' it was thought, would eliminate the urban slum for good.
The collaborative report, printed under the title ``Toward the Year 2000,'' didn't get things too accurately even in the short run. A professor of political science predicted: ``Major fighting in Vietnam will peter out about 1967; and most objective observers will regard it as a substantial American victory.... In the United States, Lyndon Johnson will have been reelected in 1968.''
The soothsayers of 1965 were instructed to ``think wild.'' But who would have had the wildness to foresee that an ex-Hollywood actor would become president? Or that, after the biggest arms buildup in history to protect Americans from the ``evil empire,'' this President would visit Russia and become a fond friend of the latest Soviet dictator?
Not even a White House astrologer could have thought that wild.
The trouble is, futurology is no longer an amusing guessing game - it now passes as a kind of science. The technology we count on to solve our problems we also count on to predict them. Considering the veritable industry of future-projecting that centers on the computer, the record continues to be unimpressive.
Certainly the sophisticated machinery that facilitated the trading on ``Black Monday'' did little to caution against the crash.
High-tech hardware - like radar - works as radar. But there is no radar for history. Random and subversive, history is as full of guerrilla ambushes as the Vietnam war - supposed to end, with an undisputed triumph, in 1967.
The illusion of the new soothsayers - that the future can be programmed by computers - must remain just that: an illusion.
In certain respects this false confidence in technology makes things even more chaotic than tea leaves and tarot cards. At the end of a most improbable but not hopeless year, one can only wait for 1989 with the words of the historian William Irwin Thompson in mind: ``The future is beyond knowing, but the present is beyond belief.''
A Wednesday and Friday column