By David L. Brown
One of the news websites, Fox News (here), today featured excerpts from a number of predictions made 25 years ago by “science thinkers,” predicting conditions in our time of 2012. I recognize the names of most of these “science thinkers” and they are actually “science fiction writers,” but that’s okay because they’re in the business of imagining the future as much as anyone. I’ve always had a passing interest in futurism, the attempt to predict how things will be in future times. In general, these tend to be wildly inaccurate due to the many uncertainties and the phenomenon of straight line thinking. Too often futurists tend to look at what’s been happening recently and simply project a straight line into the future.
Even a cursory look at history will knock enough holes in this procedure to make Swiss cheeses look like solid objects. Imagine the application of straight line thinking to the U.S. economy in the summer of 1929, the likelihood of war in Europe in 1913, the future well-being of the little Roman village of Pompeii in 78 AD (Mount Vesuvius erupted the following year), and so many more examples of unexpected and unpredictable events that dramatically change the future.
One thing that struck me abut these predictions was that they were for the most part pessimistic, in contrast with the usual fol-de-rol about a Jetsons future with flying cars and an abundance of everything. Here are some excerpts with my comments:
Isaac Asimov: “Assuming we haven’t destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war, there will be 8-10 billion of us on this planet and widespread hunger.”
Isaac’s view was fairly accurate, even though he was a little on the high side on population (it’s actually just something over 7 billion). He was dead on about the looming hunger, hastened by this year’s worldwide drought.
Jack Williamson: “If we had a time-phone, now in 1987, we would beg you to forgive us. We have burdened you with impossible debts, wasted and polluted the planet that should have been your rich heritage, left you instead a dreadful legacy of ignorance, want, and war.”
Sheldon Glashow: “The American economy will have experienced a gentle yet relentless decline. Our children will not live such comfortable lives as we do. The spread between the rich and the poor will have grown, and crime will have become so prevalent as to threaten the social fabric. The rich and the poor will form 2 armed camps.”
Gene Wolf: “Sports and televised dramas are the only commonly available recreations. The dramas are performed by computer-generated images indistinguishable (on screen) from living people. Scenery is provided by the same method. Although science fiction and fantasy characterize the majority of these dramas, they are not so identified.”
Algis Budrys: “Because we will be in a trough between 20th-century resources and 21st-century needs, in 2012 all storable forms of energy will be expensive. Machines will be designed to use only minimal amounts of it.”
Orson Scott Card: “In 2012 Americans will see the collapse of Imperial America, the Pax Americana, as having ended with our loss of national will and national selflessness in the 1970s. Worldwide economic collapse will have cost America its dominant world role; but it will not result in Russian hegemony; their economy is too dependent on the world economy to maintain an irresistible military force. A new world order will emerge.”
Frederick Pohl: “All of you enjoy an average standard of living about equal to a contemporary millionaire’s. Your health is generally superb. Your life expectancy is not much less than a century. The most unpleasant and debilitating jobs (heavy industry, mining, large-scale farming) are given over to machines; most work performed by human beings is in some sense creative.”
What Frederick Pohl should have said: “Many of you suffer declining standards of living about equal to that of a common laborer of 1987. Overall health is poor, with widespread incidences of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other debilitating conditions. Medical science has focused on long-term treatment of these conditions with expensive drugs and interventions instead of pursuing preventative strategies and cures. The most unpleasant work has been exported to countries where the workers are paid a dollar an hour or less, or if it needs to be done here in the U.S., given over to “undocumented” immigrants from Third World places. Most “work” performed by human beings is in some sense humiliating, including such examples as burger flippers, WalMart greeters and shelf stocking. Young and old alike find it difficult or even impossible to find rewarding and remunerative work at all.”