Seeing the Future Dimly

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.”

Of all the predictions, I nominate this one as the most accurate. I have expressed similar thoughts myself, many times. Anyone who looks around the world today with open eyes can recognize Williamson’s vision of our time.
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.”
I’d vote this one as another fairly accurate prediction of our present situation. Anyone who has been following the trend in world events will recognize the scenario of rich vs. poor, and there is no doubt that the outlook for “comfortable lives” has been sold out from under us. American prisons are packed with several million convicted felons and in most states construction of new prisons is continuing apace as reports of violent crimes are a steady part of the media’s daily spewings.
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.”
Wolf saw a couch potato future, and he was right. Sports have of course continued to be commercialized to a disturbing degree and today’s movies and television programs consist largely of just such computer generated imagery as Wolf predicted. The technology of CGI, as it’s known, makes all kind of wild action and imaginary characters possible. Do you really believe that Christian Bale does all those things as Batman? If so, I’ve got a bridge you might like to buy, and I’ll throw in this nice, shiny gold brick.
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.”
Algis has it right about high cost of “storable energy” (think gasoline), and there is some trending toward more efficient machines, although if the failed Chevy Volt is any example, there’s a lot of floundering around on that front.
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.”
This is a scary one, but again pretty much accurate if you assume that what appears about to happen actually does happen, as it very likely will and possibly before the end of this year. The European economy is teetering on the brink of collapse and ruin, and the entire world economy will follow it off the cliff. America is definitely no longer a giant towering over the world, and as Card has foreseen, neither is the long-gone Russian (Soviet) empire which collapsed just four years after these predictions were made. Will a new world order, whatever that might be, actually emerge in the near future? I doubt it, unless by “new world order” you mean “old world disorder,” which is a fairly Orwellian use of words. My prediction leans more toward increasing conflict and decline as every nation with the ability to do so struggles for a piece of  the remaining and fast-disappearing natural resources. This battle for control of “stuff” is well under way.
And finally, it’s time for some Pollyanna blather about what a wonderful world would await us in that magical year of 2012, that is, today:
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.”
Oh if only it could be so. Sorry, Fred, we love you but you win the booby prize for most inaccurate prediction of what life is like in 2012. In fact, a good way to have made a spot-on prediction would have been to turn everything in your statement around 180 degrees. In fact, let’s see what happens if we do just that. Here’s my edit on Pohl’s statement:
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.”
What would these same writers (all white males as if that means anything), if they were still around, have to say today about the state of the world 25 years from now? The year 2037 will remain hidden behind the mist of uncertainty, but for my own part I have to say that I’m not optimistic. Personally, I will be 96 years old should I continue to exist in that distant time, as Fred’s original prediction would hint. In fact, due to my realistic outlook on the future of the world and despite my generally good health at this stage of my life, I expect to be among a large proportion of the people alive today who by 2037 will have gone on to their own personal experiences of extinction, most of them at far younger ages than I. As I have often said, I consider it a blessing to have lived in the time I am, and I feel uneasy qualms about the future prospects for today’s youth. If I’m right, they don’t have a very happy, and possibly not a very long, future to look forward to. Let’s hope I’m completely wrong. Maybe if we give it a few more years Fred Pohl will turn out to have been right after all, just a little off on his timing. Pigs, wings, some assembly required.
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