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Essay

Can Science Fiction See the Future?

Future Blind

Why Science Fiction Can't Predict the Future

by Scot Noel

 

It’s fun to write science fiction, to create characters of the future and calculate the effect of magical technologies upon them. During my formative years, the minds of Asimov, Clarke, Niven, and Pournelle took me on voyages of imagination that seemed to show tomorrows as real as the waking day.

But if I were to argue with my younger self, it would be to point out that the value of those voyages lay in entertainment and to a smaller degree in their philosophical musings. But in predicting the days to come, I fear my favorite authors were as future blind as we are today.

300 years, when you think of it, is not a long time, even in human terms. Go back just 3 centuries and Blackbeard the pirate was in full career. Queen Anne ruled as monarch of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Shakespeare had already been dead for nearly a hundred years, and, in the last half of the 18th century, Washington crossed the Delaware.  But the key question is this: in their wildest dreams, could any of them, ever, have imagined us at all?

Keep in mind, I’m talking about 300 years, not 2000 (going back to Christ) or 2500 (going back to Buddha). Just 300 – when women were objects of possession by the male population; slavery was common; 40% of the population died before reaching the age of 20; neither germ theory nor antibiotics existed; being able to read did not mean you had learned to write; and science itself was a hazy concept coming into its first full flower of expression (even Isaac Newton was known as a Natural Philosopher).

The last person tried and convicted of witchcraft was executed in France in 1745.

Things we overlook today as naturally as the air we breathe did not exist. There was no telephone, TV or radio, neither photography nor video, no movies, and the only music to be experienced was a live performance. Drinking water was not necessarily safe (hence the popularity of beer and ale). Flight was fanciful dream. In 1700, even the first manned balloon flight was 83 years away. Neither air conditioning nor refrigeration were around to make life more bearable, and spices were not so much to enhance the palate as to cover the taste of food that was going bad.

A computer was person who computed, or determined mathematical answers by calculation. There were no virtual reality games, but dueling to the death with sword or pistol was a gentlemanly pursuit.

A mere dozen or so generations later… man has walked the surface of the moon and a permanently manned International Space Station orbits the earth. A (digital) supercomputer named Watson has gone to work for WellPoint Health Insurance. Stem cell research is finding ways to repair damaged hearts without surgery. The world population has gone from 610 million to 7 billion (with starvation a more common lot in life back then than it is now), and today some of the poorest people on the planet use cell phones to conduct their daily business.

But those are achievements, and our friends from a few centuries past would be equally awestruck by us, by how we multi-task and flit feverishly through our days, by our sense of time, distance and travel that are so different from theirs. Many of us commute more miles to work each day than the average citizen of the 1700s may have moved in a lifetime.

For us, ideas move, almost literally, at the speed of light. For them, the speed of a good horse over rough terrain was as much a limiter for thought as it was for trade. Left-handedness was a stigma of degeneracy and dealt with severely in some cultures, never mind Gay Rights! Religious tyranny would have been the rule, with today's religious and cultural diversity (in the West at least) seeming chaotic. How could they have ever understood our culture of hyper-sexuality, our problems with drug lords and terrorists, our concerns about nuclear Armageddon? Even the common availability of everything from oranges to ice cream would be a wonder to our ancestors of not that long ago.

And 300 years from now? The hot topics of the moment, from health care to national deficits, from abortion to global warming will be forgotten. I'm not saying we will have solved them, only that the world will have moved on. Perhaps we'll cycle back around to dealing with slavery, plagues, poverty, and pirates? Instead of saving the planet, perhaps we will have paved over the oceans with mile high skyscrapers. Maybe we will have merged with our machines, creating Kurzweil's "singularity," or allow society to collapse into a Mad Max landscape of lone survivors.

And 1000 years from now? Will we spread civilization across the solar system, or infuse our mentality into the matter of the Earth itself? And if we do reach the stars, will the "lingua franca" of the galaxy be English or Mandarin?

Whatever happens, I argue only that we cannot see it today. We are as future blind as the average 8 year old when asked to guess what career his or her grandchild will have.

So take a deep breath, whatever your passions, from politics to string theory, from prayer to nano-technology, you are not determining the future, at least not the one defined by the grand conceit of your imagination. Proceed more humbly please. At best we are butterflies, and the beat of our wings competes with a concourse of greater winds. When tomorrow comes, its weather will prove greater than us all.

 

 

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