What will happen in 20 mins?

One of the big draws of SF, either science or speculative fiction, is the ability of its authors to prophecy the developments of the future. In practical circles, it has become the driving purpose of Science Fiction, specifically, whose greatest practitioners are consulted by governments and think-tanks for dealing with the alien invasions of the future, or warning humans from the distant future about the dangers of our nuclear waste. But really, what is futurism and how much sway does it have with us?

I, like many people, am still waiting for my jetpack and hover car. It was promised a long time ago, but I don’t see it anywhere. Still, the idea of it has captured my imagination, so one could argue that that is really the point of SF. Not to predict the future, but to encourage its development. To inspire, rather than predict.

Today, there are scores of science fiction writers studying the headlines of science and technology papers and journals, hoping to spawn an idea that they can capitalize on in their next story or novel. Perhaps, if they’ve done their homework well, they’ll see their own story referenced in the numerous TV and radio broadcasts, as “life imitates art.  Or better still, go down in history for predicting the life saving geegaw, or superconducting widgeramaroo, etc. Or perhaps shamed by connections to more apocalyptic visions, like gray goo…

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are well known for their predictions. Verne is connected with the submarine, Wells the tank, even though both concepts were rather well known before they wrote these predictions, so it was perhaps the use of the devices which was the predictive element rather than the concept itself.  Well’s contribution to the tank is more or less given away in the title of the story that describes them, “The Land Ironclads“: he obviously envisioned the battleships of his recent history taking to the land to fight future wars, some ten years or so before they became reality in the Great War.
Both of these examples seem like “picking low hanging fruit.” Easy to do considering the circumstances. Perhaps these developments are inevitable. Such and such a development of current day technology or theory will be practically applied in the next fifty years or so.  The idea of submersibles had been around a long time and the first “practical” versions were made in the 1600s (the Drebble), so perhaps Verne’s predicition is that one day it would work… Dear Ol’ Leondardo Da Vinci sketched up some tank designs as well, though I’m not sure if Well’s had ever seen them.  (I would say that H.G Well’s greatest prediction, stated in the War of the Worlds, just hasn’t happened yet. 🙂 )

Yet history also shows its share of surprises. One of my favourite quotes is “Man will not fly for another fifty years,” which was spoken in 1901 by none other than Wilbur Wright. Two years later, the breakthroughs were made and three years later, he was flying.  Some predictions can come much sooner because of other developments, making extrapolation from what we know today a very risky method of prediction. Just because something isn’t possible today doesn’t mean that it won’t be possible tomorrow. Which is why I’m holding out for Faster Than Light travel, or Hyperspace, Witchspace, Supralight, Warp Speed, even if it only looks like FTL.

Just look at the last little while:

30 years ago, the Cyberpunk genre hit SF and along with it a ton of bold predictions about our immediate future. Tron, Bladerunner, Max Headroom, Neuromancer gave us cultural/social, technological and aesthetic outlines for futures up to about 2020, and oddly, for the most part, we’re living in that future. Sure, no replicants or hovercars, but there is a massive push toward lifelike humanoid robots and a considerable amount of companies making prototype hover cars, even if it so they get one themselves.

The world wide web/interface, basic human-machine interfaces for prosthesis, designer drugs, nanotechnology, humans playing inside computers as avatars, we’re living in those worlds. Prediction achievement unlocked!  There’s a whole whack of computer based hypocrisies that have been said over the years that are usually turned false within a few years: Bill Gates’ famous line about never needing more than 640k of memory, or the IBM chairman who said “there is a market for perhaps five computers in the world.”

But so what? Asimov predicted general ideas about cloud computing with the idea of Multivac and didn’t that lead to the internet?  Does that undermine the later predictions, even though it might be a basic concept? No, since one builds on the other. One predicts that if you can get one computer to talk, can you get it to talk to another, then you have a network? For what purpose? Doing lots of computing on things at the same time (farmed processing) and then for who? For whoever needs it…. (multivac). How will you use this? Create an interface for the use that is similar to reality…

Isn’t this thought process normal for tool using humans? Given a new tool, they’ll figure out what to do with it and when that is done, innovate on it, and when you can’t do that anymore, use the concept to build on in another new way. If that is the case, then isn’t it easier to do this when you don’t have to prove something is workable, or really useful in the future and can just assume it works, like faster than light travel, hovercars, dyson spheres…? And isn’t that science fiction?

Aside: The whole near future prediction thing is a bit of an oddity to me. I feel it doesn’t hold much value because most people evaluating what things an be used for as a matter of daily life and our level of technology is allowing more and more people to make their predictions reality.  New theory -> new practical applications -> new technology. Its a fact of life.

It is easy to say that near future prediction is easier than far future prediction. This may be true (at least until we uncover Asimov’s Psychohistory!), but near future prediction may be validated (or overturned) in our lifetime, giving the author credibility. Predicting something that might be a reality in 5000 years isn’t much of a prediction. It may be inevitable (space elevators, perhaps) or no one will remember the prediction in 5000 years time.

So why do it? Offering only speculation, I would argue that SF at its greatest value isn’t about predicting the technologies or even the ideas behind them, but offer insight into the impact of those ideas/technologies on our future.  Usually, this is in some sort of fear-mongering dystopian future; the apocalypses, the terrorism, the downfalls of a new form of media that makes information free (wait a second!!! is that now?) – all this because it makes for better stories.

Cultural favourites like Star Trek have made an impact because its shown the positive effects of technology on humans. Its brought the genders and the races of future humanity together, and brought them to the stars to meet other species and even newer technologies which will hunt them down and kill them perhaps, but generally it is positive. It has inspired the “space race”, medical diagnostics procedures and perhaps even doctrines for the future contact with alien races (Prime Directives and all that). It shows that the prediction itself isn’t that important, but how it is received, used or treated by our future selves.

Yep, its those damned humans again. They’re important, apparently.


Dammit, H.G. Wells was right! Time to update Wikipedia!

Image Credit:
Max Headroom: 20 Mins into the Future, Shout! Factory.
The Time Machine at the End of the World, painting by Les Edwards/Young Artists.