What Classic Sci Fi Can Teach Us About The Future

I am a science fiction geek, I am the first to admit this.  I’ve been this way all my life; some of my favorite books and shows as a child were all sci fi or fantasy based.  Since I’m a nerd as well as a geek, I was usually reading a bit above my age level, as well.  One of the authors I particularly liked was Isaac Asimov.

I was recently re-reading Earth is Room Enough, a collection of his stories that, as you might guess, all took place on Earth.  The book was published in 1957, and most of the stories are set in early to mid twenty-first century America.  (Hey, that’d be us)  Of course, it’s a twenty-first century that doesn’t look much like ours; computers run nearly everything, with most people working to service them or feed in information, robots are starting to be integrated into the home, and mammoth corporations have merged with the government to completely dominate most people’s lives (alright, this one isn’t that far off).

Reading through all these stories, you get a fair idea of what the future was expected to look like, at least through Asimov’s eyes.  Looking at what he got wrong can give us an idea of how to avoid making false predictions as we look to the future.  Here are a few things to avoid when you try to think about life fifty years or so in the future:

1) Assume that society will be the same, and only the technology will change – Reading through Asimov’s work, you’d think that the fifties never ended, even though technology has gotten much more advanced.  The women in the stories are housewives or secretaries, the children are all raised by loving parents (and teaching robots) and the technology to record dreams existed for decades before anyone thought to record a pornographic one.  (No, really: that’s a major plot point in one story.)  I’d go into details about the apparent lack of inflation over the past half century, but you get the point.

Now, of course, it would have been hard to predict things like the feminist movement and the rise of divorce (to say nothing of the spread of porn) back in the fifties, when these stories were written.  In the same way, trying to predict today what society will look like by the 2060s is nigh impossible.  About the only thing we can say for certain is that things will (probably) be much different than they are right now; in what way, even the best science fiction writer couldn’t guess.

2) Technology development will continue as it has in the past – Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the Multivac.  A massive (10 sq. miles, according to one story) computer buried underground that is the linchpin of the entire future society, doing everything from finding out the true source of all the jokes in the world (hint: it’s an alien experiment) to extrapolating the voting pattern of a nation from the reactions of one man in 2008.  (Always a man; there’s that old fashioned attitude again.)  A perfectly reasonable prediction based on the state of computer science in the 1950s (at least, the giant, insanely powerful computer bit; the joke and voting thing was just story-telling tomfoolery).

Obviously, that’s not how it happened.  The development of the Internet has spread out computing power, cell phones (which I doubt Asimov ever imagined) have more memory than thousands of fifties era computers that filled entire rooms, and elections still require all of us (or as many as possible) to go to the polling place.  (Heck, we barely seem to be able to make a computer that counts the votes right, let alone extrapolates votes from one person to everyone else in the country.)  The point being: assuming that current traits will continue unabated is wrong.

3) People will fundamentally change: Before you think I’m beating up on Asimov for not knowing what the future would really be like (I’m not; I’m a huge fan, hence this post), let me assure you that he knew people.  The first story in this book, The Dead Past, shows some of his understanding in action.  The nutshell version of this story is that a group of academics, after being stonewalled by a government bureaucracy preventing access to a chronoscope (a device for looking into the past), end up discovering an alternative method to build one, one that can be easily replicated for home use.  (Still taking up nearly a whole room; Asimov was big on, well, big computers.)

In a disturbing (or oddly hilarious, if you have an odd sense of humor) twist, it turns out that the government wasn’t just arbitrarily suppressing this technology for nefarious purposes; they knew that if the technology got out, people wouldn’t use it for research into the long gone past (in this case, the range was limited to 125 years; given that the story was set around 2050, this puts the furthest into the past it can see at the mid-1920s), instead, people would use it to spy on their friends, relatively and neighbors.  It ends with the government agent in charge of suppressing this technology saying “Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever. Arrest rescinded.”

There is an unfortunate tendency for humans to use technology to satisfy their basest desires, indulging their greed, lust, and yes, nosiness when possible.  Almost every prediction Asimov made for how the chronoscope was being used, to spy on spouses, track celebrities, even viewing people at night, has been brought to life through one technology or another.

The Ultimate Lesson

Does all of this mean that it’s pointless to read through old science fiction, or any science fiction at all?  If almost every prediction that’s made turns out be false (and even ones that are mostly correct, like the increasing control of government and corporations over our lives, are subverted in fiction), why both reading them?

Simply this: science fiction and other ‘What If?’ stories help to expand our minds to the possibilities around us.  If we speculate on what might happen as we become more reliant on technology, we can see some of the pitfalls and (hopefully) avoid them.  If we take the trends of today and exaggerate them or follow them to their (il)logical end points, we can see if that’s truly the path we wish to follow.  In this way, looking at the future, or even what writers of the past thought would be here in the present, can give us more insight into who we are, and perhaps we wish to go as a society.

All of that, plus they are pretty amusing to read, even today.

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