Thursday, November 28, 2013

Visions of the Future

I have seen the future and it is very much like the present - only longer. ~Kehlog Albran

Predictions of the future have one thing in common: They're almost always wrong. I'm sure you have seen those predictions from the 1920's and 30's showing wonderful art deco buildings, monorails, and flying cars. However, if you compare actual pictures of, say, New York in that period versus pictures today, all you see is some newer, more boring buildings and newer cars. If you picked up a New Yorker from 1920 and plunked him into New York of 2013, he'd probably be able to find his way around just fine. He'd also wonder why so little had changed.

Don't get me wrong. Some things did change. Airplanes use jets, television has arrived, nuclear bombs bring the possibility of total annihilation, and there's the computer, bringing along the Internet.

Ah, yes, the Internet. There are those who believe that the Internet has been some sort of massive improvement to the human condition. Consider David Gerrold's view: “If it's a choice between the flying car or the internet, tablets and smartphones, I'll take what we've got." Now, Mr. Gerrold is something of a sci-fi author (his greatest claim to fame seems to be creating the tribbles on Star Trek), so he's supposedly an expert on this sort of thing. Perhaps if the only choices are flying cars and the internet, he's right. But, it's a lousy choice.

A much closer approximation of the effect of the computer was given by Isaac Asimov in his short story, “A Feeling of Power.” He portrays a society so dependent on computing that the ability to do arithmetic has been lost. And he doesn't even get into the impact on a society of constant misinformation and wasted time using such things as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The amazing thing is that futurists (ugh) have no clue about how progress works. Progress occurs in sudden leaps. Consider the impact of the invention of the car, the telephone, radio, and the integrated circuit (Mr. Gerrold's favorite). Much of what we consider high technology is merely incremental improvements on these inventions. In other words, kids, ain't much changed in the last hundred years.

The problem is that it isn't easy to remake cities because there's a city in the way already. It costs a lot of money to tear down, say, the Chrysler Building to replace it with some space-needle type building that doesn't hold nearly as many people. Also, there's the matter of infrastructure. Replacing all the power plants serving New York City would run into prohibitive amounts of cash. So doing this sort of thing requires planning years in advance.

Long-term advanced planning isn't something that's a strong suit of human beings. I guess it gets in the way of warring with your neighbors. The one exception I can think of are Egyptian pharonic tombs. But, they had this down to a routine. New pharaoh takes power, tomb builders go to work. As long as he can hold out for twenty years, they'll get the job done. The success of the tomb builders is more a matter of strong organization than planning skills. Besides, tomb styles, from mastabas to pyramids to underground chambers changed very slowly, hardly demonstrating rapid innovation.

In fact, history is one long march of slogging forward, and occasionally backward, punctuated with sudden bursts of advancement, usually thanks to remarkable individuals like Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and Bohr. Or from the pure technology side, you have the likes of Benz, Ford, Morse, Marconi, Edison, and so on. In between, you have minor improvements to major technologies or incremental additions to scientific theories.

But you have something else: inertia and lack of imagination. That's where Mr. Gerrold comes in. He's something of a Candide seeing this as the best of all possible worlds instead of realizing that the potential of networking is being wasted by telecommunications monopolies and frivolous usages.

It's even beginning to affect the views of the future. A while back, the BBC came up with a view of the world of 2050. It's actually an hilarious agglomeration of minor changes from today like wearable computers (already available) and delivery drones (which could be done with current technologies) combined with big changes to cities that aren't going to happen, like “farmscrapers”, big open spaces in cities, and robo-taxis. The first two won't happen because money talks and utilizing sections of cities for non-monetary or low-return structures doesn't appeal to those who put up the dough. As to robo-taxis, well, again technology has existed for self-driving vehicles for years and it gets nowhere. Perhaps some very limited route vehicles will exist, but generally available self-driving vehicles won't make it by 2050.

I strongly suspect 2050 is going to look a lot like 2013, except maybe more run down.

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