Thursday, April 01, 2010

Mistakes About the Future

Here's Cory Doctorow's column from the latest issue of LOCUS:

Making Smarter Dumb Mistakes

By "smarter dumb mistakes about the future," he's referring to visions of the near future that often turn out to be so ludicrously wrong. As I believe Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, "Prediction is hard, especially about the future." Doctorow's thesis is that the root of these erroneous prognostications tends to spring from an assumption that whatever cool technology we develop will be used to do the same things we're doing now, only in a more efficient way. To hark back to an earlier century, it’s unlikely that anyone alive when the first automobiles took the road envisioned how the car would transform not only the physical but the social landscape of our country. (Its contribution to the “sexual revolution,” for instance, by giving young people a greater capacity to roam free of parental oversight; also the change in the balance of power in courtship—the shift to “dating” as we know it, in which the boy with the money and the transportation has most of the control, as opposed to the custom of the boy calling on the girl at her home with her prior permission, giving her the control, probably wouldn’t have happened without cars.)

Another peculiar misfire I've noticed in SF of the past is a world of cool technology with one item (or a few items) left in a condition that, in retrospect, looks obviously anachronistic. One of the funniest appears in Heinlein's HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL, where people who’ve colonized the moon use slide rules. In his much later novel I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, the fabulously rich heroine (a composite of a man’s brain transplanted into a woman’s body) in a high-tech future has to wait several days for the result of her pregnancy test, even though at the time the book was published, the technology to produce nearly instant results already existed (the waiting period for ordinary people arose from delays in getting the lab report to the doctor and from the doctor by phone to the patient). In the Star Trek universe, the transporter of the original series held the implicit potential for replicators and holodecks, but these possibilities were ignored until ST:TNG. Consider the Epsilon caste in BRAVE NEW WORLD, bred to perform menial chores that, in a fully thought-out high-tech future, would mostly be relegated to robots. One of the tasks performed by Epsilons is—are you ready for this—elevator operator!!

Lapses in prediction of social changes are more interesting. For example, many of Heinlein's early novels portray space-traveling humanity living in 1950s-style families, often with mothers in the housewife role. (To be fair, they're "juveniles" published at a time when publishers tended to be stuffier about fiction for young people; in the first edition of Heinlein's RED PLANET, he wasn't allowed to mention that Martians laid eggs.) On a lower intellectual level, THE JETSONS replicated all the silliest cliches of the 1950s middle-class household in a high-tech, fully automated, flying-car, asteroid-hopping universe. As if a mother liberated from housework by a robot maid would spend all her free time shopping. And notice that the father still commutes to work in his flying car; nobody connected with the program thought to predict teleworking.

Again to be fair to Heinlein, his early SF story for adults, “The Roads Must Roll,” is a classic example of taking the technology as a given and showing its social and economic effects.

As C. S. Lewis points out somewhere, the underlying filters through which we view reality are likely to include unquestioned assumptions that we and our opponents on any subject share without realizing their existence, like water to a fish. Hence, in the middle of the twentieth century such disparate works as 1984, BRAVE NEW WORLD, Skinner's WALDEN TWO, and Lewis's own THE ABOLITION OF MAN all share one assumption: That innate "human nature" either doesn't exist or is no match for the influence of environment, that human beings can be molded into any shape their rulers desire. Skinner seems to celebrate the potential of this situation while the other authors deplore it, but neither questions it. As amply demonstrated in Steven Pinker’s THE BLANK SLATE, this belief has been thoroughly disproved even though it stubbornly hangs on as an element of political and social philosophy in some quarters.

What might be our unexamined shared assumptions that would appear absurd, even shocking to visitors from other centuries or other planets? An example from the past: A time traveler from the classical or medieval period would consider our insistence on the primacy of individual rights a bit mad. (At the risk of getting political, just in the past couple of days I’ve encountered that kind of cognitive dissonance online, right here in the First World, from citizens of other English-speaking countries who are baffled by the U.S. health coverage debate. In their world-view, of COURSE universal health care is an obvious necessity on a level with roads and schools.)

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. My personal pet peeve has to do with children, of course. (former childcare professional here) There seemed to be two assumptions way back then.

    1) Children are a burden to be endured and, given the choice, no one would want to have them and, if they did, they would not want to raise them.

    2) Women cannot pursue personal goals or great sex if they have children.

    Well, guess what? It's 2010. The choice of contraception has made these two things possible. Yet, women are *choosing* to have children because, hey, they love 'em! Whoa, men are *choosing* to have them and stick around to raise them too.



    Mothers are governing states, flying combat helicopters, and traveling into space. And they're having great sex after having babies too.

    Ah, love, it's a beautiful thing.

    Thank goodness certain predictions never came true.

    I think Science Fiction authors would do well to examine history and human nature before they write they're novels.

    Some people say Science Fiction readership is dwindling because today's technology makes the stories not that unusual. I say it's because too much of the time, SF authors are behind their own times to say nothing of believably predicting the future.

    Furthermore, they're not welcoming enough to the younger generation.

    No Babies, No Future.

    It's a simple scientific fact.

    Politics be hanged.

  2. That was fascinating--thanks for the food for thought!

  3. P.S. My favorite older Science Fiction novel is ENDLESS UNIVERSE by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

    I could tell she took what she knew about human nature and extrapulated on that to build her story. It was not a future I'd want for humanity, but I appreciated that she did not base the novel on her own political or social beliefs. She just wrote a doggone good story based upon and for humanity.

  4. Good thoughts, Kimber An!

    "Women cannot pursue personal goals or great sex if they have children."

    One of Heinlein's unfortunate lapses occurs in PODKAYNE OF MARS, when Podkayne decides to abandon her ambition to become a spaceship captain because she comes to see it isn't realistic for a woman and decides instead to aim for some other position on a ship, such as working in the creche. Oddly, her own mother is a dedicated career woman -- so dedicated that Podkayne's uncle delivers a diatribe at the end of the book against people who produce children and don't stick around to rear them. The groan-inducing anti-feminist implications are slightly softened by the fact that he seems to be condemning both of Poddy's parents, not just her mother.

    I meant to mention a 1950s story by C. S. Lewis inspired by a published suggestion that women should be provided to serve the sexual needs of future astronauts on long voyages. In Lewis's story, that recommendation is carried out by having two women sent to a research station on Mars (I believe it's Mars). One is a humorless intellectual spinster who has taken the job on principle, and the other is an over-the-hill streetwalker with a Cockney accent. Quite funny, but neither Lewis nor the people whose plan he was satirizing apparently ever stopped to think that women would take part in space travel as working crew members!