Thursday, January 04, 2007

Hazards of Predicting the Future

There's an essay by author Micheal Crichton called "Aliens Cause Global Warming" at:

The position he's maintaining is that UFOs, global warming, and the lethal dangers of secondhand smoke, among other beliefs, are all examples of junk science or, more precisely, unsound arguments posing as science in support of an agenda. As far as I have enough information to be entitled to an opinion on the topics he discusses, I disagree with him on most of them. I do agree, of course, that facts shouldn't be distorted for the sake of achieving a political or social goal, no matter how worthy, and I agree that dissenting positions shouldn't be squelched. What I find really interesting about this essay, however, is Crichton's discussion of the hazards of trying to predict the distant future, or even the middle-distant future. He offers the example of transportation in 1900. People in that year who considered the future of urban transportation might have worried about a shortage of horses. They might have worried about an increase in horse-generated pollution as the human population increased. But the vast majority of the city planners of 1900 wouldn't have in any way anticipated the automobile-centered culture of 2000. And even those few who imagined the rise of horseless carriages from toys for hobbyists to necessities for all would never have suspected one of the major social side effects of the automobile—the rise of "dating" as we know it (to replace the earlier custom of a young man "calling on" a young woman in her own home, where she and her family, not he, controlled the interaction).

Doesn't one of Yogi Berra's well-known malapropisms remark that prediction is hard, especially about the future?

That's one reason I don't write far-future fiction and am even leery of setting a story more than a few years in the near future. I've read somewhere that in imagining the near future we expect more drastic change than is realistic and in imagining the distant future we make the opposite error. This principle is borne out, for example, by Robert Heinlein's DOOR INTO SUMMER, published in the 1940s or '50s and set in 1970 and 2000. It envisions a 1970 in which cryogenic suspended animation is commercially available (if only to people with a lot of money) and reliable enough that those who can afford it go into deep freeze in confident expectation of awakening in good health on the exact day they've specified. The year 1970 as we knew it wasn't much like that! And I'm still waiting for the inexpensive, versatile housecleaning robots that exist in this book's 1970. (To date, all we have available are rudimentary robotic disks on wheels that vacuum or scrub floors.)

The very distant future, on the other hand, will probably hold technological wonders as unimaginable to us as nuclear energy was to most people in 1900. Yet, as far as human nature is concerned, I expect the opposite to occur. I've often been exasperated with writers who assume the structure of human society will change just as radically as technology will. Edward Bellamy in LOOKING BACKWARD, written in the late nineteenth century, visualized the world of 2000 as a socialist utopia. Capitalism, war, disease, greed, and corruption, alas, haven't disappeared yet. I get especially annoyed at authors who create advanced spacefaring societies without religion or with no family and marriage customs similar to our own. In the biblical book of Genesis, we find love, marriage, and family relationships we have no trouble recognizing as the direct precursors of those we practice today. In two or three centuries, customs that have already lasted for millennia are going to deconstruct beyond recognition? As for religion, Christianity has lasted for almost two millennia, Judaism four or five, and the great Asian religious systems even longer. A relatively minor change such as interstellar travel is likely to destroy these faiths, after they've survived the transition from an agrarian society through the Industrial Revolution to the age of the Internet?

For the next few months my blogs will become sketchier, because of the Maryland legislative session that begins next week and continues until the middle of April. I will try to surface once a week and post SOMETHING. Happy 2007, everyone!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:57 PM EST

    I agree. I think this is why it is a good idea for science fiction/futuristic writers to study anthropology and mythology. Women have more rights and opportunities than they did a hundred years ago, but the majority of them still want to have at least one baby. I know a lot of readers want to escape reality and live vicariously in a fantasy, but most of us need something we can relate to, something which resonates with our humanity.