Friday, 3 January 2014

Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!

Hello! And welcome to this first blogpost of 2014. And I'm going to do something controversial; I'm going to diss Isaac Asimov.

Okay, I'm not really; I have massive respect for the man.

But an essay of his from 1964, predicting what life will be like in 2014, has been doing the rounds the past few days on Twitter (read it in full here) and lots of Facebookers, Tweeters and bloggers have been quoting from it, and loudly proclaiming how accurate Asimov's predictions were. And I have to take some issue with this I'm afraid.

Asimov was an extraordinary visionary, a great scientist and a wonderful writer. But it seems to me that hero worship of the man has led many to only see what they want to see in his essay, just as people who believe in the efficacy of horoscopes interpret the predictions in ways that suit their needs. For example, he starts by saying that 'men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button. Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight.' Oh really? If anything there's been a move to embrace nature with many people moving out to the country if they can afford to. And those choosing to live in the city have driven the renewal of green spaces and a general move towards reducing traffic pollution and allowing as much natural light into a house as possible. It's no secret that it's the houses wit the views that cost the most. 'Suburban houses underground, with easily controlled temperature, free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common.' No, they're not I'm afraid. Who wants to live underground? 

He starts to hit a few home runs by suggesting that 'gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs.' I can't argue with that. However, he suggests that 'kitchen units will be devised that will prepare 'automeals,' heating water and converting it to coffee; toasting bread; frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on. Breakfasts will be 'ordered' the night before to be ready by a specified hour the next morning.' There are days when I wish he'd been right. But he wasn't and, in fact, the preponderance of cookery shows, baking shows and grow-your-own shows suggests to me that we're still a race of people who like to cook and entertain.

He then says that 'robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.' I guess that all depends on what you define as a robot. If he means a humanoid companion, he's right. But we employ thousands of robots for everything from building cars to handling radioactive materials. They are quite commonplace. He does however, rightly predict that 'It will be [...] computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the 'brains' of robots'. Credit where credit is due.

Next: 'The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by- products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. And an experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014.' I'm afrain not, Isaac. But he does suggest that 'Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas'. We are moving in that direction, hopefully.

When it comes to transport, he jumps right off the tracks: 'There will be increasing emphasis on transportation that makes the least possible contact with the surface. There will be aircraft, of course, but even ground travel will increasingly take to the air a foot or two off the ground.' I so wish he was right! I was promised a hover car by people like Asimov when I was a child. They still aren't here or even close to being here. The idea that we'll be able to skim along on 'four jets of compressed air so that the vehicle will make no contact with either liquid or solid surfaces' is very enticing. As is the idea that 'Bridges will also be of less importance, since cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets'. I wish.

He says that 'much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with 'Robot-brains' that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.' We are moving slowly towards that kind of technology but I strongly suspect that very few drivers will be happy to relinquish complete control. Then, 'For short-range travel, moving sidewalks (with benches on either side, standing room in the center) will be making their appearance in downtown sections. They will be raised above the traffic. Traffic will continue (on several levels in some places) only because all parking will be off-street and because at least 80 per cent of truck deliveries will be to certain fixed centers at the city's rim. Compressed air tubes will carry goods and materials over local stretches, and the switching devices that will place specific shipments in specific destinations will be one of the city's marvels.' Sounds great. Hasn't happened.

Can you see what I'm saying now? I am really not out to attack Asimov in any way. He was a true visionary and had some amazing ideas. And he got a couple of things right. But to say that he predicted the future accurately just isn't ... well, accurate.

'Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books'. Well, that could be taken to be a prediction about the internet and the use of tablets, laptops and smartphones. But, if anything, we've moved away from sight-sound communication. Yes, we have Skype and Facetime etc. but the majority of personal communication is written rather than spoken. There are more emails, tweets, Facebook updates, Whatsapp and Snapchat messages sent than phone calls made I'd suggest. How often do you make a phone call these days? And how often do you do it with the video turned on? Asimov gets it right when he says that 'Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth' but oh so wrong when he says that 'you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies. Any number of simultaneous conversations between earth and moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space.'

His grimmer predictions are also wrong. 'In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000. Boston-to-Washington, the most crowded area of its size on the earth, will have become a single city with a population of over 40,000,000.' Okay, so he underestimated the world population (currently 7.1 billion) and over-estimated the US population (314,000,000). But the mega-cities he predicted haven't happened. Nor has 'increasing penetration of desert and polar areas'. And his predictions that '2014 will see a good beginning made in the colonization of the continental shelves. Underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like water sports, and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral' are completely wrong, as is 'Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be 'farms' turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which "mock-turkey" and "pseudosteak" will be served.'

His prediction of massive overpopulation leads to this interesting paragraph: 'There are only two general ways of preventing this: (1) raise the death rate; (2) lower the birth rate. Undoubtedly, the world of A.D. 2014 will have agreed on the latter method. Indeed, the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85. There will, therefore, be a worldwide propaganda drive in favor of birth control by rational and humane methods and, by 2014, it will undoubtedly have taken serious effect.' I'm not sure that's happening. In the affluent west people are choosing to have fewer children due to economic reasons or because they are simply 'too busy'. If anything, the campaign for voluntary euthanasia is gaining ground.

He ends with: 'The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction.' I guess that's true to some degree, particularly if you include computers as 'machines'. But he then suggests that 'The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine. Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!'

Enforced leisure! What a thought. Like Asimov, many futurologists predicted a world where we'd have more leisure time ... but none of them pointed out the real-world fact that you still need money to enjoy that leisure time. 'Enforced leisure' in 2014 means unemployment, homelessness, bankruptcy, depression and having to go to a food bank. And, because more of us are living longer, the money is needed for longer. Pension funds are decreasing and we now have to work until we're 70 before the state will pay us a penny. 'Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014.' Boredom is not the issue that is driving people to seek psychiatric help. It's capitalism. It's not being able to keep up with the Joness, it's money worries and a media-fuelled and jacked-up fear of all kinds of nonsense from paedophiles to invading hordes of immigrants to just about everything giving you cancer.

(I love this spoof newsreel)

Asimov didn't predict that 1 in 5 relationships would begin online or that the online dating industry would rake in around $1,249,000,000 per annum (stats here). He didn't predict the global storehouse of information that the internet has created. He didn't predict the staggering rise in obesity and online gambling. He didn't see the rise in alcoholism, drug dependency and other health problems. He didn't see the reliance on fossil fuels, the rise of religious extremism or the increasing gap between rich and poor.

All of which goes to prove that making predictions about the world in 50 years' time is never going to be easy. If I tried to guess what life in 2064 will be like (I won't be there to see it) I might get a couple of things right but, chances are, no matter how informed I am, most of what I'd predict will prove to be wrong. The difference between me and Asimov, however, is that I won't have hordes of fans trying to make my predictions 'work'.

Asimov was a genius. But we should celebrate what he achieved, not pretend that he always got everything right. That does him a great disservice I think. And I believe that he'd find the real world of 2014 infinitely more fascinating than the one he envisioned.


As I was typing this, the media revealed Sir Norman Foster's proposed 'sky cycle' plan where cyclist would have bespoke travelways built on an elevated road system that is affixed above the existing rail network.

It's about as far from Asimov's atomic-powered hovercars as you can get. Full story here.

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