Twenty-five years ago, a group of scientists and writers offered their visions of today's world. Were they close?
Photo Credit: Ian Westcott
Back in 1987, L. Ron Hubbard created a time capsule of sorts. He challenged his fellow science fiction writers, along with a smattering of famous scientists, to write letters to the people of 2012 offering their visions of what the world might look like in another 25 years. (Yes, that Hubbard — the Scientology guy. But he was a well-known SF writer before he started the church, and it was in that guise that he threw down this challenge.)
So here we are, in the high summer of 2012, and it’s time to go back and see just how much they got right — and wrong.
The full collection of letters Hubbard got for his time capsule is here. A lot of the greats offered their thoughts. There’s Fredrick Pohl, the genre’s legendary editor (who’s still at it, after 70 years in the business); Jerry Pournelle, writer of political and military SF, who also did some speechwriting for President Reagan; Roger Zelazny, who mined the world’s great mythologies for his stories; Gregory Benford, astrophysicist-turned-Hugo winner; Nobel Prize–winning physicist Sheldon Glashow; and Isaac Asimov, arguably the greatest of them all.
I invite you to go read the whole thing, because it’s fascinating to see what some of the most forward-thinking and imaginative storytellers of that time saw when they cast themselves toward today. It’s a portrait of the hopes and desires of an earlier generation — some of them uniquely of their time, others the same dreams that every generation carries for its children. And looking at what they got right — and what they got wrong — offers some insight into the way we think about our own future now.
Here’s my commentary on some of the topics they touched on.
Asimov and Benford both relied on mid-’80s projections that the Earth’s population would be at or over 8 billion by now. We should take some encouragement from the fact that they overestimated that figure by a billion souls. Unlike climate change, where our experts’ most dire worst-case predictions have consistently undershot what reality delivered, the reverse is true for population. Over the past 40 years, we’ve succeeded in bending the expected population curve downward significantly — and that’s a really important win for the future of the planet.
The old lions had high hopes for the emergent technologies of the time: nanotech, biotech, genetic engineering. Their letters ooze with envy: they’d love to be here among us here in 2012, enjoying what they imagine will be the abundant fruits of these ripened technologies. (And some of them are indeed still among us — even old Fred Pohl, who’s in his 90s and published his most recent book just last year.)
Unfortunately, almost none of their expected harvest has come to pass. We are not yet storing computer information in atoms (as Gerald Feinberg, the Columbia physicist who discovered the tachyon, suggested). Using genetic medicine to end diabetes, gout, MS, and Parkinson’s (as Glashow forecast) is within just a few years’ reach now, but we’re not actually there yet. Dave Wolverton did accurately describe the GMO food that’s on every American’s plate now — though he underestimated the degree to which some of us would be very creeped out by it.
Almost everybody, save writer’s writer Gene Wolfe, thought we’d be well into space by now. Zelazny congratulates us on our space colonies. Benford wonders how things are on Mars. We’re still wondering, too.
The Big Thinkers, as a group, might be surprised at how healthy we are. In 1987, AIDS was just hitting its full stride as a global health crisis. The first treatments were finally emerging, but nobody knew how far the disease could go or how fast it might overtake humankind. So it’s clear that some of them considered it their solemn duty to prepare us for the worst.
And apart from AIDS, it seemed like a safe prediction then (and still is now) that the next quarter-century would see some kind of Spanish flu-like global pandemic that would cut the world’s human population by a billion or more. Wolfe further predicted that fear of increasingly virulent sexually transmitted infections would bring about an age of strict marital fidelity enforced by draconian penalties. We are delighted to report that he could not have possibly been more wrong.
The fact that the global pandemics so many of the entrants worried about didn’t happen is, not to overstate the case, a miracle. Yet they probably weren’t wrong to put this on their list back then — and, given that the odds that we’ll produce a world-killer supervirus are even higher now than they were then, we’re still right to worry about it today.
Energy and the Environment
In 1987, peak oil and climate change weren’t widely popular concepts — but they were already well-understood by people whose business it was to pay attention. Benford accurately predicted our increasing dependence on shale oil — and also the looming water crisis, which has the potential to be a far bigger global nightmare than our energy problem, even though it still isn’t on enough people’s radar even now.
Rogue Moon author Algis Budrys, in what’s easily the most presciently spot-on entry of the entire pack, described a future in which the central driver is the overwhelming need to stop using so much energy, while having no real options to fall back on yet:
Because we will be in a trough between 20th-century resources and 21st-century needs, in 2012 all storable forms of energy will be expensive. Machines will be designed to use only minimal amounts of it. At the same time, there will be a general expectation that a practical cheap-energy delivery system is just around the corner. Individuals basing their career plans on any aspect of technology will concentrate on that future, leaving contemporary machine applications to the less ambitious or to those who foresee a different future … It should be noted that most minimal-energy devices process information and microscopic materials, not consumer goods. The function of “our” society may depend on processing information and biotechnology to subjugate goods-producing societies. These societies may be geographically external, or may be yet another social stratum within central North America. In either case, crowd-management technologies will have to turn away from forms that might in any way impair capital goods production. Social regimentation will then have become so deft that most people will regard any other social milieu as pitiable.
When they got it wrong, they got it really wrong. But when they got it right …
Education and Culture
Older generations have decried the ignorance of the youth going back to the days of Plato. So it was completely predictable that a bunch of famous middle-aged scientists and authors in 1987 darkly dreaded a new millennium full of illiterate twits who would “think in images rather than symbols,” with literacy confined to a small counterculture, or notable only as the hallmark of membership in the great global oligarchy. Wolfe decried schools that “exist only to train their students for employment — how to report to computers and follow instructions … Fifty million adult Americans are less than fluent in English.” He elaborated:
A literate stratum supplies leadership in government and most (though not all) other fields. Its members are experimenting with sociological simulations that take into account the individual characters and preferences of most of the population. Its aim is to increase the power of the literate class and further limit literacy, without provoking war with the U.S.S.R. or alienating the rising powers — China and the Latin American block. A literate counterculture also exists.
A lot of progressives, in our more cynical moments, would have to agree.
Wolfe also foresaw the world of computer-generated graphics, which was just emerging in 1987:
The dramas are performed by computer-generated images indistinguishable (on screen) from living people. Scenery is provided by the same method. Although science fiction and fantasy characterize the majority of these dramas, they are not so identified.
It sounds like he saw Brave – 25 years before it got made.
Nuclear War, World Power and the USSR
In 1987, the Berlin Wall was still standing, the USSR was still the Other Big Power, the Cold War was the defining fact around which all global politics turned, and Japan was a rising tiger that was just starting to make Americans nervous.
Where would all this lead? Sheldon Glashow pulled no punches. By 2012, he said:
There will have been no nuclear war, and the threat of such a war will have been removed by the mutual nuclear disarmament of the major powers. SDI, Reagan’s ill advised Star Wars program will have come to nothing.
The American economy will have experienced a gentle yet relentless decline. Our children will not live such comfortable lives as we do. The spread between the rich and the poor will have grown, and crime will have become so prevalent as to threaten the social fabric. The rich and the poor will form 2 armed camps. Most automobiles and heavy machinery will be manufactured in Japanese owned planets located in America. Yet, agriculture and higher education will be our most successful exports. There will be no fast trains connecting American cities, but a network of levitated superconducting trains will be under construction in Western Europe and in Japan.
So far, so good. But then Glashow lost his foresight mojo:
Japan will be the central economic power in the world, owning or controlling a significant part of European and American industries. This “economic dictatorship” will be beneficial to Japan’s client states, since Japan benefits by keeping its customers healthy and wealthy. Indeed, a peaceful and prosperous world community will owe its existence to this Pax Japanica.
Orson Scott Card, the author of The Abyss and Ender’s Game, was the only one who truly understood that America in 1985 was approaching the beginning of the end of its time as the world’s dominant power — and also the only one who hinted at the end of the Soviet Union, which would result in a rapid global political decentralization. And he offered a potent warning that still rings true:
If America is to recover, we must stop pretending to be what we were in 1950, and reorder our values away from pursuit of privilege.
Hopes, Fears and Foolishness
Some of the predictions were just specious and silly. Jerry Pournelle foresaw computers winning prestigious literary prizes. Yeah, we’ve got computers producing text now — but they’re a long way from passing any Turing tests. Steampunk pioneer Tim Powers was betting his copyrights on cryonics, and predicted a boom in lawyers representing the deceased.
Fredrick Pohl, tongue firmly in cheek, applied a time-honored futuring tool: lay out your assumptions for a most-likely future, and then turn every assumption and trend on its head until you get a mirror-image future in which every variable becomes its opposite. Since Pohl started with the most pessimistic assumptions possible back in 1987, his vision of 2012 is the most rosy and utopian of all: a world of global peace and prosperity, free of arms and armies, longevity and leisure, happiness and healed Earth. “It is therefore clear that to make the predictions above is to bet recklessly against the odds,” he concluded. “It’s still a good bet, though.”
Jack Williamson (the science fiction grandmaster who coined the word “terraforming”) tempered his despair with hope — as we all should:
If we had a time-phone, now in 1987, we would beg you to forgive us. We have burdened you with impossible debts, wasted and polluted the planet that should have been your rich heritage, left you instead a dreadful legacy of ignorance, want, and war.
Yet, in spite of that, we have a proud faith in you. Faith that you have saved yourselves, that you are giving birth to no more children than you can love and nurture, that you have cleansed and healed your injured planet, ended hunger, conquered crime, learned to live in peace.
Looking toward a better future for you than we can see for ourselves, we trust that you will use your computers and all your new electronic media to inform and liberate, not to dominate and oppress, trust that you will employ the arts of genetic engineering to advance the human species and make your children better than yourselves. We know that you will be inventing new sciences that would dazzle us, opening brave new frontiers, climbing on toward the stars.
We live again through you.
And I’ll give Gene Wolfe the last word:
It is of course to you of this counterculture that I write to say, take heart! Twenty-five years is no great length upon the long scale of history. In my time too, the age was dark. But we are summoning the sun.
The age is indeed dark — darker than anybody in 1987 could have possibly foreseen. But we still have a future to make. And we’re still summoning the sun.