Why is it so hard to predict the future?
I grew up reading Philip K Dick and his fantasies about global nuclear war, robots that were indistinguishable from people and a world engulfed by consumerism. Getting the future 'right' is hard. I remember about 21 years ago Nokia (then the worlds largest mobile phone company) was experimenting with cameras in their phones. Who on earth would want that I thought. Turns out everyone did. But virtually no one remembers Nokia or buys their products anymore. Yet back in 1999 you would have been dead certain Nokia was the future.
Now we have driverless cars, literally coming down the road. Initial reaction is - who needs this? What about my freedom? Turns out people can't wait to hand over the steering wheel to Mr Ai. All that traffic, the police with their radar vans and variable speed limits. Old people, and there's millions of them, want to continue moving around and self-drive cars are the perfect solution. Add the fact that millennials don't tend to learn to drive or own vehicles (because of the insurance costs I suspect) cars will have to become autonomous and finance themselves. You'll dial it up and it will come to your door. Own a car and when you're not using it it will go out on the road touting for business. Nice little earner. But I don't recall anyone writing about this twenty years ago.
Luckily long predicted nuclear war hasn't arrived yet, but who is to say North Korea won’t oblige in the near future? Certainly Putin is thinking about it right now with his brutal war against Ukraine. Oddly enough Dick’s vision of our society isn’t far off being right. He was a paranoid delusional, but that doesn’t mean his vision of a planet where everything is under surveillance won’t come true. The internet of things was satirical when he wrote about such things, now your fridge is in charge of ordering your groceries and your phone monitors your health and wealth. Next up we will willingly surrender our financial decisions to an updated version of Chat GPT4. (And say goodbye to all those banking and investment careers).
Is it possible that technology makes it inevitable that we all end up living in totalitarian states? President Putin would say so - putting the concept of free speech firmly back in the bottle as he feeds poison to Facebook and others around the globe to undermine our faith in democracy. His destruction of Ukraine is complete madness and has disrupted the entire world economy. He has also revealed that his army is a paper tiger and we in the West are fools for letting him get away with it.
Some say Trump is the end of democracy - designed to disrupt and make us lose faith in justice and civilisation. Looks like he'll get a second go at destroying democracy in 2025. Twitter is the weapon of choice for fascists as trolls wreak daily havoc with vile opinions and thoughtless rants. Perhaps Trump was the only one who didn't know that a careless word can cause war. Oddly enough Biden is now following a similar route on trade wars bringing back protectionism to the USA, which could also bring back the great divisions of the 1930's. We shall see. But with the Republicans back in control of Congress women in America will be the big losers as abortion becomes criminalised nationwide.
Dictators now understand that they cannot allow the Internet into their society without total control. Free flowing information risks undermining Communist control in China and as much as they try to contain it, smart people work around it taking great risks. The Iron Curtain evolves into firewalls of controlled information.
The law of unintended consequences rules however. NATO helped topple Gadaffi but now we have a self-destructed Libya and ISIS that is not defeated, despite what they tell us. Freedom of speech has almost disappeared in Egypt and pretty much everywhere in the Middle-East including Iran and China. That people are prepared to rebel against it is encouraging but foolhardy in such repressive regimes, as Hong Kong demonstrates quite clearly. The Covid lockdowns in China have altered the dynamic there and people now released after three years are desperate for freedom. *WHO confirms there were almost 100 million cases of Covid in China to May 23rd 2023 with 121,144 deaths. As for how it all got started - the truth has perished in China.
The trouble is, we have this terrible yearning to read about or watch terrible disasters. The destruction of an ecologically perfect planet by rapacious soldiers led by a fascist moron became one of the most successful movies of all time. Avatar. To be honest I could have enjoyed it just as much without the soldiers and couldn't face the sequel.
We live endlessly with this idea of paradise lost and it crops up again and again in fiction. Right now, today, the Amazon is burning. But can newly elected President Lula stop the rape of that precious resource? We can boycott palm oil products - that make a difference.
Paradise is and has always been an illusion, or at least something that only very few people ever experience, usually at the expense of the toiling masses. (See Fritz Lang's 1927 movie Metropolis). The elegant classical giant mansions that followed land enclosures in the UK and Europe demonstrates that well enough. The idea of entitlement first came to those who gave themselves ‘titles’.
How inevitable is a western totalitarian state?
Speaking for myself, I prefer privacy. I realise, sometimes with shock, that the millennials don’t seem care for it all. They want to share everything about their lives, every scrap, bad and good, nothing is private, their joy or bitterness and this is the enemy of totalitarian societies where secrets are power. Facebook and Tik-Tok rule the world alongside Google. People not only know where you live but what you eat and whom you sleep with and it doesn’t seem to matter. No one predicted this. Not even William Gibson. No one expects the unexpected I guess. To be fair Gibson did predict 3D printers that would replicate anything you want in a hole in the wall. Gun, spare body parts, anything. And that is certainly becoming possible now.
How well did some of your favourite movies or sci-fi books do in predictions?
Twelve Monkeys, Bladerunner, A Clockwork Orange, The Fifth Element, Escape From New York, Total Recall, Outland, Snow Crash, Land of the Dead, Sin City, Minority Report, The Wind-up Girl, The Water Knife.
In all our futures cities it is hell on earth. Everyone is a criminal. Extortion and prostitution is the norm, as is disease and a short life expectancy. Paulo Bacigalupi is the most prescient writer I think with his Ship Breaker. The Wind-Up Girl and The Water Knife, all required reading. Here is a guy who has really thought about the future. But in Ship Breaker all he had to do was observe that on the Indian coast labour is so cheap that they break up decommissioned ships by hand. Transpose this to the USA and an impoverished illiterate population and you have future shock. His novel (The Water Knife) about the scarcity of drinking water and energy in the USA results in power plays over water rights that destroy whole cities and their populations. Pheonix comes to mind a city that shouldn't be there at all. Think Australia is a desert? Not anymore - floods everywhere. Animals drowning by the thousands.
In February 2018 Cape Town, South Africa - a city of many millions, had run dry of water and it was killing the Cape economy. Wine and food production in particular, as well as tourism. Today 2023 the whole country is suffering from constant power outages and extreme goverment corruption and the economy is in a tailspin. California is experiencing many global warming effects. Fires, drought, then extreme rain or snow. Plenty of material for futurists. It would seem to conform to our visions of dystopian futures.
Weirdly the one place where dystopia is coming true first is Mexico, a virtual drug economy where gangsters regularly do mass killings and mass corruption of the police and army is normal. Yet all the sci-fi stories set this human and ecological crash in New York or LA or Chicago. Where is that great Mexican novel that is in tune with the reality of a failed state underpinned by oil and drug money that flows only to a few corrupt rich? In 2023 Venezuela is another failed state with an inflation rate of 155% (Jan 2023) and a dictatorship that cares nothing for its people - prepared to squash any opposition. Ironically it has the world's largest oil reserves and but is now having to import gasoline from Iran! Where is that great contemporary Caracas novel?
You can point to Detroit as the post-industrial city that time forgot and yes you can easily build a case for dystopia there, but then again, some people are beginning to reclaim the empty city lots for urban farming and who knows, people might start to rescue the abandoned art deco factories and homes. A new non-industrial city might blossom. It is easy to come to a judgment about the death of capitalism by looking at Detroit, but if you know your facts you’ll always know that the history of America is to use, discard and move on. Gentrification and preservation are relatively new ideas there. In the seventies people were writing off New York. I was living there when garbage was piled high on the streets, crime was rising exponentially and real estate crashing. It was rescued by human and political will and the enforcement of laws.
It’s too easy to write whole countries off, but if you take the long view you can be a much better predictor of events. Cities will continue to grow and thrive because that’s where the jobs are. Cities of fifty million people won’t be unusual in the next thirty years. Whether you’d want to be living there is another matter. Covid-19 has made us think hard about city living and social distance, WFH is now standard. The future LA of Bladerunner was based on a reaction to a visit to Hong Kong by Ridley Scott. Predicting is fraught with danger. If you had told anyone in majority white Vancouver forty years ago that 50% of the population would be Asian in 2023 they would have considered you mad. Not only has the population changed, but what it does and how it lives and eats has completely been transformed. Negatively it also came with the rise of gang culture, and crime, however it is a much more dynamic and prosperous city now.
Speak to a futurologist and they will tell you the future is China and they will come to dominate the world. But this may not be inevitable. Internal dissent is rising – a desperate Government has to keep growth at 6% to keep a lid on it but again the virus has changed that dynamic. The environment is a disaster zone and air quality is often poisonous. Their dash to electrify all the cars by 2025 masks the tragedy of thousands of new coal-fired power stations that pollute the entire country and world causing glaciers to melt (but solar is gaining ground). To keep control, President Xi has declared himself 'President for life'. It doesn't agur well long term. The country is exposed to outside influences that must contradict what the Government wants and believes, so naturally they must block all outside information and the concept of privacy and rights evaporate daily. Possibly the lack of clean air and food quality might just be the thing that brings the goverment down one day. Right now they want to ban kids from gaming and are denigrating celeb culture. Next home ownership might be under attack - counter revolutions eat their young. Note that around 1640 AD China had explored the world and was seemingly about to trade everywhere, then suddenly closed the door for a century. Who is to say they won’t do that again? Hard though that may be to believe right now.
Today everyone says with the rise of populism it’s like the 1930’s and therefore history will replay as fascism or communism, but history often repeats as farce. Now we can travel again people will go to the Greek islands this summer and live like kings as they always do and will hardly notice a thing or turn a blind eye to the overfull refugee camps. Averting our eyes to poverty is very human. Ever seen the pictures of people sunbathing on Spanish beaches as illegal African immigrants wash ashore and scavenge in the bins. It really happens. I have witnessed this.
Who gets the Future Right?
Twelve Monkeys is a favourite movie of mine. Having written a pandemic virus novel myself (Another Place to Die: Endtime Chronicles) I look at this with awe. Yet people surviving underground for decades? This requires some organization. That this disjointed group would also discover time travel is cool but highly unlikely.
Time travel will probably be always a delusion. (I’ll look at the door now in case my other self cares to step in and correct me – no? Damn, I’m deeply disappointed.)
This doesn’t stop us writing about time travel as a literary device. It’s so tempting to go back and ‘fix’ stuff or mess with it. I tried myself with The Repercussions of Tomas D , a story about a boy who accidentally goes back to 1941 and changes the outcome of the 2nd World War. Continuum, Timeless, Dark and Travellers are four TV series that are obessessed with going back and changing events to fix the future, but I suspect this will always be impossible.
Author Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) perhaps got closest to predicting the death of the high street and how the mafia will come to control the economy. Amazon rules now and has devastated the retail market. But even so I find it hard to believe that people won’t want to wander Winchester High Street and have coffee and see a movie when we are allowed to, ‘cause what else will people do with their time when it all disappears? The high street shops are disappearing fast. Do we care enough to preserve this way of life? (I'm not convinced we do).
The same goes with space travel. Studies show us that the longer humans are in space the greater the risk to bone density. Essentially if you intend to go to infinity and beyond, you aren’t coming home again. Not many sci-fi writers seem to get that. Star Wars is a fantasy - a great deal of fun, but essentially impossible. That why I wrote Mission Longshot. When someone needs rescuing in deep space - how far would you go if you knew you couldn't get back?
Given what is happening right now on Earth it might be tempting to go into space but psychologically will we ever find the right kind of people to make the Star Fleet, if they all know it is a one-way ticket? And where is that Warp Drive? Has Elon Musk got the patent yet? We got to the Moon fifty years ago but here we are still stuck in the fossil fuel age and planning nostalgia trips to the lunar surface at £100 million a ticket. Although I was happy to see SpaceX finally get the Dragon up to the Space Station.
This brings me to teleportation. Another popular theme in fiction. My 2021 novel '*The Repossession of Genie Magee ' is in part a study of that phenomenon. But just how hard teleportation will be to develop? What follows is an extract from a scene at the dinner table in Chapter Two between Rian and his tormentor, his Mother’s boyfriend. *Available again now.
“Teleportation is bunk, Rian. Pure bunk. No one will ever beam up Scotty. It’s impossible. The future never happened. There are no aliens and we don’t commute in flying cars. Star Trek is rubbish science. Bunk.”
The usual dinner conversation. Rian would say something and Mr Yates MBA would pounce on it, try to make himself look clever, and his mother would eat it up. Nevertheless, Rian defended his position.
“I’m just saying that if we accept climate change as inevitable then teleportation would eliminate air travel and that’s a whole lot of pollution that goes with it. We could save the polar icecaps and the bears.”
Mr Yates stared at Rian a moment and Rian could see the muscles in his thick red neck pulsating as he sought to deliver a withering reply.
“You shouldn’t bait Mr Yates, Rian,” his mother said. “You know science-fiction is just that, fiction.”
“The problem with science-fiction,” Mr Yates finally barked, “is that it makes people believe that there are solutions for everything. There aren’t. Take teleportation. What you envisage is just magic. It can’t happen. The amount of energy needed to deconstruct a human made up of trillions upon trillions of atoms would be equivalent to the energy output of ten nuclear reactors, at least. Plus, reassembling those same atoms back in the right order is a monumental logistical task. Way beyond what any software programme could do. We are talking turning your whole body into digital form, into photons, and sending them across town by light waves, then putting it back together exactly as it is now. Your clothes too. Impossible. One slight wrong calculation or dropped piece of code and your arm will come out your head or you’ll just collapse into a heap of jelly. It would have to reassemble skin, bone, and eyes.
"It would need the basic carbon raw materials to generate it at the end destination. Any idea how complex your eyes are? Hell, just putting your feet back together would be beyond the power of any machine for decades ahead. Decades.”
“Scientists say…” Rian began again, but Mr Yates interrupted.
“Quantum physics states that you cannot say for definite the position and velocity of any single particle. More importantly, Rian, for teleportation to work, and let’s assume someone actually has all the computer power in the whole world at their fingertips to store a trillion, trillion atoms – in order for you to be ‘transmitted’, much like an email with an attachment say, you, in the process of being disassembled would be destroyed. The new you across town would be a copy and each time you moved you would be another copy. Can a computer also deconstruct and store your memory? Your imagination? If it can’t, you would be a 16-year-old baby with no memory of anything. Your memory would get wiped every time you teleported.”
“Never mind losing your soul, Rian,” Mrs Tulane interjected.
Mr Yates beamed at her. “Quite. Every human is unique – I’m telling you it will always be totally impossible. We should not play God.”
© Sam Hawksmoor 2023
Author of Mission Longshot download or order the print version
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