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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu

Last week Henry invited us to have some fun at the expense of all the old sci-fi writers whose predictions for the future seem laughably wrong today. Personally, I'm inclined to cut the old guys some slack.

Most of the time.

True, I do keep a copy of the 1962 edition of Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future handy, to turn to whenever I need a good laugh. For example, eliminating the hazards of transporting petroleum by replacing surface tanker ships with atomic submarines towing mile-long plastic bags full of crude oil? Good guess there, Art.

But in all fairness to the late Sir Arthur, his book was intended to be full of wild-eyed speculations, and he did have the decency to put out a new edition every few years, complete with admissions of where and why he was wrong. This alone makes Clarke unique among prophets. Generally speaking, in the field of futurism (as in medicine), the overwhelming impulse is to quietly bury one's mistakes, and hope no one remembers those stupid words that once came out of your mouth. For example I'm certain Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor, would just love to take a D-handled shovel to this 1979 knee-slapper:
"What is most important for world history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? Some Islamic hotheads or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?"
Likewise, as I watch the events currently unfolding in the Mideast and North Africa, I'm reminded of all the prominent foreign policy analysts who in 1979 predicted that if President Carter would simply pressure the Shah of Iran into permitting the Ayatollah Khomeini to return from exile, this would lead to a great flowering of freedom, democracy, and human rights in the Islamic world.

So while sci-fi writers might get the technical bits wrong from time to time—(good guess on the submarines, there, Jules, but not so hot on the unstoppable power of dirigibles; good thing many of those books are not readily available in English)—

They really can't hold a candle to the professional prognosticators. For example, take economists—please; like this gem from 1979. It is not without just cause that the snarkism is often repeated that the world's leading economists have correctly predicted 27 of the last 3 economic downturns. In an honest world The Limits to Growth would be found in the thesaurus, as a synonym for "so frickin' wrong you can't believe it."

Nor are ecologists and climatologists far behind. I have here in my hands a 1976 issue of National Geographic containing an article in which a half-dozen leading climatologists lay on lots of FUD about the coming ice age, which can only be avoided by doing exactly what they say. (However, in deference to the copyright police, I'm not going to scan and post anything.)

Then there were the Space Pimps and UN True Believers. Sometimes they were absolutely spot-on:
"A universal series of radio and television networks circling the globe will be possible as a result of simultaneous global ocean-spanning television with satellites acting as relay stations. For the first time, man will immediately be able to see as well as hear events taking place anywhere on the Earth's surface. This fact should help diplomats prevent trouble spots from erupting into "brush fire" wars or global conflicts."
Oops. Must have meant to lift a different quote...

At the dawning of the Age of Aquarius we got the Aquanauts, of course—

Spent much time in New Atlantis lately? It turns out most of these hallucinations visions were sponsored by oil companies, who thought that establishing colonies on the seabeds would make offshore drilling easier and lost interest when it turned out the work was more cheaply done by robots.

I personally have a fascination with works of the early Atomic Power Advocates:

One of these days I'll have to scan this whole thing and put it online. It's a fascinating artifact of the Atomic Age. Who else but GE would envision a future that involved selling refrigerators to Eskimos?

I wish I could claim that my own field was immune to this sort of wild-eyed, hysterical, and wildly inaccurate prognostication. Sorry, no. But on the bright side, I made good money working on a COBOL code remediation project in 1999.

In the Great Pantheon of Wrong there is probably no book from the past half-century that both aspires to serious prediction and is more wrong—and more pernicious—than this one. If I had more time I would launch into a spittle-spewing diatribe about how much I hate this book. Instead, I'll just ask you to take a moment now to envision the world that might have been, had it included the 150 million or so affluent and educated Americans who do not now exist because their mothers were required to read this book in high school or college, and took its message too closely to heart.

Of course, in the long run, it really doesn't matter. Because according to this book, the aliens who planted the colony we now know as the Mayan civilization are coming back to check up on it, on December 24 of this year. (No word yet on whether they'll also be looking to have a few words with the humpback whales.) So, everybody got that? Our ancient alien overlords are coming back. Look busy!

How about you? What's your favorite outlandish, ridiculous, or idiotic prophecy?

Let the arguments begin...
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