DAYS OF FUTURISTS PAST
"I didn't expect all the cats..."
--Tim Berners-Lee on the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web
From time to time, as I'm one who virtually never lets a book go, I like
to look through the writings of past futurists and see how well their
predictions have stood up to reality. It's a harmless but salutary procedure
which, if more widely practiced, would put a well-deserved finis to the
careers of many psychics - and stock market analysts!
That said, I suppose I must start with the most famous futurist of them
all - Nostradamus. And here I must avow the most profound skepticism -
if not on the merits, then definitely on the usability. Michel de Nôtredame,
as his most ardent followers admit, wrote in a highly elliptical style
(he makes Hegel seem clear!) and mixed up his "centuries" into
the bargain, so that the prediction becomes clear only after the fact.
Now I accept totally the Nostradamians' argument that a clear prediction
would set in motion forces that would prevent it ever becoming true. Christians
pooh-poohing this objection should remember the prophecy of Isaiah 53;
so opaque before the crucifixion and resurrection, so transparently clear
But there's a difference. If Isaiah and others confirm my belief that
Jesus of Nazareth was the foretold Messiah, Savior of Mankind, well then!
Jesus spoke his own share of parables and elliptical language, but he
had some quite clear statements of the kind of behavior he expected from
his followers - and warnings about how the world would treat them. But
with Nostradamus (and nobody has ever claimed he was in Jesus' league),
I can be as convinced as possible that he foresaw everything and it still
gives me no handhold on the future - nothing to hold to, nothing to avoid,
not even which stock to buy and when.
So what kind of futurist can't be understood in the present? And I say
this as one who himself owns a copy of the Quatrains, complete with the
original French in parallel, since it seems clear that some of Michel's
more intemperate followers, not content with their master's native obscurity,
have translated some of them any way they damn well please to further
their own ends - and in some cases made them up altogether!
Actually, the most interesting part of the Quatrains, to me, is the introduction.
Technically a dedication to the son of his later years, César,
it is either one of the most thorough pieces of mumbojumbo ever committed
to print (at least until the ideologies of the twentieth century) or a
highly coded - concealed from the eyes of the Inquisition and the unready
- set of instructions to those who would do their own far-future gazing.
Try the magique étude if you will. As for me, like Kipling,
I've already "seen the wreck of too many good minds on the road to
Of course, sometimes the worst predictors of the future are those helping
to bring it about. After the success of Apollo, NASA administrator Thomas
Paine foresaw permanent domed outposts on the moon and humans on Mars
in the 'eighties - by the end of the century at the very latest. "Don't
forget," he added, "this will take place in a time of the four-day
work week, of general affluence."
But the guy I really want to pick on today is Bucky Fuller. R. Buckminster
Fuller (inventor of the geodesic dome and much else) was not right more
frequently than anybody else - though wrong less often than most - but
in his 1969 book Utopia or Oblivion he came out with a statement which
even then set my blindness detectors screaming. Wealth, he wrote, can
only increase, since wealth is a product of energy and knowledge and knowledge
can only increase while energy can be neither created nor destroyed.
Oh yeah? Well, while he's technically right about energy not being created
or destroyed, it can change from a concentrated and usable form to a dispersed
and useless. A lake at high elevation has the potential to be tapped for
electric power. Drain that lake: has the energy vanished? No, it's changed
to a million small differences downstream. But can it do any work? No.
Money is in many ways frozen energy, a store of human effort and ingenuity.
A half-dozen rich men have a billion freely-assignable dollars between
them (to talk Buckyspeak for a moment). This has the potential to advance
an invention or process which can change the life of humanity enormously.
Think Carnegie's scaleup of the Bessemer process. Think Microsoft. Now
instead, tax that money away for some social purpose: i.e. confiscate
it and give it to a member of the nomenklatura to assemble a team
of dozens of high-level administrators to boss thousands of lower-level
bureaucrats to administer some service or funding to millions deficient
in work ethic/employable skills/mindset and opportunity to acquire and
appropriately use those skills/luck. Has the money vanished? No, it's
delivered small drops of nourishment to tens of thousands of enterprises
"downstream", from bigbox retailers to streetcorner lunch wagons.
But this is maintenance of the status quo. Can it anymore be assembled
to fund a quantum leap toward the future? Of course not.
And knowledge? Most knowledge is like money in an inflationary economy:
it loses value with time. I know all the conventions of courtesy and chivalry
by which one showed respect to a young lady - codes which many of them,
or so I read, now find demeaning. But let that go, because (a) I'm sure
there are still many who would be pleased to be treated in such manner,
but (b) not by an old fart like myself.
That's far from the end. I can repair a carburetor and MacGyver the linkage,
if necessary, by the side of the road. I can goose one so it will start
the car even if flooded. I have performed both these services, in a far
distant past, for some of those aforementioned young ladies. But carburetors
are no longer used - they don't even teach them in auto tech school. And
indeed, why should they?
I know how to use carbon tetrachloride (a cleaning spray for electronics)
to dry out a distributor. But they don't make distributors anymore either.
Or carbon tet, for that matter (it ate the ozone layer).
Are you picking up what I'm putting down? I can repack wheel bearings,
change front drum brakes, adjust points both the right way with a timing
light and the quick-and-dirty good-enough method.
Let's get off the road. I can use a slide rule, and still have mine from
junior high. I know the use of drafting tools and have a set of those
too, my grandfather's, high-precision German instruments from a time when
Germany was the world leader in such. I know or at least knew Morse code
(haven't used it since I won a competition at a Boy Scout Jamboree). I
have a complete set of hand (non-electric) carpentry tools, drills, coping
saws, the works. I'm all set for the Apocalypse (zombie or otherwise)
although I don't consider the odds of it happening very high.
But that knowledge is still there, you object, uselessness doesn't really
enter into it. But sometimes knowledge actually does vanish. The Kennedy
autopsy photos are knowledge of a very real kind: but 35 years after the
event, the official Assassination Records Review Board concluded that
the photos purporting to be those of the murdered President's skull and
introduced as such into the official record are in fact not of Kennedy
at all! Where are the real ones?...Missing.
Oh stop it, you say, do I have to get so conspiratorial? Well if it looks
like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck...but let's take
something less controversial: old family photographs. These represent
knowledge as well - even, if I may judge by the proliferation of websites
and books devoted to genealogy, knowledge with a certain financial component.
But who were these people in their old clothes next to those '20's and
'30's cars? Well, it was obviously known once, but everyone who could
now tell you is dead.
And here's something else. In 1964 we all knew what we had to do to keep
our personal information private. Fifty years later, even the experts
don't have a good answer.
With the "professionals" making such blunders, it's no wonder
that some of the best futurists have been science-fiction writers. Arthur
C. Clarke was one of the best, but even he all too often fell behind the
curve. In his mid-fifties The City and the Stars he foresaw a computer
of superhuman intelligence - but placed it over a billion years in the
future, whereas our Singularitarians predict it within the lifetime of
many now living. The book also features the Sagas, entertainments remarkably
similar to our MMRPGs but piped somehow directly into the human nervous
system. Again, a development most likely mere decades, not gigennia, away.
Clarke was aware of this rather common shortcoming of future-gazing, and
even formulated a law about it (no, not the one about advanced technology
and magic). Predictions of the consequences of any change, he wrote, are
invariably too exaggerated in the short term - and too conservative in
So there you have it. Call it the law of compound interest of social change,
and look around at our world in anticipation. Or horror. Meanwhile, I
leave you with three maxims of my favorite futurist - Murphy.
Nothing is always.
Everything is sometimes.
Nature sides with the hidden flaw.
--posted 6 July 2014