Friday, November 3, 2017

Remembering the future

Arthur C Clarke was one of the most interesting, and yet also representative, of the mid to late 20th century futurists. In the 50s and 60s, he was remarkably prescient both about the direction of technology and its impact on society over the range of 25 or 30 years into the future. Beyond that, however, his track record is simply bad.

If this was just a question Clarke's limitations, it would not be a topic worth discussing, but I think his failed prophecies are indicative of something larger. As mentioned before, I've been working on a couple of essays on the way we think about technology and future. The central thesis of the first is that the extraordinary spikes of innovation and resulting social change that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, to a lesser extent, in the postwar era shaped and, in a sense, distorted our perception of the future.

The following passage from Clarke perfectly captures this mindset. His statements about the impossibility of predicting the future while sounding at all reasonable were accurate when he said them and had been even more so 70 or 80 years earlier. From the perspective of the mid-1880s, the world of 20 or 30 years into the future was genuinely difficult to imagine. It was difficult not to be overly conservative. Clarke assumed that the rate of acceleration of technological and resulting social change would not only hold but would actually increase. "Inevitably" he said, which in retrospect seems a little foolish and more than a little sad.

Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation because the prophet invariably falls between two stools. If his predictions sound at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that within 20 or, at most, 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn. This has proved to be true in the past, and it will inevitably be true, even more so, of the century to come.

The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic.

So, if what I say to you now seems to be very reasonable, then I'll have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

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