Why is it so hard to predict the future?
I grew up on Philip K Dick and his fantasies about global nuclear war, robots that were indistinguishable from people and a world engulfed by consumerism. Luckily global nuclear war didn’t arrive yet, but who is to say Iran or North Korea won’t oblige in the future? 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. But it may not end up with totalitarian states. North Korea notwithstanding, or President Putin or Chinese Leader Xi Jinping trying to put the concept of free speech back in the bottle.
Dictators understand that they cannot allow the internet into their society. Free Information has the potential to undermine communist control in China and as much as they try to contain it, smart people work around it. (And face the consequences if found out).
The law of unintended consequences rules however. Twitter and NATO helped topple Gadaffi in Libya but now we have civil war in Libya, as no one prepared for the end game. Worse ISIS has taken control of a large chunk of the country and shipping migrants and terrorists into Europe as fast as they can. As Assad and Putin destroy pretty much all of Syria - driving everyone who doesn't want to live under Assad's dictatorship out. We reap the harvest of Syrian migrants because we lack the courage to make united efforts to tackle oppression. The ruined city of Homs or Aleppo stand as a monument to extreme cruelty and a warning to our own cities in Europe that face an enemy that cares nothing for human lives.
Despite the misery in our headlines we love reading about or watching 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 (or the proposed three sequels.)
We live endlessly with this idea of paradise lost and it crops up again and again in fiction. Yet 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. The elegant classical rich merchant mansions that followed land enclosure demonstrates that well enough. The idea of entitlement first came to those who gave themselves ‘titles’. Downton Abbey was built on greed.
Social Media is Freedom or Oppression?
Speaking for my generation, I prefer privacy. I realise, sometimes with shock that the young don’t 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 rules 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. The Selfie Culture rules. However scrubbing that past away when you no longer need it or want to hide it is a diferent matter. Your future employer will be watching too and judging. **Possible career option of the future Social Media Scrubbers.... We Clean Your Past.
Take an alternative view of society portrayed by movies and books such as:
A Clockwork Orange, Escape From New York, Total Recall, Outland, Snow Crash, Land of the Dead, Sin City, The 100... The Wasteland (short stories)
The futures they show are hell on earth. Everyone is a criminal. Extortion and prostitution is the norm, as is disease and a short life expectancy. Sometimes they are prescient however. We are moving to a world where anti-biotics no longer work. We live in a world were population growth is out of control and political corruption rules. (See Africa).
Mexico is a virtual drug economy where gangsters regularly do mass killings and mass corruption of the police and army is normal. You can say the same in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sudan. Most sci-fi stories set a human and ecological crash in New York or LA or Chicago, but it's much more likely to be Lagos or Jo'Burg. Where is that great Mexican novel that is tune with the reality of a failed state underpinned by oil and drug money that flows only to a few corrupt rich?
You can point to Detroit as the 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 eco 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' then 'discard' and move on. Gentrification and preservation are relatively new ideas there. In the seventies people were writing off New York, garbage was piled high on the streets, crime was rising exponentially and real estate crashing. It was rescued by human will and the enforcement of laws. Fixing 'broken windows' mantra.
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 fifty years. Whether you’d want to be living there is another matter. 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 45% of the population would be Asian in 2016 they would have considered you mad. Not only has the population changed, but what it does and how it lives and eats and of course came with it the rise of gang culture, crime and a much more dynamic city. 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 7% to keep a lid on it and it is struggling to do that. The country is exposed to outside influences that often contradict what the Government wants and believes. Air quality is a political issue. Schools built on contaminated ground 'normal' as there are no checks and balances on corrupt officials.
Around 1600AD China had seen the world and suddenly closed the door on it. Who is to say they won’t do that again? Of course since they are the world Number Two economy it would cause an economic catastrophe if they suddenly stopped buying our 'stuff', but I'm not predicting they will. The Chinese are rich now with 193 billionaires according to the Sunday Times Rich List April 2016. It would take some extraordinary malign political power or catastrophe to halt or reverse Chinese consumerism.
Europe is flatlining economically. We are probably a bit disappointed that Greece elected to stay in the Euro. We were all secretly ready to watch the road crash of the Euro collapsing like your auntie who always said about your boyfriend or girlfriend that it would all come to a bitter end. It hasn’t yet and beware of predicting that it will. The closer one is to history and events the harder it is to see ahead I guess. Now Britain flirts with the idea of 'Brexit', leaving the European Union. It's a crazy idea actually, to walk away from a market of 500 people and probably an illusion we would be any freer outside it. Poorer certainly and it would be irreversible, we couldn't change our mind a year later and ask for our coat back. It's divorce and everyone knows that both parties get hurt in a divorce. Only the lawyers go home happy.
Right now everyone says it’s like the 1930’s and therefore history will replay as fascism or communism, but history usually repeats only as farce. 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. Right now the same is happening in Greece and Italy as boats still come everyday laden with migrants and aim to make their way to Germany. But how many of these migrants end up in work? And if they don't get work or money what will they do? Europe has compassion fatigue and no one is happy about the deal with Turkey. So many people in Turkey want to leave and seek freedom of expression from an increasingly oppressive government. They will hardly want to return once their visa's expire.
Twelve Monkeys - the movie, (now a TV series) is a favourite movie of mine. Having written a pandemic 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. But I'm not judging. We'd all like to believe it will be possible. Time travel will probably be always a delusion. (I’ll look at the backdoor now in case my other self cares to step in and correct me – no? Well I’m 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. Talking of which ‘Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Hunter’ Are they serious? Teaching history is going to get real complicated I think from now on. No, Miss Elizabeth Bennett was not really a zombie, nor Mr Darcy, but your kids might think they were.
The science fiction I enjoy is about us, about our society and the things that are transforming us. Can we get things right? Neal Stephenson perhaps got closest to predicting the death of the high street and how the mafia will come to control the economy. Even now I find it hard to believe that people won’t want to wander a mall in future or Winchester High Street and have coffee and see a movie, ‘cause what else will people do with their time when it all disappears? Shopping on-line is well - boring. Maybe they'll be shopping in 3-D. Thrilling huh. Department stores are so last century but I wonder what people will do with their time if they don't 'shop'. Attitudes change, lifestyles have been transformed by smart phones. Read a whole book? Are you kidding? Kids with neck problems from staring at phones all the time and arthritic thumbs from texting are temporary phenonema. Having a personal drone recording every moment of your life 24 hours a day - the norm! It's coming. What will you do if your drone leaves you to follow someone else because their lives are more interesting? Only kidding, don't fret.
Predicting the future at this moment is much harder than usual. President Trump or President Cruz? Both would be a disaster, Cruz more than most and expect all the rights women gained in the last decades to be reversed by him. Who knows what kind of world it will be in 2020 after he's turned the clock back and dismantled Obamba care.
Paulo Bacigalupi is the most prescient writer I think with his Ship Breakers and The Wind Up Girl, both required reading for any sci-fi readers. Here is a guy who has really thought about the future. But in Ship Breakers all he had to do was observe that on the India coast labour is so cheap that they break up decommission ships by hand. Transpose this to the USA and you have future shock. His latest The Water Knife is about who controls water rights in a Climate Changed USA - It couldn't be more relevant. Read it now if you haven't.
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. Given what is happening right now on Earth that 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 know it is a one-way ticket? And where is that Warp Drive? Has Dyson got the patent yet? We got to the Moon forty 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.
This brings me to teleportation. Another popular theme in fiction. My novel The Repossession (TOZ in Turkey) is in part a study of that phenomenon. What follows is a discussion about just how hard teleportation will be to develop:
**This is an © extract from a scene at the dinner table in Chapter Two between Rian and his tormentor, his Mother’s boyfriend.
“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 May 2016
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