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Sjef van Gaalen (M)
Amsterdam, NL
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    The value of failed future predictions.
    Predictions of future events have been around for as long as history has cared to document, and probably a lot longer. Unsurprisingly, most predictions made in any detail concerning any significant amount of time turn out to be wrong. This is simply bound to be true by the nature of the universe as we perceive it, as out of all the uncountable futures imaginable, only one will ever come to pass.

    In order for this discussion to be useful it will be necessary to define a certain scope. Guesswork such as picking lotto numbers, and anything bound by the laws of physics and its consequences will immediately fall outside of this, as will mythical prophecy, statistical/operational forecasting and fashion life-cycles. What I will be concerning myself with here will primarily concentrate on the predictions of science fiction during the last two centuries. The failed predictions that have now given rise to the term paleo-futurism, and have left a pool of bitter cynics in their wake, asking 'Where is my jet-pack?', and bemoaning the loss of dreams never realized. (Yes, that includes me.)

    Historically (by which I mean from about 1880 to 1980) the worth of these predictions has been their value as ideas, the stock and trade of science fiction. The world as we currently know it has been shaped by these ideas, and we enjoy a lifestyle made possible by technologies that may never have been developed had the scientific minds at their base not been inspired by the speculation of others. Writers such as Verne and Clarke are responsible for a great deal of todays tools and toys, however while both have had good hits, in most details they have been proven wrong. What is important though is that their avenues of thought were explored by others, and while proving them wrong, they have driven further development and lead to new avenues of exploration that now carve out our path into the future.

    Now though, the failures are starting to stack up. We've reached the 21st century and shit just isn't going down the way we were told it would be. Our space programs are rubbish (yes they are, they suck.), we still predominantly use fossil fuels, our cars are stuck on the ground, machines don't have decent human language capabilities, I still have to lace my sneakers and I could go on like this for a while. We're supposed to be living in the age of science fiction, so how do we now benefit from all those futures that never came to fruition?

    Firstly I believe there is an enormous historical and anthropological value. It should be a well known fact that science fiction authors use the future mode to discuss the realities and developments of their current day, and set forth extrapolations on those scenarios. It is therefore of the utmost importance to not just take their writings at face value, but to view them within the context of the time of writing, and to any extent possible the authors' circumstances at the time. This then presents us with the opportunity to utilize the gift of hindsight, and to look back along the paths of those extrapolations to the point of their genesis, where we may find fascinating insights into the minds of some of the greatest forward thinkers of the previous two centuries, showing their perceptions, passions and concerns, and as such writing a rich alternative history of the birth of our modern age.

    Secondly these 'failures' should serve to inform our opinions on the shape of things to come. The dose of cynicism we have now been dealt should serve us well in maintaining a cautious stance on our progress, especially now the stakes are becoming so high. Recent history has shown that areas of technology undergoing rapid growth can stagnate in their development, their predicted grandeur not coming to pass. It is important for us to reflect on the reasons for their stalling, and to consider this in relation to our own circumstances as we go forward.

    Lastly is an element often lost in the clouds of disappointment, which is probably the most important, and that is sheer optimism. Many of these predictions have been made overeagerly out of a belief in the remarkable capabilities and spirit of mankind. Even bleak post-apocalyptic futures carry an element of optimism in the fact that there even is a future after whatever events have destroyed their worlds. The feeling that has driven men to predict great things for us all must be kept alive, for without it little will happen to benefit us as a race. No matter exactly how they are to pan out, radical changes are going to take place, and if we are to take any role in shaping these events it should be with the view that they may serve to secure our future as a force of life and knowledge in the universe.

    Fri, Jan 18, 2008  Permanent link

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