Predicting the Future

The future is fickle. No one has a crystal ball and yet, remarkably, science fiction has done a superb job of predicting and anticipating future trends.

Jules Verne was prescient in his novels 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon. In hindsight, it’s tempting for pundits to point out how his scheme of firing a cannon at the moon was laughable, but it is the concepts not the particulars that are important. His recognition of the need to offset the violent acceleration of a cannon shot with collapsible boards separated by baffles of water may be quaint and almost steam-punk Victorian in its notions, but his vision to reach out toward the stars was correct in every respect.

Over Christmas, I got hold of Explorers, a video tribute to Jules Verne by Buzz Aldrin and James Cameron. Although the video doesn’t explore as much of Verne’s vision as I would have liked, it does highlight that Buzz Aldrin, who, along with Neil Armstronglanded on the moon, and James Cameron, the film maker that personally explored the sunken wreck of the Titanic, both share the same vision as Jules Verne.

Science fiction, it seems, anticipates science.

Perhaps the most overt example of this in the past generation has been TV shows like Star Trek, with it’s communicators pre-empting the mobile phones of today, and its non-intrusive medical scans being a precursor to the CAT scans and PET scans of today. It seems, we are boldly going where science fiction has gone before.

I’d go so far as to say not only has science fiction predicted and anticipated the future, it has changed the future. The case in point here, being, George Orwell’s 1984. In our mostly benign, modern western world, it is easy to forget the overwhelming threat posed by fascism and communism after the Second World War. These were very real threats in 1948 when Orwell inverted the decades to come up with 1984.

With bidirectional communication between individual homes and the state police, the advent of electronic surveillance was anticipated with the horrifying recognition of what Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin could have accomplished if they’d lived just a few decades later.

Orwell’s publication of a dystopian future in 1948 ensured 1984 never came to pass. Concepts like newspeak and Big Brother became seared into the public conscience and the free world has kept its politicians accountable, avoiding all Orwell feared.

And so, in the best traditions of science fiction anticipating the future, Matthew Mather has brought together a raggedy band of degenerate cyborgs intent on… oh, wait, they’re a bunch of science fiction authors, but the effect is the same, they’re intent on looking forward and anticipating Phuture News.

Phuture News is an experiment in social intelligence where anyone can propose a potential future story and then, in an example of crowd sourcing, readers are invited to vote on the likelihood and timing of that future story. Although some of the stories are humorous, like Justin Bieber becoming President of the United States in 2053, Ronald Regan accomplished pretty much the same thing in his generation, so it’s not as far fetched as it may at first seem.

I’ve thrown a few stories into the mix, looking at them as micro fiction. To my surprise, in thinking about these concepts I’ve realised that they’re an extension of viable current thinking, asking the question ‘what if?’ Like Jules Verne and his moon cannon, I doubt any of the stories on this site will actually come true as written, but the concepts underlying them may very well anticipate future progress.

If you haven’t checked out phuture news, you should.

5 thoughts on “Predicting the Future

  1. I don’t think it’s so much a case of science fiction predicting the future. I think it’s more a case of science fiction establishing concepts in people’s minds, and they then work to achieve it. There is a saying that goes something along the lines of, “if you can conceive it and believe it you can achieve it”. It’s like the four minute mile, or traveling faster than the speed of sound. Once people believed that something was possible they worked to achive it. I think science fiction is instrumental in establishing those visions of what might some day be possible. It gets people thinking and dreaming. Not everything may be possible, or it may work differently but the seeds are planted and it will produce fruit. I guess you can say it is “predicting” the future, but I see it more as the future being determined or defined by that which is thought of today in science fiction. Just my thoughts… 🙂

    • And you’re absolutely right, one feeds the other. It’s having the vision that shapes the future. And, as you say, not everything is possible. For all that science fiction got right, there are hundreds of points it has wrong. io9 has a fascinating post on past science fiction predictions for 2012 and there’s several of these we can be glad will not happen, like the maximum height for humans being reduced to four feet!
      Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of science fiction predictions is not so much what is predicted, but how it predicts people will respond. Jules Verne’s From Earth To The Moon, as an example, predicted the age of exploration, which was coming to a close in his day, would be revived as man reached out to the heavens, that mankind wouldn’t be content to simply stare at the stars but would want to explore them, and that’s exactly what we’ve done with scientific endeavours like the Hubble Space Telescope.

  2. @ Reihhardt: I completely agree…

    @ Peter: As usual, a great post, but you forgot Star Trek and iPads! Don’t forget the iPads!!!!

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