Thursday, January 21, 2010

Encounters with the Future

While browsing the bookshelves at my neighborhood Salvation Army--not normally fertile ground, unless you really like reading about microwave cookery--I came across the intriguingly-titled Encounters With the Future: Life into the 21st Century. Written in 1982 by the president of a "forecasting firm" called Forecasting International (whose clients included the Department of Defense and the government of Yugoslavia), with some help from an erstwhile reporter for the Washington Post, the book was released by respectable publisher McGraw-Hill, and in a remarkably authoritative tone claims to predict, in detail, the course that humankind would take in the following decades. "Professional forecasting is not a game of chance," the authors sternly insist in the book's introduction. "Nowadays it involves the collection, analysis and synthesis of data, and the extensive use of computers."

From here at the cusp of the millennium's second decade, it's clear that the authors, for all their pomp and fancy credentials, were wrong about almost everything. Often quite whimsical in their false prophecy, other times simply naive, glowing with a childish, Reaganite faith in robots and democracy, they paint a delightfully absurd portrait of an alternate new millennium which was not to be. I thought I'd share some of their quack prognosticating for my readers' enjoyment.

From the outset of the first chapter, the authors are already veering into fantasyland. Presenting Sweden as the "Bellwether Nation" from which the U.S. and the first world will increasing take their cues, they envision a West where there is little divide between rich and poor, unemployment is low and the government provides universal catastrophic medical insurance. "Sweden is a remarkably stable country," the authors note. "It does not export arms, it exports money. Expect the U.S. to look more and more like Sweden."

Things only get further off track from there. The authors predict a boom population of ticked-off elderly voters. "You've heard of the Black Panthers?" they ask provocatively. "Get ready for the Gray Panthers." A section entitled Medicine in Space describes how drug companies will develop cures in zero-gravity. In the realm of world affairs, the Soviet Union for some reason invades Australia. Even when the predictions are correct in spirit, they are often ludicrously off-mark in matters of detail. They correctly foretell massive population growth in the Sun Belt leading to water shortages, but suggest that to address the problem the United States will "begin towing glaciers out of the Arctic to East and West Coast ports where they will be tapped for their water."

Impressively, the spectacular rise of the internet is forecasted in some detail; referred to as "the Cable", the interactive medium will, they say, "touch every aspect of human life." To wit: "At-home banking will make its appearance." As to the entertainment possibilities of "the Cable", the authors are hilariously quaint. "Satellite interconnection of regional cables will make it economical to offer nationwide programs of limited appeal, like a Shakespeare festival put on by university drama groups." And while they are spot-on regarding the large role pornography will come to play on "the Cable", the mechanisms of its delivery are rather off-target. "When a prescribed number of requests for a program is received," they predict, " the program will be transmitted off-hours, recorded on a home video machine priced below $200 and played back by an individual viewer at his or her convenience. People who want them will get their X-rated videos this way so that people who don't want them won't have to watch them."

As to changes in sexual mores, the book predicts the arrival of a "new method of birth control for people who refuse to use birth control"--i.e., strict Catholics. "On insertion into the vagina, this device lights up red if the woman is fertile, and green if she isn't." The growing acceptance of homosexuality is treated rather academically. "We predict that even the Central Intelligence Agency will give security clearances to homosexuals," is all they offer on the subject. In one of the books' more farcical passages, they describe the huge impact of a coming anti-aging drug. "Soon the world's population will shrink as everybody everywhere goes on the drug. In time, the world will begin to achieve a social parity. People will begin to live alike, think alike and even look alike as they age happily toward 200 years," they posit, noting that many people will enjoy active sex lives into their 170s.

They go on and on, and one often marvels that they could have been so wrong about so many things. Then again, the fact that the bumbling authors served as consultants for the Department of Defense explains the military misadventures of years to come. Cars, they foretell, will all be smaller, and made of plastic. On the subject of labor, they insist that "the wave of the future will be robotics," leading to a 25-hour workweek. Wind power, solar power and "gasohol"--what we now call ethanol--will all prove inefficient, and be replaced as energy sources by nuclear fusion.

One thing the authors absolutely nail. "Not all newspapers will survive," they warn, envisioning the rise of electronic newspapers. "Only the fittest, the strongest, and the leanest." But in a concluding invocation of Reagan's rosy "Morning in America", their overriding optimism reaches a jarring crescendo. "Don't be fooled by Depression talk," they insist, sounding more like smarmy politicians than the eagle-eyed clairvoyants they purport to be. "The United States is Depression-proof. The years ahead may be difficult, but on the whole they are years of hope and promise. The majority of us will be better off in the year 2000 than we are today. We'll feel better, we'll look better, and we'll live longer."

It seems prophecy is not as popular a genre as it once was. I remember countless books from my childhood that promised the flying cars and cities-in-a-bubble of an imminent future. In an era, perhaps, when people still had the capacity to be awed by technological advances, anything seemed possible. Now, in 2010, even as we're continually bombarded by new ultra-futuristic technologies--GPS implants, google text, iPhone apps that can identify snippets of music--the scope seems somehow more limited. Medical science hasn't even cured the common cold, let alone raised the lifespan to 200 years. For all our fancy robots, the bulk of humanity is still resigned to working like dogs, 40+ hours a week. And the income gap, that old standby, has only gotten wider. Wars still rage, drug addiction remains rampant, and many of our cars are bigger than ever. If this is the pot of gold which technology promised us, it's little surprise today's general attitude is more jaded. People now don't even seem as inclined to imagine the future--the present is headache enough.