Locus Online



23 February 2009

Pitfalls of Prophecy:
Why Science Fiction So Often Fails to Predict the Future

by Gary Westfahl

As a person regarded in some circles as an expert on science fiction, I was once asked to give a presentation offering some predictions about the future; science fiction writers routinely face the same request. The problem, as many have noted, is that nothing about reading or writing science fiction naturally provides anyone with any special ability to foresee the future, and science fiction writers repeatedly explain that they never really attempt to predict the future, but rather are only exploring a variety of possible futures to provide readers with entertainment or food for thought. Perhaps Harlan Ellison put it best in a 1982 article, "Cheap Thrills on the Road to Hell":

In the mistaken belief that just because I occasionally write fantasy stories extrapolating some bizarre future America I am privy to Delphic insights, the editors of the [Los Angeles] Times have asked me to unleash some wry conceits about what we can expect. Little do they understand that writers are merely paid liars and we know no more than the rest of you.

And, if science fiction at times seems to have gotten the future right — Jules Verne's submarine, the Apollo moon landings, William Gibson's cyberspace, etc. — that can be attributed solely to the law of averages: after all, if a body of literature makes thousands and thousands of predictions, at least a few of them are bound to end up being true. It is the same principle that has kept a lot of psychics in business.

Still, I would like to argue that science fiction may actually be helpful in predicting the future, albeit in a convoluted way, if a certain procedure is followed. First, a person could examine the past predictions of science fiction regarding our own era and detect the underlying logical fallacies that made most of them wildly inaccurate. Then, having identified the erroneous patterns of thought that led those science fiction writers astray, one could consider some current science fiction predictions about our future, identify them as additional illustrations of these proven fallacies, and conclude that they are almost certainly wrong. Finally, one might logically assume that predictions radically different from the rejected predictions from science fiction are likely to be correct.

To test this procedure, I first surveyed a number of errant predictions from past science fiction and deduced that they were based on one or more of seven dubious assumptions, which I will now list and discuss as the Fallacies of Prediction.


1. The Fallacy of Universal Wealth. This is the assumption that all governments and individuals in the future will be wealthy, so they can afford any technological advances that they desire. A similar premise with identical consequences — the Fallacy of Infinite Price Reduction — is that all technological advances will steadily become cheaper and cheaper until, finally, virtually everyone can afford them.

For example: Consider one standard vision of the future metropolis — towering skyscrapers joined by soaring walkways; pedestrians traveling to their destinations on moving sidewalks; a huge dome over the central city to maintain perfect climate control. As it happens, we could readily build such a city today, using only existing technology. But what municipal government could possibly afford to install moving sidewalks or build a dome over its downtown area? Imagine campaigning for the job of mayor of New York City on a platform of imposing a 50% local sales tax in order to pay for the installation of moving sidewalks throughout the city.

But will advances in technology eventually make such innovations so dirt cheap that any city could afford them? Probably not: it is true that, once introduced, new devices do tend to steadily become cheaper, but the process does not continue indefinitely. The prices of color television sets went down dramatically from the 1950s to the 1970s, but for a long time, a color television of decent dimensions continued to cost about $200, while VCR's bottomed out at around $150. In short, something that is very expensive today will indeed be cheaper in the future, but we cannot assume that it will become so amazingly cheap that almost everybody can afford it.

2. The Fallacy of Replacement. This is the assumption that, once we develop an advanced scientific method to do something, we will immediately abandon all the old methods.

Early science fiction is full of such predictions. In Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (1925), Ralph at one point uses his Menograph to automatically record his thoughts on paper — an invention "which entirely superseded the pen and pencil." Yet earlier in the novel, Ralph had given his long-distance autograph, and a later invention that records voices is justified as a way to avoid problems with forged signatures. Obviously, people in Ralph's future were still finding it appropriate at times to use the pen and pencil. Or consider David H. Keller's classic story "The Revolt of the Pedestrians" (1928), which envisioned that advances in mobile transportation would lead people to never walk at all, creating a dominant class of people unable to walk around on their legs.

Generally speaking, however, when humanity finds a seemingly better way to do something, the new way does become popular, but the old way is never abandoned; it is simply used less often, or only in certain situations.

Consider writing: every system for recording words ever devised by the human race is still being employed today. Stone tablets? Still used for solemn public pronouncements, such as tombstones and monuments. Pen and paper? Still the most convenient, portable, and flexible way to record data, and an ideal medium to convey personal conviction; thus, in the 1980s, when President Reagan wanted to persuade a skeptical Soviet president that he was sincerely interested in arms control, he sent him a handwritten letter with that message. Typewriters? Still useful for odd chores, like filling out forms that would otherwise demand some complicated preparation for printing from a computer, and still preferred by writers like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. People can now add to their computers devices that will record their voices and provide transcriptions; however, even if they can afford them, most people still prefer to use a keyboard.

Or consider transportation; every system for traveling from one place to another ever used by people is still used today. Although a wheelchair or Segway could readily provide people with smooth, wheeled transportation, most people still prefer to walk, Keller's dire prediction notwithstanding. Horses are still ridden for recreation and in some places — like cities — are increasingly used by police officers as an efficient way to get around. Boats, carriages, rickshaws, bicycles, cars, gliders, balloons, dirigibles .... all of them are still regularly employed today, at least to a limited extent.

Is the human body going to shrivel away as people become dependent on technology to perform all their chores? Hardly; the growth of new technological alternatives to traditional activities has also witnessed the most explosive growth in physical exercise ever observed. Yes, some people are living their lives as coach potatoes, but many others are not eschewing physical activities; in fact, a vast subculture of individuals are now pumping iron and running down our streets every day, trying to make their bodies stronger and more attractive, enjoying their bodies more than ever.

If anything distinguished the twentieth century, in fact, it was the persistence and the re-emergence of old habits alongside the introduction of new habits. Who could have imagined that two of the growth industries in the late twentieth century would have been astrology and tattooing, the once-vanishing predecessors to astronomy and colorful items of clothing?

In short, if future science does produce a better mousetrap, or a new pastime, it will surely become popular — but some people, in some situations, will keep on using the old mousetraps and will stick with the old pastimes as well.

3. The Fallacy of Inevitable Technology. This is the assumption that if there emerges a new, technological way to do something, it will inevitably be adopted. Thus, while the Fallacy of Replacement falsely posits that the new, improved product will entirely replace older alternatives, the Fallacy of Inevitable Technology assumes more modestly that the new, improved product will at least always be put to use to some extent. But even this modest assumption is not always justified.

Consider the electric toothbrush, first marketed in the 1960s. Every right-thinking family of the time purchased one, like my family. But, after using it for a few months, my family, like almost every other family, drifted back to using standard toothbrushes. Recently, electric toothbrushes have again been aggressively marketed, with some modest success, but the vast majority of people still have not chosen to use them. Let's face it; to quickly and effectively scour food particles off of your teeth, nothing beats a small stick with a brush on it.

More broadly, popular depictions of the future once assumed that atomic energy, as the energy source of the future, would become ubiquitous in human society: "Hey, dad, can I use the atomic car tonight?" "Sure, son, but make sure to fill up the isotopes." Yet, as the inherent dangers of radioactivity were better understood, it became clear that this sort of energy would never be widely used in everyday life, and even advocates of nuclear energy would probably concede that, when other energy sources are eventually developed, it would probably be best to avoid using nuclear energy altogether. Another example would be those rocket engines placed on people's backs so they can fly through the sky; as a concept, sure, it works, and there have even been some test models constructed, but somehow, I just cannot warm to the idea of strapping a machine on my back which, if its energies are only slightly misdirected, will incinerate my legs. Given the inherent safety problems, it seems that rocket engines will always be found only in rockets, not on people's backs.

So, just because we may be able to construct a certain product in the future, that does not necessarily mean that we will construct that product, or that we will use it to any significant extent.

4. The Fallacy of Extrapolation. This is the assumption that an identified trend will always continue in the same manner, indefinitely into the future.

Thus, George Orwell in the 1940s observed steady growth in totalitarian governments and predicted that the trend would continue until it engulfed the entire world by the year Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" (1965) announced increasing regulation of human time and envisioned a future world entirely under the thumb of a repressive Ticktockman, shortening the lives of all those who dared to be late. And innumerable prognosticators, noticing that the extent of clothing that society requires people to wear has steadily declined during the last century, have confidently predicted the future acceptance of complete public nudity.

The trouble is, trends don't always continue — in fact, they rarely due. Indeed, tendencies may even reverse; thus, instead of witnessing a growth in the power of government, the last decades actually witnessed a significant growth in the power of individuals. Some trends level out: while the move to industrial civilization did produce an abrupt increase in our awareness of time, there has been no discernible further increase, and I can't see any evidence that people today are more obsessed with punctuality than they were three decades ago. In fact, in places like the Silicon Valley, businesses are probably less concerned about punctuality than their predecessors. And some trends do not take the form of straight lines: true, graph the amount of required clothing in the 1930s, and the amount of required clothing in the 1950s, connect the lines, and you could have predicted that the amount of required clothing in the 1970s would be zero. However, the curve defining the amount of clothing that society requires people to wear appears to be not a line, but a hyperbola, the curve that keeps getting closer and closer to zero without ever touching the horizontal axis; so, bathing suits get skimpier and skimpier, but show no signs of vanishing altogether. Yes, just as a calculator calculating 1/X for increasing values of X will eventually give up and give you an answer of zero, complete nudity may eventually become acceptable, but whether that will take years, decades, or centuries to occur seems impossible to say.

5. The Fallacy of Analogy. This is the assumption that a new technology will be adopted and employed in the same manner as a related form of previous technology.

As one example, Gernsback in the 1920s built upon the idea of solar power to envision massive solar power plants, acres and acres of panels moving around to face the sun and generate huge amounts of electricity to pipe into people's homes. But a more entertaining version of this fallacy occurs in those delightful portrayals, in The Jetsons cartoons and elsewhere, of future air travel, closely modeled on automobile travel: you know, everybody has a little plane on their roofs, and they go to work by moving into the proper highway in the sky, demarcated by traffic signs and lights and patrolled by traffic cops on flying motorcycles who pull flyers over for going too fast or missing a floating stop sign.

However, new technologies usually must be implemented in new ways. Solar power makes much more sense if deployed as needed in small units for individual homes and businesses; huge solar power plants, except perhaps as Earth-orbiting satellites beaming energy down to the surface, don't make a great deal of sense. Air travel is not, and cannot be, like automobile travel. Of course, one reason all American citizens aren't flying their own airplanes today relates to the aforementioned Fallacy of Universal Wealth — airplanes remain vastly more expensive than cars — but there are other factors that explain why they haven't taken the place of cars in our society. Flying an airplane is really complicated, as anyone who has looked at a modern cockpit can readily discern. It is a skill that demands a tremendous amount of time and ability to master, a skill that many probably can never master. We have enough trouble as it is with sixteen-year-olds trying to learn the relatively simple art of driving a car; imagine the carnage that would ensue if they were all flying airplanes, for heaven's sake. And it is simply not practical — not to mention aesthetically disastrous — to regulate flying machines by setting up floating traffic markers in the sky; sure, planes nearing airports do travel in definite paths, but these are defined by radar alone and can be followed only by pilots who are attentively watching an array of instruments.

6. The Fallacy of Universal Stupidity. This is the assumption that people in the future will be capable of making incredibly stupid mistakes, and getting into incredible messes, that could have been avoided with even the tiniest bit of forethought.

Science fiction writer David Brin has waxed eloquent about this problem in an essay entitled "Our Favorite Cliché: A World Filled With Idiots ... or Why Fiction Routinely Depicts Society and Its Citizens as Fools." Examples are not hard to come up with. For decades, science fiction stories routinely assumed that humanity would launch a worldwide nuclear war, producing a devastated planet; other nightmare scenarios have included future worlds that have, without taking any meaningful action, allowed the world's population to expand to the point where there is standing room only, have allowed the atmosphere to become impossible to breath, or have allowed rampant environmental destruction to transform the planet into a hellhole. Some science fiction stories are even laughable in their depictions of future stupidity: a notorious example is Frederik Pohl's "The Midas Plague" (1954), memorably eviscerated by Damon Knight, which describes a future world where advanced technology has inexorably led to massive overproduction of goods, forcing citizens to devote most of their waking hours to unhappily consuming all of these unnecessary goods. Now, you don't have to belong to MENSA to think up six sensible solutions to this problem in about a minute, but the denizens of Pohl's future world carry on stuffing themselves with unwanted food and constantly wearing out new clothes until somebody suddenly realizes that they could get their robots to do all the consumption. Well, duh, as our teenagers today would say ....

Of course, one could say that the jury is still out on this issue: perhaps humanity will engage in a worldwide nuclear war, perhaps future humans will allow population growth and environmental destruction to proceed to the point where the planet becomes virtually unlivable, and so on. However, we should note that, for more than sixty years, the governments of this world have wisely refrained from engaging in nuclear war, and that all of the other potential dangers to life on Earth are being intensely studied, regularly discussed, and at least to an extent acted upon. It does not seem to require extraordinary optimism to imagine that our descendants, observing that their lives are threatened, will take meaningful and appropriate steps to prevent their own deaths.

7. The Fallacy of Drama. This is the assumption that major changes will occur in a quick and noticeable fashion, as a result of a single major event or of the actions of a single individual.

There are, of course, embedded in the human psyche certain preferred patterns of narrative that shape both our fictions and our predictions, and these inevitably prefer a single, dramatic crisis or a single, heroic protagonist. Few things are more exciting or involving than a massive disaster, which is surely why so many predictions of our contemporary self-proclaimed seers involve global catastrophes. If you choose to believe those dubious documentaries presenting these people's prognostications, the future will invariably be extremely unpleasant, as there will be devastating volcanic eruptions; huge earthquakes; oceans flooding the land; ruinous nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare; giant asteroids bombarding the Earth; plagues and pestilences .... the list goes on and on. And why not think along these lines? Let's face it; if someone claiming the power to predict the future announced that, "Well, as far as I can see, life is going to keep on going pretty much the same," she is unlikely to attract much attention.

Less catastrophic changes in future societies, in science fiction, are typically ascribed to the actions of a single person. In John Taine's The Time Stream (1930), for example, a future world assigns pairs of people to get married on the basis of logical analyses of their genetic patterns. Then, one bold woman announces that she wishes to marry for love, and she launches a social movement to sanction marriage based on love — a movement which proves effective, even though ultimately disastrous for her society.

However, catastrophes, and the actions of a few good men or women, are rarely the mechanisms that change human civilization. Major disasters, affecting vast areas and causing millions of deaths, are extraordinarily rare in human history; and as for the actions of single individuals, one can point to a few people who have indeed changed the course of history, but many social changes occur almost invisibly and without identifiable agents. In the 1950s, living together without being married was strongly disapproved of in American society; by the 1970s, however, it was generally accepted. This sea change in attitudes did not occur because a single brave woman, in the manner of Taine's novel, stood before a massive crowd, loudly demanded her right to live with a man without marrying him, and led a popular campaign to allow couples to do this; rather, in the midst of numerous social upheavals and demands for new attitudes, the American public, employing their own collective wisdom, gradually reached a consensus that living together without marriage just wasn't a big deal any more.


Now, having identified these common fallacies, we can proceed to the next stage of examining some current science fiction predictions about humanity's future and debunk them on the basis of the detectable fallacies that have engendered them.

1. The Conquest of Space. Perhaps in no other area have prognosticators been so disappointed, yet so determined to carry on with their predictions. By now, according to the consensus future of the science fiction of a few decades ago, we were supposed to have several space stations, bases on the Moon and Mars, explorers on the way to other planets, and a society that incorporated space travel as a readily available opportunity for job-seekers, adventurers, and vacationers. Even today, when human progress into the cosmos has visibly slowed to a crawl, enthusiasts continue to promote plans for new, cheap, and efficient spacecraft that will make these dreams practical at last and inspire a new era of space exploration and colonization.

What are the problems? First, as already alluded to, that cousin to the Fallacy of Universal Wealth, the Fallacy of Infinite Price Reduction, is definitely involved: space travel has never gotten particularly cheap, and proposed new initiatives appear unlikely to make it much cheaper. More broadly, there have been issues with the Fallacy of Analogy. Space travel was supposed to be just like air travel; and, since air travel progressed from the Wright Brothers to regular commercial flights in about forty years, writers anticipated similar progress from Yuri Gagarin in 1961 to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The trouble is, space travel is a lot more difficult, and a lot more dangerous, than air travel, and there really were no defensible grounds for ever expecting Southwest Airlines to be flying to the Moon by now.

Further, much space fiction was premised on another questionable analogy between outer space and America: just as repressed Europeans traveled to America, started new lives, and achieved their independence from Europe, future space travelers, it was believed, would settle on the Moon or Mars or in space habitats, build new lives, and become independent from Earth. But space is infinitely more inhospitable than America ever was. Imagine being a real estate agent trying to sell someone a piece of property on the Moon: here's a place to live that has no air, no water, no sources of food, and extreme temperature conditions, a place to live where you instantly die if you happen to walk out the door without elaborate protective clothing. Are you ready to move in? As I've noted elsewhere, if someone wants to make an analogy between space and some area of Earth, the best choice would be not America but Antarctica, a frozen wasteland that remains to this day inhabited only by small groups of scientists, and there have been no observed clamorings from the oppressed people of Earth for the right to emigrate to the South Pole and launch a new civilization.

2. Human Cloning. Well, the argument goes, if we've cloned sheep, human beings — which as organisms really aren't any more complicated than sheep — cannot be far behind. And science fiction stories and popular science articles have envisioned many applications of this new technology: megalomaniac corporate barons could clone themselves so that, as they grew old, they could pass their empires on to younger versions of themselves, or perhaps even transplant their old brains into their new bodies; a person could clone her body with the brain removed and keep it alive as a convenient and ideal source for replacement organs; superior and desirable individuals could be duplicated to benefit society — every baseball team could have its own Alex Rodriguez, and every concert hall could have its own Placido Domingo; in fact, if we simply duplicated all the people we liked instead of going through the business of making babies the old-fashioned way, we might threaten the biological diversity of the human race and create a civilization consisting of nothing but a small number of ideal citizens infinitely duplicated.

Well, none of these things have happened so far, despite occasional, dubious claims to the contrary, and it is hard to see them happening in the foreseeable future. I can't really see any of these things happening. In the first place, cloning complex creatures appears to be inherently more problematic than cloning simple creatures, so that creating completing healthy duplicates of individuals from material in their cells is hard to guarantee — the Fallacy of Analogy. Next, there is the Fallacy of Inevitable Technology — just because we can do something does not mean that we necessarily will do something, and with firm bans on human cloning already in place or about to be implemented in most technological societies, it's clear that moral and ethical concerns about cloning human beings will at least delay, and possibly forever ban, any of the scenarios above. Consider also the Fallacy of Universal Wealth; keeping spare people alive costs money. Maintaining a comatose person in a hospital bed can costs hundreds of dollars a day; imagine the expense of keeping your replacement body alive for forty years until you need a new cornea or kidney. Cloning will surely remain a pastime of the rich if it is allowed at all. As for concerns that people will eliminate all human diversity and doom the race to extinction for the questionable pleasure of endless duplicates of Elvis or Madonna, we run right into the Fallacy of Universal Stupidity.

3. Asteroid Impacts. These are currently the most popular environmental disaster being envisioned in alarmist documentaries and the like. These stem from the Fallacy of Drama. Personally, I lost interest when one noted expert, while being interviewed for one of those alarmist documentaries, confessed that the odds of a massive asteroid actually striking the Earth in the near future were something like one hundred million to one. Now, I can sleep nights.

Some commentators have focused on other potential astronomical disasters that seem even more unlikely: a wandering black hole could enter our Solar System and start devouring planets, or a massive hypernova could explode in our galaxy and bathe our planet in radiation intense enough to destroy all organic life. And there is the old standby, a race of malevolent aliens who decide that they must conquer the Earth. Now, no one can say that such events are impossible; but any reasonable consideration of the odds involved would inexorably lead to the conclusion that they are extraordinarily improbable.

4. A World Controlled by Multinational Corporations. This has been a recent concern in the wake of innumerable mergers that are seemingly creating larger and larger corporations; it is further supposed that these huge entities, powerful enough to resist any regulation by governments, will keep growing and growing, start doing whatever they like to do, and eventually become the true masters of the world.

Here is a classic example of the Fallacy of Extrapolation. In the first place, individual companies that rise dramatically can also fall dramatically; watching the 1982 Blade Runner today, for example, we are struck by visions of a future world dominated by, among others, the Atari Company. Well, in 1982, it may have looked like Atari had a stranglehold on the video game industry, but soon enough, Nintendo came along, and Atari shriveled away. As for this general trend toward huge multinational corporations, there is no reason to believe this will continue indefinitely until the entire world is in the hands of a few companies. In fact, one clearly discernible trend in recent years has been the emergence and growing prominence of innumerable small companies, each finding their own niche and thriving despite competition from larger competitors.

5. The Depletion of All Natural Resources. This is the notion that future humans will use up every ounce of fossil fuels, cut down the last tree in the last rain forest, extract all useful minerals from the ground, and leave the world drained of resources and helpless to carry on as an advanced civilization.

Such nightmare scenarios might be attributed to the Fallacy of Drama or the Fallacy of Extrapolation, but they are mostly indicative of the Fallacy of Universal Stupidity. In observing an apparent complacency towards these potential problems today, commentators may mistake a commonsensical focus on the present with willful blindness to danger. Told that certain resources may run out in seventy years, most people are not going to be moved to action; in seventy years, they will probably be dead, and their children may be dead as well. People have other things to worry about. However, told that certain resources may run out in two years, people will move vigorously to preserve what is left and develop substitutes for, or alternatives to the use of, those endangered resources. In the 1930s, when the problems in Europe and Asia seemed remote, Americans focused on their own problems, seemingly complacent about impending danger; but in the 1940s, when those problems clearly threatened their own existence, Americans responded with remarkable energy to confront and overcome their foreign enemies. People are not stupid; people are not going to ignore the coming loss of needed materials and resources when the problem is truly imminent; people will, most likely, display astounding ingenuity and effort in the face of such problems.

6. The Decline of Marriage. Noting increases in divorce rates and the numbers of people living together without getting married, science fiction has regularly posited that the institution of marriage will become less and less significant in the future, and may even fade away altogether. One common prediction is that marriage will be redefined as a contract with a fixed time: couples would get married for, say, a period of five years, and at the end of that time they could either renew their contracts for another five years or terminate the relationship simply by failing to renew their contracts.

This again illustrates the Fallacy of Extrapolation, employing the same logic that said that we would all be walking around naked in public by now. In fact, divorce rates have more or less stabilized in recent years, and the most significant social movement in the early twenty-first century has been the campaign of gays and lesbians to earn the same right to get married as heterosexual couples now enjoy. If anything, then, the institution of marriage may be becoming even more prominent and important than it was in the past.

7. The Tuned-In, Virtual Citizenry. As they come to enjoy the pleasures and safety of a virtual world, this scenario goes, people will spend all their time in computer-generated simulations, becoming addicted to various artificial experiences and pleasures. In one extreme scenario, James Gunn's 1960 novel The Joy Makers envisions that people in the future will universally elect to have their brains hooked up to electrodes directly stimulating their pleasure centers, providing perpetual pleasure while leaving them in perpetual stasis.

These predictions stem from the Fallacy of Replacement, the belief that new sources of enjoyment will inevitably replace old sources of enjoyment. Movies, television, and video games have not eliminated hiking, bicycling, or soccer games, and virtual reality isn't going to either. If you want to spend your life perpetually stimulating your pleasure centers without doing anything else, an endless supply of alcohol or marijuana will do that pretty well, but most people still prefer to spend most of their time doing something else. Undoubtedly a few people, like William Gibson's Count Zero (1986), will in fact choose to hook their bodies up to a computer and stay in cyberspace forever, but the vast majority of people will be happy to sign on only occasionally and spend the rest of their time engaged in other activities.


Thus, I would argue, I have employed my experimental procedure to indicate that all of these common science fiction predictions are unlikely, so that we have some idea of what the future will probably not be like; but there remains the challenge of employing these conclusions to develop a contrasting picture of what the future will be like.

I should note that the business of predicting the future by negating other dubious predictions is not my invention; rather, I learned it from Jack Smith, the late columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Every year, he would browse through the tabloid magazines and consider some of their typically outrageous predictions for the coming year: Princess Diana was going to enter a nunnery; Frank Sinatra was going to run for President; the entire population of Rio de Janiero would see a gigantic image of the face of Jesus Christ in the sky. And Smith would offer his "counter-predictions": I counter-predict, he would say, that Princess Diana will not enter a nunnery, I counter-predict that Frank Sinatra will not run for President, I counter-predict that the entire population of Rio de Janiero will not see a gigantic image of Jesus, and so on. And year after year, his predictions were, unfailingly, 100% accurate.

Indeed, a refusal to believe in extravagant and extraordinarily new developments in the future is remarkably logical. For, no matter how much we may desire, or fear, a radically altered future, we can observe throughout our history remarkable continuities in human activities and behavior. Consider, for a moment, everything that you did yesterday, and how your day would compare to a similar day 100 years ago. Some of your actions, of course, would be entirely unfamiliar to your ancestors: you used a computer to check your e-mail, you sent out a fax, you called a business associate on your cell phone, you watched some television, you played a video game. However, most of your activities today would be entirely familiar to a person from the distant past: you woke up from a bed that, aside from some space-age materials in it, was similar in design to the beds of one hundred years ago; you ate a breakfast, lunch, and dinner featuring foods similar to those eaten one hundred years, consumed while you sat at a table and employed utensils just like those employed by people one hundred years ago; you spent most of the day meeting, talking, and working with people, just like people one hundred years ago; and if it was Friday or Saturday, you spent your evening at a party, a movie, or a concert, socializing with your friends, just like people one hundred years ago.

So, while human life in the future will undoubtedly change in many small and large ways, it is reasonable to predict that, by and large, people will continue to act in the ways that they have acted in the past. In the manner of Smith, then, I can briskly counter-predict that, in the future, humanity will not rapidly spread throughout the Solar System, will not be inundated with human clones, will not be destroyed by an asteroid impact, will not be entirely under the control of multinational corporations, will not exhaust all of Earth's natural resources, will not abandon the institution of marriage, and will not entirely retreat from reality to live in virtual worlds.

If you are looking for some more adventurous predictions, I can make use of the fact that sometimes, people have not only failed to embrace new technologies and new habits, but they have actively returned to old technologies and old habits (recall the examples of astrology and tattoos). So, let me make a few guesses along these lines. In the future, there will be a resurgence in the art of handwriting, as people with access to computers that can instantly print innumerable pages in any sort of font will rediscover the special magic of taking the time to push a pen across the page to express one's thoughts. To ensure that their real handwriting is not mistaken for computer simulations, people may go back to using fountain pens, or their somewhat more convenient equivalent, the cartridge pen, so as to provide the smears and drops of ink that will unmistakably convey personal effort. Mathematics instruction in western countries will turn back to the slide rule; the results it provides may not be as accurate as those from a calculator, but learning a slide rule necessarily includes learning how to think mathematically, and a correctly used slide rule will never yield the sort of huge error that can easily result from hitting the wrong button on those increasingly tiny calculators. Finally, noticing the popularity of tattooing and body-piercing, one can safely predict that other forms of body alteration and mutilation, now observed only in documentaries about peoples in remote areas of the world, will move into contemporary society. Are you ready for lips stretched out to form large disks the size of CDs? Earlobes extending down to the neck? Anything that human beings once chose to do to their own bodies will, someday, be done again.

In arguing that our human future will largely be the same as today, or will even involve scattered returns to past traditions, I may confront the accusation that I am hopelessly conservative, an old fuddy-duddy, someone hopelessly attached to the past and afraid of the future. However, as a person who can surf the Internet and help Mario beat Bowser with the best of them, I cannot be entirely characterized as someone doggedly behind the times. My stance is not that of a blind reactionary, but rather of someone who recognizes, after spending much of his life reading about the past, present, and future of humanity, that the history of human life on Earth cannot be accurately described as a steady progress from an imagined primitivism to an imagined state of civilization; rather, it is best characterized as a steady expansion in the number of choices available to humans. Today, you can live in the past, you can live in the present, or you can live in the future; that is, you can choose to do only what your ancestors did, you can choose to do what everybody else is doing today, or you can choose to do what only a few pioneers are doing now but what many others will be doing tomorrow. Our descendants in the future will have even more choices than we do today, but many of them, much of the time, will undoubtedly choose to do exactly what we are doing now, just like many of us, much of the time, choose to do what our ancestors were doing. Human life in the future, then, will be more variegated, but not necessarily very different, than our own lives. And, if that does not sound quite as exciting as the hopeful scenarios of futurists or the dystopian nightmares of science fiction, it is the best prediction of the future I can offer at the moment.

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