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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cory Doctorow: Making Smarter Dumb Mistakes About the Future

Last Christmas, my family took a trip to Walt Disney World, and, as is now-traditional, I dragged them onto the Carousel of Progress, the beating heart of Tomorrowland. The Carousel began life as a GE exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair, a watershed moment for Disney's theme park business, since the Fair's sponsors could be persuaded to part with big bucks that WED, the engineering arm of Disney, could use for R&D on new ride and exhibit technology. GE's Carousel of Progress bankrolled the robotics R&D that gave us the Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and other animatronic-intensive theme park classics.

The Carousel of Progress is one of my all-time favorite Disney attractions — I even wrote a long novella about it, "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now Is the Best Time of Your Life" for Jonathan Strahan's forthcoming anthology Godlike Machines. Here's the gimmick: you are loaded into a theater shaped like one wedge of a pie, with a stage before it. The curtain parts, revealing robots depicting a family from the turn of the 20th century, who do a little singing and gag-telling schtick about the promise of electricity. The lights come down, and the theater rotates around the stage, moving to the next scene (meanwhile, in the next wedge-shaped theater over, a new group has just been loaded into the opening segment). Around and around you go, viewing three sequences about the progress of technology in the 20th century, with special emphasis on the role that electricity (and GE) played in the American century.

Then you come to the grand finale, a segment depicting the near-future of technology. In the original, 1964 incarnation, this focused on some marginally speculative GE products, like self-cleaning ovens, electric dishwashers, and hi-fi sets, as well as such safe predictions as passenger jet service. This final sequence aged rather badly and had to be re-done for the Carousel's 1967 installation in Disneyland's Tomorrowland, which also had the problem of being routinely overtaken by tomorrow.

The current generation of the show, dating to 1994, was slightly more ambitious in its futurism, but much, much more wrong about the future it predicted. Its finale opens upon Christmas eve, 1999, where the family has gathered for its annual tryptophan orgy. There's a tree, a flat-screen, HD set, a video-game console with a VR headset and glove, and a laptop in a little nook off to the side. In the course of a brief sketch, we see the whole family gather around the electronic hearth to first watch Grandma beat the pants off junior at Space Ace, then the Disney World Christmas fireworks. Dad programs the voice-activated electric range to cook the turkey (he still managed to burn it), and uses the house's home-automation system to dim the electric lights on the tree. And Mom sits with her laptop and laughs along with the gang.

This five-year-out prediction got pretty much every single detail of 1999 wrong, and badly so. What's more, they got it all wrong in a way that is particular to all forms of bad science fiction, especially that most profitable of subgenres, corporate futurism.

Let's take a look at some of the fallacies in the 1999-of-1994 depicted in the Carousel:


When confronted with a new technology and asked to predict its application, it's tempting to look for existing, unsolved problems to which the technology might apply. For example, in a notorious early ad for personal computing, Honeywell depicted a satisfied, modish hausfrau cheerfully setting the dip-switches on her kitchen's PC in order to recall recipes. It's easy to follow their thinking: Computers are used by giant companies to store and manipulate files in the workplace. What files do housewives have to store and manipulate? Recipes! This is the "horseless carriage" fallacy: tomorrow's world will be like today, but moreso. Faster transport will get us to the same places, but faster. Faster communications will let us talk to the same people, but better.

So it's natural to think that HD television will be twice as unifying as old, standard-def sets (in fact, one of the big selling points for HD is that it will allow a small percentage of the household, usually Dad, to watch sports matches with his friends, while the rest of the family waits it out somewhere else).


Call this one the Fallacy of the Entertainment Industry, for they have committed this sin more publicly than anyone else. This is the idea that technology will develop enough to achieve some end, and then stop. For example: microchips and optical drives will progress to the point that everyone can afford to have half a dozen CD players around the house, but they won't become so advanced that home users will be able to rip them to MP3, load them into minuscule personal media players, and share them over the Internet. Or: microchips and networks will become so ubiquitous and cheap that we'll be able to provide video-on-demand services to the home, but not so cheap and ubiquitous that viewers will be able to share the same shows online.


Thinking weird is important if you're going to get the future right (imagine trying to explain World of Warcraft to the attendees at the 1964 World's Fair), but "there's such a fine line between clever and stupid." For example, home automation systems are still looking for a home (so to speak) and they may never find one. But the applications imagined by the Carousel — dimming Christmas tree lights and reprogramming the oven — aren't weird, they're just dumb. If you have the physical strength and coordination to actually put a turkey in an oven, then you have the wherewithal to press some buttons on its front to set the time and temperature. And who ever heard of wanting to dim the Christmas tree lights?

I don't know how to predict the future, and I never will. But I do know how not to predict it: don't stick to your boss's comfort zone by predicting that doing exactly what you're doing now is exactly the right thing to do forever.

Like I said, the Carousel is one of my most cherished Disney park attractions, and with good reason. As a science fiction writer, it's hard to imagine someone making a better example of exactly how the future can go wrong. I only wish they'd restore the 1964 show, along with the miniature domed city after the show, through which Mother and Father narrated the joys of their Jane Jacobs nightmare town, with its strictly regimented planning and zoning.

Getting the future wrong has consequences, as the rustbelt and its displaced industrial workforce can attest. We could do worse than to study how that happens.

From the March 2010 issue of Locus Magazine



Blogger John Lambshead said...

The biggest mistake about future prediction is to assume that society will remain unchanged except for better gizmos. Key technical developments alter behaviour. An example is the contraceptive pill. It did not help 1950s housewives 'plan their families'. It changed women's behaviour.

A second error is to assume that because something can be done that it will be done. Just because something is technically possible does not mean that it is economically viable - the Concorde fallacy.

March 3, 2010 11:45 PM  
OpenID brainwane said...

The Future: A Retrospective is a 2007 audit of the 1989 prediction book "Future Stuff." From the summary:

"What I didn't expect was the sheer variety of ways in which the predictions were wrong....

"Some of them exist more or less as described ("Flat TV"). Some exist more or less as described but nobody buys them ("Vending Machine French Fries"). Some are too expensive to be practical ("Privacy Windows"). Some were big hits in totally different fields than the ones they were marketed to ("Binocular Glasses", "Self-Stirring Saucepan"). Many exist in greatly improved form thanks to mobile phones ("Watch Pager") and the Internet ("Weather Cube", "The Guerilla Information Network")—two technologies that existed when Future Stuff was published, yet which don't seem to be mentioned at all.

"Some achieved success by abandoning the high-tech trappings with which Future Stuff burdens them ("Telephone Smart Cards", "Solar-Powered Cooker"). Some made a fortune ("Impotency Pills") for someone other than the person mentioned in Future Stuff. Some failed because of tragic flaws ("Frozen Beverage Mug", "Non-Fattening Fat"), others for contingent reasons of history ("Digital Tape Measure", "Self-Weeding Lawn"). Some remain pipe dreams today ("The Flying Car"). And some ("Mood Suit") were just ridiculous.

"...One thing you'll see over and over again is a race between inflation and Moore's Law. Moore's Law wins big time."

March 4, 2010 4:00 AM  
Blogger Charley Deppner said...

Do you think when creating something like CoP, Disney feels obligated to its corporate politics regarding the longevity of standards such as the CD vs. MP3 (circa. 1994)?

RE: Dimming the Xmas Lights- Lutron (Dimmer switches) is a massive partner with Disney Parks and are always looking for opportunities to display home uses of the dimming tech which Disney uses so profoundly in their attractions. Do you believe Disney scripts their spiels to suit potential sponsorship. Me thinks, "Yes."

Great article, Cory.

And Ben Franklin remains at Epcot's American Experience and not at Hall of Presidents. *Wink-Wink*Nudge-Nudge*

March 4, 2010 7:02 AM  
Blogger irvingprime said...

Is it really so horrible for a prediction to be wrong? If we make no predictions at all, we lose the ability to be inspired by possibilities and therefore develop the new ideas that we hope will create them. But making correct predictions is virtually impossible because we can't know what possibilities other people will see that we haven't seen ourselves.

March 14, 2010 9:05 AM  
Blogger Rich Baldwin said...

"[T]omorrow's world will be like today, but moreso." Well said, but herein lies the difficulty: finding what is essential about a particular moment in order to understand exactly what will be "moreso". Housewives, for instance, did not begin to organize their recipes on a computer because a) the role of housewife did not include this form of technical mastery (a conservative social pressure), and b) women progressively rejected in larger and larger margins the stagnant role of housewife (a liberal social pressure). Recognizing the vagaries of social forces, and the technologies that will elicit alterations within that context - there's the "today" of your above quote. No wonder we get "moreso" wrong so well and so often, if "today" is so difficult to comprehend . . ..

March 15, 2010 12:41 PM  
Blogger The Uncredible Hallq said...

I'm not sure the "recipe PC" thing is that dumb. My girlfriend gets recipes online all the time. Having it still be done with dip switchers is kinda dumb, but getting that kind of details about technology right isn't the main point of SF. If I could go back and time and write perfectly accurate predictions of the future, passing them off as science fiction, my description of Google would probably contain irrelevant technical inaccuracies to make it easier for 1900 people to understand.

Also, the alleged "tomorrow's world will be like today, but moreso" is a pretty accurate description of the history of porn.

March 27, 2010 1:07 PM  
Blogger Joe Iriarte said...

I don't know what this says about me, but when I find science fiction that really imagines a wildly different civilization, instead of "like today, but more so," I pretty much find it unreadable. Maybe that means I read science fiction for the wrong reasons, or that I'm seeking escape. *shrug* I pretty much want my characters to be recognizably human, though enhancements are fine, and I want to feel like I understand what they are striving for.

If you took someone from the distant past and brought them into our society, and figured a way around the language barrier, would they be fascinated by us, or would they be repulsed by our society and want to return home as quickly as possible?

In any case, this was a fascinating read; thanks for writing it.

((I live right by Disney World, so I find all things Disney inherently fascinating. Since you know so much about the Carousel of Progress--which I also really like experiencing, much to my family's dismay--I'd be curious to hear your opinion of the songs. I know it's fashionable among purists to always prefer the original in all things, but I prefer "Now Is the Time" to the original, and restored, "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow." In my opinion, "Now Is the Time" is a far better song, and the show was more clever when they rewrote it to fit those lyrics. In each scene, back in the seventies and eighties, the father would talk about whatever was supposed to be on the horizon and assert that it would never work, and of course he would compare the current era to the past and talk about how much better things were in his time. Each scene's insistence that things were as good as they could possibly get was belied by the next scene's improvements. Instead of hammering me over the head with the message that the future was going to be better, the show delivered its message with subtlety, through the use of irony. Each era's conviction that things were as good as they could be was quickly juxtaposed with proof that they were not. With the original song restored, each scene just reads as a catalog of new technology. What do you think?))

April 1, 2010 9:19 AM  

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