Shadows of the Future

Shadows of the Future January 20, 2017

“Answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?”

(Ebenezer Scrooge, to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come)

I have been discussing some of the Megatrends that had transformed the US since the mid-1970s. (By the way, the word Megatrends dates from 1982). Most would have been very surprising indeed to Americans of the 1970s. I have written in the past about the failures of even the best informed observers to predict the future, especially in matters of religion.

If you want to get a sense of just how utterly unexpected many of these recent Megatrends were, then look at the 1973 film Soylent Green, which portrays the world of 2022. Everything in it is wrong in terms of predicting actual events, but the most massive disconnect comes in technology. Imagine this far future world, and see how the super-rich and sophisticated will while away their leisure time. What will the years between 1973 and 2022 bring in the electronic world? Why, those millionaires will be playing Computer Space, a video game somewhat less sophisticated than Pong (and actually designed by the man who went on to found Atari, but that’s a different story).

That area of universally accessible (and portable) high tech could be the most single significant single change that someone from 1975 might notice today. I just looked up that information about Computer Space on my smartphone, a device that would have utterly baffled the most advanced computer scientists of 1975, and probably led them to believe it came from an alien civilization.

Or would the most astonishing change since 1973 be the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and the peaceful end of the Cold War? Confession time: I remember reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and being entranced by everything in it. Even so, I found ludicrous his projection that the Soviet Union would disappear in a few years. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Or how would Americans of 1975 react to being told that the then-brand new World Trade Center would be brought down by attacks by neo-Dark Age Islamic fanatics?

That’s not to underestimate the prophets of previous years, and some called the present day remarkably correctly. Read The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, or almost any book by John Brunner, notably The Sheep Look Up (1972). Read his Shockwave Rider (1975) and it sounds like he is predicting something like Twitter, for heaven’s sake.

It’s also eerie today listening to Billy Joel’s 1976 song “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway),” with its portrayal of a Manhattan devastated by violence and terrorism, as the skyscrapers tumble to the ground. In 2001, that seemed very prophetic indeed. (Full lyrics here). In 2001, as in the song, they really did “send a carrier up from Norfolk.”

But my point remains. The future is definitely not what it was. Very few indeed could have dared suggest just what would happen between 1975 and the present day.

Any bets on the world of 2057?

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”

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