19 January 2007

Imagining the future

Anne C. at Existence Is Wonderful has a posting up about "Yesterday's Future" -- that is, what prognosticators decades ago thought the future would look like. Since we are now living in the future they tried to anticipate, how accurate were their predictions?

A point which has always struck me about such old predictions is that they were fairly close to the mark on many aspects of technological progress (though I don't think anyone anticipated how important computers would become), but totally missed anticipating how culture would develop. Anne's posting mentions several examples. In these old visions of the future, women are depicted as "archetypal aproned housewives" still primarily occupied with domestic tasks, even though using (correctly-predicted) cooking and cleaning techniques more advanced than those available when the articles were written. The continued predominance of the nuclear family is taken for granted. And I'd hazard a guess that all those old sketches depicting the high-tech society of the future (our present) rarely, if ever, show non-white people participating as full equals. (The original Star Trek was considered startlingly visionary in this regard, but actually the upheaval in racial attitudes was already well under way when it was being made.)

The simple fact is that technological developments are easier to predict than cultural ones. This is especially true today, when the price-performance of data processing is increasing according to a fairly consistent exponential pattern and we can anticipate a near future where almost everything important will be reducible to data processing. But cultural change is very hard to predict, even when in hindsight one can see where the cultural change has followed from technology. Star Trek's hand-held "communicator" more or less anticipated the cell phone, but its writers never anticipated the real-world cultural effects of the cell phone.

The struggle against racial discrimination, the tremendous broadening of the range of life options available to women (and for that matter to men), the overthrow of one sexual taboo after another, the battle to preserve and extend these gains in the face of an upsurge in reactionary religious fundamentalism, the ways the internet has changed social and political interaction, the rise of serious moral conflicts over medical experimentation on the higher animals, the problems posed by large-scale Third World immigration into the developed countries -- none of this seems to have been anticipated. The idea seems to have been that life would go on according to pretty much the same pattern as in the writer's own time, just with cleverer and cleverer gadgets.

I often wonder what aspects of our present culture, which we take for granted and never even think about, will be looked back upon as silly or even as disgusting and barbaric just a few decades from now.

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1 Comments:

Blogger mendip said...

A nice link and posting. I seem to remember a joke out there: "Hey! It's 2001 - where's my Flying Car?"
I'm also reminded of a visit to the '64 World's Fair and seeing the video phones and personal jet packs that we'd all be using in a few years....

19 January, 2007 07:46  

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