23 May 2009

The old future and the new

This posting put me in mind of this and this and the whole curious matter of how the people of the fifties and sixties, as fascinated as they evidently were by the future, so misread the way things would actually develop.

I think the flaw in that era's pop-culture concept of the future was actually a lack of imagination. They got the future wrong because they expected it to be essentially like their own present and past.

Skyscrapers had been getting taller and taller, so they expected buildings a mile high. Cars had been getting faster and faster, so they expected flying cars. TV had been getting more and more sophisticated, so they expected giant, 3-D TV sets (well, although 3-D never caught on, some people are willing to pay absurd prices for gigantic TV sets, so they got that one somewhat right). They expected that the age of European exploration and colonization of the world would be repeated, using spaceships, on the Moon and Mars and eventually (in that quintessentially-sixties vision of the future, Star Trek) out among the stars. On the dystopian side, wars and plagues had felled great empires in the distant past, so a whole string of SF novels and movies portrayed the destruction of our own civilization through such agencies.

The reason progress didn't take the forms anticipated is that such things would have been pointless or un-economical or both. The European age of exploration, for example, was driven by trade, but there is nothing we could get from another planet whose value would approach the cost of shipping it back to Earth. Nor could colonies on the Moon or Mars repay anything like their even more immense cost. Gagarin's flight and the manned Moon landings were superpower prestige-competition projects; today's manned activities in space are confined to near-Earth orbit and serve little practical purpose.

Almost no one in that era anticipated that things would move onto a fundamentally different path. No one anticipated the internet. No one anticipated the real role of computers (yes, Star Trek had "advanced" computers, but they were either big and clunky or else semi-anthropomorphic, not small and ubiquitous and used in the ways we actually use them). No one anticipated that sophisticated space probes would enable us to explore the solar system without the risk and expense of sending humans. Very few anticipated how ever-cheaper, ever-more-powerful data-processing technology would revolutionize everything from communications to politics to medicine. No one anticipated that gays would follow women and blacks into general social equality. Amid the grim Sargasso of dystopian visions of overpopulation, hardly anyone expected that birth rates almost everywhere would plummet below replacement level within forty years -- or that a world of seven billion people would suffer an epidemic of obesity.

But.....one of the most exciting projects which is now approaching technological feasibility, the radical extension of the human life span, was anticipated by a man of exceptional insight long before the mid-twentieth century. These words were written in 1773:

Your observations on the causes of death, and the experiments which you propose for recalling to life those who appear to be killed by lightning, demonstrate equally your sagacity and your humanity. It appears that the doctrine of life and death in general is yet but little understood... I wish it were possible... to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But... in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection.


Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Mr.Infidel ... good morning Sir!

Good post by the way.....but as reading it...it brought me to a question I have for you... if you think you may know anything about it at all.

My question is.... this space station for instance that we are continuosly working and building on, do you think it is far enough from the earth to where if a meteor were to hit the earth.... say like the one that is suspected to have hit the Yucatan over 60+ million year's ago.... would the space station be a safe enough distance from an impact on earth of such an event... to avoid any damage? I assume of coarse that it is at a distance to not feel any effect's from an all out global nuking though for sure, or any thing else in the catastrophic range originating on the planet. I wonder... because.. I feel if the earth was being threatened by some event as such.... all those who may be the most important on the earth... would use this station for refuge/ safety from the impact ... is all.

Thank You for any input you may have......

24 May, 2009 08:34  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The space station is outside the atmosphere, so it would not be affected by a catastrophe such as a giant meteor impact on Earth (unless the fireball created by the impact were so huge that it extended up to the height of the station's orbit and the station just happened to be right over the impact point at the time, both of which are very unlikely).

However, the space station could not survive very long without regular deliveries of supplies from Earth, and after a giant meteor impact such deliveries would presumably stop, since those governments which continued to function with have far more important problems to deal with.

I discussed the more general issue of using space as a refuge from Earthly disasters here.

24 May, 2009 10:11  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I will venture to make one prediction myself: Humanity's first true interstellar spaceships will be launched during the second half of this century. And they'll be microscopic in size.

24 May, 2009 10:29  

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