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Two Ways to Look at the Future

Stewart Brand is a leading proponent of long-term thinking, the sort of thing that builds cathedrals and, perhaps one day, starships. In this excerpt from his book The Clock of the Long Now (New York: Basic Books, 1999), Brand discusses science fiction and the various forms of futurism.

According to Kevin Kelly, ‘Isaac Asimov once said that science fiction was born when it became evident that our world was changing within our lifetimes, and therefore thinking abut the future became a matter of individual survival.’ The nanotechnology futurist Eric Drexler concurs: ‘I have found over the years that people familiar with the science fiction classics find it much easier to think about the future, coming technologies, political effects of those technologies, and so on.’ At Global Business Network (GBN), the scenario-planning business that employs me, we frequently send out science fiction books to the Network membership, and when we can get writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, David Brin, and Vernor Vinge to attend scenario workshops with client organizations, the quality of work deepens. Scenario planning involves exploring several widely variant futures of an organization’s world persuasively in depth. Skill in science fiction adds to the depth.

Still, the most important developments in the future, says Freeman Dyson, keep being missed by both the forecasters and the storytellers: ‘Economic forecasting misses the real future because it has too short a range; fiction misses the future because it has too little imagination.’

Too little imagination? Yes, for a structural reason almost never taken into account. At any time the several ‘probable’ things that might occur in the future are vastly outnumbered by the countless near-impossible eventualities, which are so many and individually so unlikely that it is not worth the effort of futurists or futurismists to examine and prepare for even a fraction of them. Yet one of those innumerable near-impossibilities is what is most likely to occur. Reality is thus statistically forced always to be extraordinary. Fiction is not allowed that freedom. Fiction has to be plausible; reality doesn’t.

Notice Brand’s use of the coinage ‘futurismists.’ Here’s the distinction he’s aiming at: ‘Futurists’ focus on the rigorous and objective analysis of possible futures. ‘Futurismists’ propound what is essentially a belief structure that is highly subjective in nature and often comes with an agenda. Brand quotes Paul Saffo on the macro-myopia of the futurismists: “We overexpect dramatic developments early, and underexpect them in the longer term.”

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  • Adam Crowl July 16, 2006, 2:49

    Hi Paul

    If we look at Now from the perspective of 1956 what didn’t they expect, and what did they expect that didn’t? Microminaturisation was quite unexpected since virtually all 1950s SF had slide-rules and big, clunky computers well into the Future. Yet how far has space travel advanced? Everyone expected a lot more to be achieved by 2000 AD (certainly by 2006!) At the same time no one expected the expense to be so extreme, nuclear rockets so nasty, the Moon so dry, the planets so dead.

    And who expected CAT scans? NMRI? Molecular and DNA analysis and synthesis? Mind you some were incredibly prescient – Murray Leinster’s “A Logic Named Joe” (1946) is eerie in its prescience as far as the Net’s indispensable role in modern life. But who imagined hand-held videophones that take pictures, play games, act as a diary etc etc.

  • Administrator July 16, 2006, 13:56

    Exactly so. “A Logic Named Joe” was remarkably far-sighted, and it really stands out because of that. I don’t know any other SF story that came close when it comes to computers, an amazing fact given all the effort that went into predicting the future in the first half of the 20th Century!

  • pfdietz July 16, 2006, 16:34

    I think science fiction had a general inability to deal with economic isses, and the economic underpinnings of technology. There was this idea (also common in larger popular culture) of inventions springing from the mind of the individual hero-genius, and that the supply of such breakthroughs is what determines the rate of technological change. In reality, much of technology is governed by demand-pull instead of supply-push. From this alterate point of view, it’s entirely reasonable that things like computing or biological science would advance so much faster than space travel.

    Also, science fiction is a business. The goal is to get the reader to part with his money, not to predict the future. This means providing readers what they have come to expect or want, and if that means repeating a trope (like flying around in spaceships) then so be it. Science fiction is more of a foggy mirror than a window to the future; it reflects the prejudices of the readership back at them.

  • Adam Crowl July 16, 2006, 17:37

    And futurism isn’t a business?

    SF has always been about selling, but it’s also about looking ahead. At least the SF I can be bothered reading is about future-world building that asks ‘big’ questions. For example Greg Benford’s ‘Galactic Centre’ series is a long discussion of the Fermi Paradox and what humanity is versus mechanical emulation. Larry Niven’s “Known Space” extrapolates as well, while Heinlein’s “Future History” was written in a common world to make it more plausible and seemingly achieveable.

    I doubt Fermi would’ve asked his famous question if there was no SF. Nor would SETI be as influential without Sagan dressing it up as SF, and the very idea of ETIs being popularised by SF.

    Space, as a destination, has yet to prove itself as worthwhile and until that happens we’re stuck speculating and working out the issues before we can lay down a keel for a starship. Good SF knew that years ago. John Campbell wrote an article on making space pay back in 1936 and nothing has changed.

  • Monte Davis July 17, 2006, 9:25

    Tom Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of has some very pointed insights on the relationships between SF, cultural expectationns, and what we actually get…

  • Jose July 23, 2006, 21:23

    A very interesting article. I may have to run a Brain Parade on this topic myself. I don’t see Science Ficiton as a predictive tool myself. Science Fiction is strictly a narrative form that plays at prediction. Writers ply us with storytelling skills not precognition. Science Fiction doesn’t tell us much about the future, but it does get us thinking about it with gusto and that’s a good thing.