The new millennium had people pondering the future as never before. We already devote much of our economy to all kinds of forecasting, from weather reports and stock analyses to financial and strategic planning, from sports handicapping to urban design, from political prophets to those charlatans on psychic hotlines. Which variety of seer you listen to can often be a matter of style. Some prefer horoscopes, while others like to hear consultants in Armani suits present a convincing "business case."
There are good reasons for concern, ranging all the way from terrorism to economic uncertainty in a technology-driven world. For example, what if tomorrow's chemists shrink their labs the same way cyberneticists transformed computers? Will teenagers with a desktop MolecuMac be able to synthesize any substance, at will? Does science fiction help us to explore the future in a useful fashion? Today we routinely use words like "robot" and "genetic engineering" that were limited to the pages of science fiction novels just a decade ago. But even more important than the things we predict accurately are the events that are prevented by good science fiction.
This section covers one of my passionate interests -- the issue of whether human beings can ever get a better handle on our wild ride into an uncertain destiny. In addition to stories, this general theme is covered in many of my public speeches, for popular audiences as well as sober meetings at scientific conferences, the Department of Defense and even the CIA!
I've long pushed for better ways to track those in society who seek credibility, influence or power by bandying confident forecasts about future events. Now see Hubdub.com, a site that tries to generate a lot of fun while encouraging folks to stick their necks out, betting on matters like the VP sweepstakes or the Dow Jones or potential Olympic flag bearers, with credibility scores rising or falling with outcomes.
Forbes Magazine recently interviewed a number of futurists (including me!) on the topic of predicting business and societal trends.
"My biggest surprise was to see America swept by a major, societywide case of Alvin Toffler's future shock when that '2' arrived in the millennium column. I didn't see it at first, because, back at the turn of the century, it seemed that folks were taking the milestone in stride. And yet, masked beneath layers of surface bravado, people appear to have developed a jittery alienation toward concepts like 'the future,' or the inevitability of change. One casualty: the assertive, pragmatic approach to negotiation and human-wrought progress that used to be mother's milk to this civilization."
One of my biggest, boldest and most popular essays about our future destiny, "Singularities and Nightmares," is now available for free access. It explores a startling range of possibilities for humanity and the Earth, from dangers all the way to opportunities that inspire others to think that we may soon become apprentice gods. Weigh the possibilities for yourself.
"In order to give you pleasant dreams tonight, let me offer a few possibilities about the days that lie ahead -- changes that may occur within the next twenty or so years, roughly a single human generation. Possibilities that are taken seriously by some of today's best minds. Potential transformations of human life on Earth and, perhaps, even what it means to be human."
One of the most powerful novels of all time, published fifty years ago, foresaw a dark future that never came to pass. That we escaped the destiny portrayed in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, may be owed in part to the way his chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight "Big Brother" to their last breath.
In other words, Orwell may have helped make his own scenario not come true.
Since then, many other "self-preventing prophecies" rocked the public's conscience or awareness. Rachel Carson foresaw a barren world if we ignored environmental abuse -- a mistake we may have partly averted, thanks to warnings like Silent Spring and Soylent Green. Who can doubt that films like Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, and Fail-Safe helped caution us against dangers of inadvertent nuclear war? As for Big Brother, every conceivable power center, from governments and corporations to criminal and techno-elites, is repeatedly targeted by Hollywood's most relentless message... to stay suspicious of all authority. In other words, science fiction can be like the stick that a wary traveler pokes into the ground ahead of him, to see where snakes and quicksand may lie.
See my article on Predictions Registries, a method that might help us better "score" the credibility of those who want us to trust their vision of tomorrow.
Speaking of scores, want to hold me accountable to that high standard? See some Wikis that have been set up to track how well I've done, with just one of my novels! A wiki has been set up by fans of EARTH and another by the New England Complexity Science Institute. (Current score? More than TWENTY eerily accurate forecasts, ranging from technology to social trends.)
[All items sold thru Amazon.com (a secure online store) help offset the cost of maintaining the site.]
I still do science, but civilization seems more interested in my perspectives on the future. (Who am I to argue with civilization?) Let's face change with agility and hope, and meet the challenges ahead.