Today we continue with Lyttenburgh’s essay on Futurology. In the last installment, Lyttenburgh introduced us to the pseudo-science of Futurology. Now we continue with more debunkings. This is interesting stuff, and I hope you enjoy!
The illusion of the Scientific-Technical “Revolution”
“The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called “Keep to-morrow dark,” and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.
“But in the beginning of the twentieth century the game of Cheat the Prophet was made far more difficult than it had ever been before. The reason was, that there were so many prophets and so many prophecies, that it was difficult to elude all their ingenuities…
“…[T]he way the prophets of the twentieth century went to work was this. They took something or other that was certainly going on in their time, and then said that it would go on more and more until something extraordinary happened. And very often they added that in some odd place that extraordinary thing had happened, and that it showed the signs of the times.
“…All these clever men were prophesying with every variety of ingenuity what would happen soon, and they all did it in the same way, by taking something they saw “going strong,” as the saying is, and carrying it as far as ever their imagination could stretch. This, they said, was the true and simple way of anticipating the future.
“…Then the wise men grew like wild things, and swayed hither and thither, crying, “What can it be? What can it be? What will London be like a century hence? Is there anything we have not thought of? Houses upside down – more hygienic, perhaps? Men walking on hands – make feet flexible, don’t you know? Moon… motor-cars… no heads…” And so they swayed and wondered until they died and were buried nicely.”
– Gilbert K. Chesterton, “The Napoleon of Notting Hill” (1904)
First things first – some obligatory digressions, so that we can all “come to common terms” and generally get on the same wavelength. Plus (definitely more than) a couple of words about some important generalities – like the history
“It makes you want to laugh at the stupidity of the people who think that the tyranny of the present can erase the memory of the generation to come”
Sooo… history. For the most part, people (in general) have no idea how to use it, well, usefully. They try to anyway. The results are predictably dismal. One category of people repeatedly committing this mistake professionally are called “Futurologists”. The easiest way for one to become a “Futurologist” is to take a large swathe of the raw data (“history”), draw an impressive looking table-chart picturing these or those trends, and then predicting that the history in the future will be developing just fine in accordance with already established dynamics. That’s the most laziest (and widespread) way of doing “Futurology” – the exponential method.
The drawbacks of this approach are obvious. For example, if one were to follow this method and, say, take the trend of humanity’s energy consumption from the beginning of the XX c., to the end of the XX c., and then try to make a prediction about future trends, they’d have to come to the conclusion, that humanity will consume by, say, 2020-2030s a virtually infinite amount of energy. Clearly, the exponential approach of predicting humanity’s development taken in its pure form to extreme is not quite accurate (to put it mildly).
Some Futurologists try to “inject some sanity”, so to speak, by arbitrarily “breaking” said exponential trend at some point(s) – in the name of “making sense” out of it, of course! Thus, in order to “stop the madness” and “make sense” out of this earlier mentioned exponent, predicting the infinite energy consumption by the 2030s, they absolutely arbitrary insert a nearly flat line somewhere in the 2020s part of the graph. What does this line really mean? It means a huge planet-wide catastrophe, capable of stumping the development of all of humanity. But that’s not the job of the Futurologists to dwell upon such trivialities – their job is only to “make sense” and present us with graphically pleasing charts!
A valiant attempt to inject sanity!
The same goes for the so-called “Scientific-Technical Revolution” – the longest running one (dating back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution) and most illusory of them all. Both of those approaches mentioned above won’t make any sense if applied to it and all “predictions” derived while trying to do “prognoses” about it would be, naturally, based on false premises. Because there is no such a thing as the “Scientific-Technical (or the “Informational”, if you like) Revolution”. There is no One Line (purely exponential or broken down at random) To Explain It All. Said “One Line”, that inadvertently comes into existence in the fervent minds of the Futurologists as the symbol of the Future, is, in fact, just an average, a median of all different lines, symbolizing the different stages of development in different fields of science. So, we don’t have a “Revolution” here, but instead we have a series of “coup d’états”, “putsches” and “hostile takeovers” in the field of scientific progress – some of which, at time, work against each other, while advancing the common, median “trend”.
This is how it happens on the “inside”. Any given scientific field languishes for some time in its “incubational period”, and then – boom! We have a “scientific putsch” in one given sphere. For about 20-40 years it experiences an “active phase”, during which a qualitative development happens in this field, followed by (a much longer running) slow-down in the form of a quantitative development, finally followed by a general stagnation if not the outright complete cessation of development whatsoever and the “death” of the sphere. But this “casualty” is not critical to Progress – because the moment it goes down there surely will appear another rapidly developing scientific-technical sphere, which will immediately snatch the banner of the Scientific Revolution from its fallen comrade’s weakening grasp and hoist it even higher for all Masses to see!
Virtually all of these spheres of science can trace back their origins to the XIX c. It goes without saying, that the number of said spheres of applied knowledge is not limitless. Meanwhile, due to the general progress in the way how scientific research is conducted (bigger body of knowledge, better research instruments and methods, etc.) and the sheer increase of the “brainpower” available on the planet, we have both quantitative and qualitative development in this meta-sphere. This basically means shorter “incubation periods” for scientific fields down the road, but also shorter “active phases” and sooner approaching “burnout” for them. In the long run this means that there, probably, might come a moment, when the research resource will simply be “depleted”. But as the march of Progress is just a series of “coups”, happening one after another in due time (but not all the sudden), so too this global techno-scientific slow-down will come up measurably, piecemeal. In short, instead of implied catastrophe of the randomly inserted flat line on the way of the glorious exponent (“bang”), we will see a naturally occurring curved line, gradually becoming a straight one over time (“whimper”).
A Boulevard of Broken Dreams
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.”
– W.C. Fields
These were the fundamentals, now let’s draw closer to the “meat” of the issue. I did use rather unwieldy (and, perhaps, alien sounding for the most of Anglophones here) term “Scientific-Technical Revolution” (STR), while always-helpful digital translaters (and dead tree dictionaries) offered me “an Information Revolution” phrase instead. No, my dearies, that term won’t do! Because the STR also covers all predecessors of the New Cool Kid of our time, this so-called “Information Age”. Before it, there were Aircraft Age, Atomic Age, Space Age, etc, etc – and all of them were recognized as the latest and Most Important Thing Of their respective Time. None of these newfangled Ages lasted longer than half a century. Yeah, sure – technically, we, humans, still construct new airliners, build new nuclear plants and launch ships to space… but nothing groundbreaking, epic, earth shattering (in the good sense – bad examples are too numerous to list here!) happens in these spheres, which, at best, now languish in their quantitative development phase.
Let’s take aviation! XVIII-XIX cc. were full of valiant and rather fruitless attempts to launch into the air something heavier than it – but these attempts (“incubation period”) also laid down the foundation for the qualitative surge which happened in the early XX c. In 1905-1910 these ramshackle contraptions were, at best, mere toys for a few enthusiasts and a fad for the general public, one of the many “it-will-never-catch-ons” of the time. In just half a decade, every great power was fielding squadrons, entire air-fleets of hundreds of these “toys”, transforming the battlefield, strategy and tactics radically. Starting from the 1920s airplanes became The Thing. Generals, thinkers, “futurists” of the era were of one thought – the New Thing is for Real, it’s to Stay and It is the New Era. For some of them infantry, bunkers, cruisers and battleships became immediately a “Thing From the Past”. Only bombers – lots and lots of bombers! – were the Face of Future Warfare! There were signs and portents everywhere of them, new prophets, being right. First – trans-Atlantic flight, then the first flight around the globe. Feats of human bravery and endurance, sure – but also more feathers into Air Marshals’ hats. WW2 saw the first deployment of the fighter jets and carpet bombing, late 1940s saw the first civilian jet liners. About the same time, Sikorsky managed to build and test successfully his transport helicopters…
And then – nothing. No qualitative development in the aviation sphere since then. Attempts to revolutionize it with some radical development were stillborn. Supersonic jets failed to become the New Thing. And while obligatory tears are shed occasionally about the Concorde , who among the general public remembers now the TU-144 or the French Caravelle ? The same fate was shared by the concept of intercontinental bombers, but for a reason I mentioned earlier – they failed to compete with another up-and-coming sphere (rocket science). Meanwhile, rose-tinted promises of the earlier period, when airplanes had just become the New Thing, failed to realize. Despite all predictions by then Futurologists, neither airplanes nor helicopters replaced ordinary cars as the personal means of transportation for the masses.
But don’t you worry – the Atomic Age was already sprung upon us! Yes, at first this sphere of science also had been completely divorced from practical applications. Even in the 1930s many of the prominent nuclear scientists, including Bohr and Rutherford denied that this would ever change in the foreseeable future. And yet – in the summer of 1939 one article would soundly disprove their earlier pessimistic claims and kick into high gear a series of events of the highest importance. These series of events, fueled by the acute fear and the desire to get “an edge” of one particular super-power (afraid of other super-powers getting that edge earlier than them) will speed-through the purely theoretical field of science to first nuclear reactors and first atomic bombs in just half a decade. From then on, the atomic sphere would be developing by leaps and bounds. Both the US and the USSR developed thermonuclear bombs virtually simultaneously. By early 1960s, practically all contemporarily used types of nuclear power plants had been already developed…
And then – nothing. Well, quantitative development only. Nuclear reactors became more powerful and less prone to failure (but still not completely safe), while bombs became more powerful and smaller in size Yet, there still was a hope, a lingering hope, for a Holy Grail of the nuclear science, a holy cup of invigorative fusion… In 1950s then Futurologists, these prophets of the new Atomic Age, were assuring people that the development of safe, reliable and economically viable fusion reactors is a matter of just a few years – next decade surely will see it!.. In 1970s then Futurologists were slightly less enthusiastic, and promised the long awaited scientific breakthrough by 1990s… But even in the late 90s of the past century there remained a cohort of incurable naives, who promised said “miracle just around the corner” to happen somewhere in “late 2010s – early 2020s”. These people, apparently, were unaware of the old Persian folktale with the punchline: “In 30 years either me, or Shah, or this horse will die”. Would have saved them lots of shame and derision – because no, the horse is still not singing!
Now – the painful part. The (fleetingly short) Space Age. In 1955 no rocket could fly more than several thousands of kilometers. In 1961 we launched a human being into space. In 1969 humans went to the Moon. In 1977-79 the space shuttle was developed, tested and launched – one of a kind project, but rather too short-lived. The most powerful rocket to date (Soviet Union’s “Energia”) had been tested in 1987. By early 1970s no Futurologist, no new convert to the Space Age would have believed that in 30-40 years humanity won’t reach Mars, let alone – abandon the Moon for good. Sure – satellites are getting launched constantly, helping humanity to connect with each other, to see their own planet from above with signs of human development and pollution upon its face – and for governments to spy on said humanity. By the way – aforementioned satellites are still being launched using ancient “dinosaurs” of the early Space Age, like “Protons”. Qualitative development? Sorry – I’m too old and cynical to believe in promises of our modern age carney-barker Elon Musk. Those who do – send me a postcard from your 2018 cosmic-space cruise, will you?
[Left panel: The 21st Century as our forefathers imagined it: “We have discovered still another planet for the benefit of Humanity, as we raise upon it the Flag of Earth! We are proud of ourselves and for all humans!”]
[Right panel: The 21st Century as it actually is: “We just bought a new car on credit, the horn has 5 new ringtones. My wife has a new phone, also purchased on credit, and 3% slimmer than her last phone. We are proud and happy!”]
Well, now the pattern should be obvious, I hope. Still, even the modern breed of Futurologists managed to fall into this trap! Viewing their predictions (some of them made in late 80s – early 90s and not revised to this day) of the future, you can’t help but be amazed at the level of the parochial, quintessential Western Triumphalism of the 1990s worldview (still alive and kicking beyond anti-cafes, lofts and barbershops of the hipsteriat), with trends literally ripped out from the headlines of newspapers and zines of the time transplanted into the future – or worse.
…Late 90s. I’m a kid – a teen, but still a kid compared to my two elder brothers and their friends. Late 90s – and the Computer is the New Thing! We were promised virtually (geddit? “virtually”!) everything by this new God-Out-Of-Machine. Futurologists of the era were omnipresent, their promises were loud and tempting, and the army of their zealous converts – numberless. Only a few dared to pose some very pointed and uncomfortable questions. Like me. I’m a historian – a “bloody humanitariy”, to quote my friends and brothers. Back then, when we bought our first PC in 1999 my brothers began to teach me programming languages and basics of computer science. “But why?” asked young me. I was told, that This Is The Future. My brothers are biologists (of micro- and biochemical analyses varieties respectively) – yet they were converted. I disappointed them, that for sure. I didn’t truly master “BASIC” (I still remember some commands, though…) and fumbled at getting at grips with “C++”. My elder brothers and all those around them in the intellectual sphere of the late 90s – early 2000s was dead set that we, mere humans, must improve ourselves and expand our imperfect knowledge of the arcane mysteries of cybernetics to better serve our future digital masters.
Instead, the Free Market gazed upon the huddled masses of common users and “lamers”. And it saw a potential Profit yet untapped. And so, the interface was dumbed down, things became more casual, and It Was Good. The Invisible Hand of the Market flipped a bird in the general direction of really smart, but naïve zealots of the early Information Age. By mid 2000s one of my brothers used the PC only to play FPSs, while another – to play MMORPGs, their earlier attempts at programming all but forgotten. Fast and cheap limitless (and wireless!) Internet by later mid-2000s was a small Revolution in itself, without which everything else would not be probably economically viable and/or possible. And after that…
Even the Internet is overrated. Basically, it’s just a combination of mail, phone, advertising and information agency, a huge library, hypertrophied MEDIA source/outlet and a pen club. Not some supernatural Ultimate Machine. It only combined abovementioned elements – but it did not invent them in the first place. Now I can freely chat online via Skype with no backlog with the people living half a world away. Still – a quantitative development. People were capable of doing that since 1854, when the first telephone cables were laid down across the Atlantic.
One thing, one promised thing is lacking though – no “virtual reality” as promised by its Adepts back then. Virtual Reality helmets and gloves – who remembers them? Gone. Google-Glass, this new nearly assured earth-shattering New Thing, that was “just around the corner” a few years ago? Didn’t catch up. Deep down we, imperfect human beings, remain fearful creatures, who are panic-stricken at the prospect of losing Oneself – and what’s a better way to do that than via clearly alien, extra-bodily device promising an entry into the realm of hallucinations? Nah! Besides – people manage to submerge themselves fully into the VR dropping out from the RL even without some new devices – and the Free Market is Pleased.
[to be continued]