Can We Learn from the Mistakes of Futurism?

Can We Learn from the Mistakes of Futurism?
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Steven Novella cohosts the popular podcast The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe together with his brothers Jay and Bob. As children growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the brothers were obsessed with science fiction and futurism.

“Our younger selves definitely imagined that by now it would be like 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Novella says in Episode 526 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “There’s going to be permanent space stations in space, there’s going to be an infrastructure between here and the moon, a lunar base. All that stuff, we took it for granted.”

The next few decades showed that futurism is harder than it looks. Technological changes may seem inevitable, but they often come down to one person making an arbitrary choice. If Henry Ford had decided to build electric cars rather than gas-powered ones, it would have changed the course of our whole civilization. “Things could have definitely played out very differently,” Novella says. “If some guy in Pennsylvania didn’t discover crude oil for another 20 years, how totally different would our world be today? There’s nothing inevitable about our present, and therefore there’s nothing inevitable about the future.”

In their new book The Skeptic’s Guide to the Future, the brothers try to improve on the futurism of yesteryear by identifying 10 “futurism fallacies” that have bedeviled earlier predictions. One of the biggest fallacies is imagining that future society will be just like present-day society, only with more gadgets. “You can’t just project a technology forward, you also have to think about it in the context of all other technologies also advancing over the same period of time,” Novella says. “So we won’t be traveling in space in 500 years, our genetically-modified cyborg descendants will be traveling in space in 500 years. And you have to include that as part of your calculation.”

Despite the checkered history of futurism, Novella thinks it’s an important pursuit that deserves more attention. “If you’re living your life in this brief little window of time, without any sense of where you are in history, you could lose sight of what’s important, you could lose the ability to adapt nimbly to changes in technology, to changes in culture, to make decisions about the future,” he says. “So I do think there’s a lot of benefit to futurism as an academic discipline, we just have to be realistic about it.”

Listen to the complete interview with Steven Novella in Episode 526 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Steven Novella on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Future:

We’ve been doing the research for this book our whole lives. We’re not starting from scratch, which is part of the reason why it was fun and easy to write, from that point of view. We know about things like room temperature superconductors. We didn’t need to do research to know that it needed to be a chapter in the book, what the potential of it is. But we did need to update ourselves and do a much deeper dive. We’ve been doing a podcast for 18 years, so we had a huge background of science news items and interviews with people about these topics, but even still, when you sit down and go, “All right, I need to write a definitive chapter about reaction rockets, and what role they’re going to play in the future,” you still discover surprising things.

Steven Novella on space travel:

If you have a space infrastructure where you’re routinely traveling to different destinations in space, you’re going to be in an optimal vessel for each stage of your journey. You’re going to take something into low Earth orbit, get to a space station, and then from there you’re going to get your cislunar shuttle to the moon, or you’re going to get a shuttle that will rendezvous with a deep space shuttle that’s going to Mars. And then you’re going to get on a lander optimized for Mars or optimized for the Moon, or whatever your destination is. Because those are very different things, and making one ship that can do everything is just not pragmatic, and the waste is going to be immense. And so I think we’re going to have multiple legs to get anywhere, which is not something you really see in a lot of science fiction.

Steven Novella on futurism:

When you look at past futurists, the big mistakes they make are not predicting the game-changers. Anyone can predict incremental advances, but the things that really trip futurists up are when they think something is going to be a breakthrough and it isn’t, or they just entirely miss the real breakthroughs. The big one is the analog-to-digital transition. Nobody picked up on that. Asimov completely missed it. Nobody saw how digital technology was going to transform our society and our world. Of course now, once it has, it seems obvious. But that was a game-changer that nobody saw coming. So now we’re trying to predict, “What are the future game-changers like that going to be?”

Steven Novella on science fiction:

Science fiction is just one massive thought experiment. It’s actually a thousand thought experiments, but collectively it’s this meta thought experiment about, “What’s the future going to be like? What is technology going to be like? What are people going to be like in the future?” That’s part of my fascination with it, is just imagining something completely different, and looking at things in different ways, changing variables you didn’t know were variables—you didn’t even know that was something that could be different. We’re all sort of parochial in our view of life and the universe, and science fiction forces you to pick your head up and step back. It forces you to take a bigger view, to look at civilization and humanity and massive arcs of time, and things that are just way beyond the experience of our day-to-day life.

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