As part of the L, Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future award in 1987, a group of science fiction luminaries put together a text “time capsule” of their predictions about life in the far off year of 2012. Including such names as Orson Scott Card, Robert Silverberg, Jack Williamson, Algis Budrys and Frederik Pohl, it gives us an interesting glimpse into how those living in the age before smartphones, tablets, Wi-Fi and on-demand streaming episodes of Community thought the future might turn out.
Written during the Cold War, many of the predictions reflect the anxiety of a time when universal nuclear armageddon was still a daily threat. In fact, Isaac Asimov began his prediction with what was a standard preamble of the time.
“Assuming we haven't destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war, there will be 8-10 billion of us on this planet – and widespread hunger.”
It’s some small comfort to know that the Earth today is neither a radioactive wasteland, nor is it yet as crowded as Asimov feared – although he wasn't far off. With most of us now living in cities, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the world's population hit seven billion in March of this year, (although the UN put the estimated date at September 2011). Unfortunately, he was on the money the latter prediction, with people in many parts of the world continuing to go hungry.
Meanwhile, Gregory Benford predicted that the population would never reach 10 billion, with negative consequences.
“There will have been major "diebacks" in overcrowded Third World countries, all across southern Asia and through Africa. This will be a major effect keeping population from reaching 10 billion.”
On the other hand, Benford was more optimistic regarding advances in manned spaceflight.
“Bases on the Moon, an expedition to Mars … all done. But the big news will be some problematical evidence for intelligent life elsewhere.”
It’s ironic that Benford's prediction of Moon bases and manned Mars expeditions happening 25 years in the future is still pretty close to how we see it today.
Algis Budrys submitted a dense prediction that revolved around a post peak-oil world.
“Because we will be in a trough between 20th-century resources and 21st-century needs, in 2012 all storable forms of energy will be expensive. Machines will be designed to use only minimal amounts of it.”
Cutting the power requirements of all manner of electronic devices – from light bulbs to supercomputers – has indeed become a major concern for manufacturers and consumers. Budrys believed the need to conserve energy would lead to an information-based society. This idea of an information society that is, in some ways, very like our own is echoed by Roger Zelazny in a sentence of herculean proportions.
“It is good to see that a cashless, checkless society has just about come to pass, that automation has transformed offices and robotics manufacturing in mainly beneficial ways, including telecommuting, that defense spending has finally slowed for a few of the right reasons, that population growth has also slowed and that biotechnology has transformed, agriculture and industry – all of this resulting in an older, slightly conservative, but longer-lived and healthier society possessed of more leisure and a wider range of educational and recreational options in which to enjoy it – and it is very good at last to see this much industry located off-planet, this many permanent space residents and increased exploration of the solar system.”
The world is certainly is going toward a cashless society, and biotechnology has seen huge advances in recent decades. Thanks to advances in medicine, populations in the developed world now live longer, healthier lives and population growth has indeed slowed in most developed countries. Defense spending has also declined (relatively speaking), but in response to financial pressures rather than a more conservative society.
Sadly, Zelazny's prediction of more leisure time hasn't eventuated. Instead of cutting working hours, technologies such as wireless Internet, smaller and more powerful laptops, tablets and smartphones now allow us to work anywhere and everywhere, so that work now encroaches on our so called leisure time more than ever before.
And while the whole space industry thing has yet to take off to the extent Zelazny predicted, recent developments from the private sector with commercial spaceflights set to launch in the near future and continuing exploration of the solar system, it appears he may only have been a little too optimistic in terms of time-frame.
However, Zelazny did hit the nail on the head with his foreseeing the e-book.
“I would like to take this opportunity to plug my new book, to be published in both computerized and printed versions in time for 2012 Christmas sales – but I've not yet decided on its proper title. Grandchildren of Amber sounds at this point a little clumsy, but may have to serve.”
Unfortunately, Zelazny died in 1995, but his books – including his popular The Chronicles of Amber series – are readily available in electronic format.
Jerry Pournelle missed the mark by not predicting that the Deep Blue computer would defeat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, but he did present this frightening prognostication – for writers, anyway.
“A computer will win the (John W.) Campbell (Jr.) and (L. Ron) Hubbard Awards.”
Tim Powers had an interesting take that is wrong on every count.
“Probate and copyright law will be entirely restructured by 2012 because people will be frozen at death, and there will be electronic means of consulting them. Many attorneys will specialize in advocacy for the dead.”
However, Russian media magnate Dmitry Itskov is attempting to make Powers' prediction a reality by 2045 with the "Avatar" Project.
A particularly interesting prediction comes from Frederik Pohl.
“(Y)ou live in a world at peace. Something like the World Court, as an arm of something like the United Nations, resolves international disputes, and has the power to enforce its decisions. For that reason, you live in a world almost without weaponry; and, because you therefore do not have to bear the crippling financial burden of paying for military establishments and hardware, all of you enjoy and average standard of living about equal to a contemporary millionaire's. Your health is generally superb. Your life expectancy is not much less than a century. The most unpleasant and debilitating jobs (heavy industry, mining, large-scale farming) are given over to machines; most work performed by human beings is in some sense creative. The exploration of space is picking up speed, both by manned colonization and robot probes, and by vast orbiting telescopes and other instruments. Deforestation, desertification and the destruction of arable land has been halted and even reversed. Pollution is controlled, and all the winds and the waters of the Earth are sweet again.”
Pohl goes on to call this an extremely improbable outcome, but he argues that if anyone is reading his predictions, that’s what happened. What’s interesting here is that some of what Pohl predicted did, to one degree or another, come to pass. Life expectancy is longer, standards of living did rise, robots are becoming more common in industry and agriculture, and the Hubble telescope and its successors are orbiting as you read this.
However, the collapse of the Soviet Union, which even the CIA missed predicting, made the whole U.N. running the world to avoid nuclear war thing moot. Meanwhile, the current situation in Syria and the ineffectiveness of the U.N. in dealing with it only illustrates how far off the mark he was in predicting a world at peace.
A prediction by Gene Wolfe sounds very familiar to any film-goer.
“Sports and televised dramas are the only commonly available recreations. The dramas are performed by computer-generated images indistinguishable (on screen) from living people. Scenery is provided by the same method. Although science fiction and fantasy characterize the majority of these dramas, they are not so identified.”
While we still have plenty of activities to partake in other than plonking ourselves down in front of the TV, – with technology even providing new ways to enjoy old ones – CGI characters, ubiquitous use of green screen and stories that are sci-fi, but not called that have all come to pass.
But of all the predictions, Gregory Benford’s is probably the most apt.
“I will be old, but not dead. Come by to see me, and bring a bottle.”
Benford is still alive and continues to write. He has a new novel coming out later this year, with more to follow.
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