Can Society Learn From the Mistakes of Futurism?

Steven Novella is co-host of the popular podcast The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe along 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 it would be like this now 2001: A Space Odyssey“, says Novella in episode 526 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “There will be permanent space stations in space, there will be infrastructure between here and the moon, a lunar base. We took all that stuff for granted.”

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

In her new book The Skeptic’s Guide to the Future, the brothers attempt to improve upon the futurism of yesteryear by identifying 10 “futurism fallacies” that have thwarted previous predictions. One of the biggest fallacies is the notion that the future society will be just like today’s society, only with more gadgets. “You can’t just project a technology into the future, you also have to look at it in the context of all other technologies that are also evolving in the same period,” says Novella. “So we will not be traveling in space in 500 years, our genetically modified cyborg offspring will be traveling in space in 500 years. And you have to include that in your calculations.”

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Despite Futurism’s turbulent history, Novella believes it is an important endeavor that deserves more attention. “If you live your life in this short 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 quickly adapt to changes in technology, culture, to make decisions about the future,” he says. “So I think futurism as an academic discipline has a lot of merits, we just have to be realistic.”

Listen to the full interview with Steven Novella on 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 have researched our entire lives for this book. We’re not starting from scratch, which is one of the reasons it was fun and easy to write from that perspective. We know things like superconductors at room temperature. We didn’t have to do any research to know it had to be a chapter in the book, what potential it had. But we needed to update ourselves and delve much deeper. We’ve been doing a podcast for 18 years, so we’ve had a huge background of science news and interviewing people on those topics, but even if you sit down and say, ‘All right, I have to write a definitive chapter on reaction rockets and what their role is will play in the future”, one still discovers surprising things.

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Steven Novella on space travel:

If you have a space infrastructure where you routinely travel to various destinations in space, you are in an optimal ship for each leg of your journey. You’ll take something into low Earth orbit, get to a space station and from there take your cislunar shuttle to the moon, or you’ll get a shuttle that rendezvous with a deep space shuttle going to Mars. And then step into a lander optimized for Mars or the Moon, or whatever your destination is. Because these are very different things and it’s just not pragmatic to build a ship that can do everything and the waste will be immense. So I think we’re going to have multiple legs to go somewhere, which you don’t really see in a lot of sci-fi movies.

Steven Novella on Futurism:

If you look at past futurists, the big mistakes they make don’t predict the turning point. Anyone can predict incremental progress, but the things that really trip futurists are when they think something will be a breakthrough and it isn’t, or they just miss real breakthroughs entirely. The big one is the transition from analog to digital. Nobody responded to that. Asimov completely missed it. Nobody saw how digital technology would change our society and our world. Of course, once it has done that, it seems obvious now. But that was a turning point that no one saw coming. So now we’re trying to predict, “What will the future game changers like this be?”

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Steven Novella on Science Fiction:

Science fiction is just a giant thought experiment. It’s actually a thousand thought experiments, but overall it’s this meta-thought experiment about the question: “What will the future look like?” What will the technology look like? What will people be like in the future?” That’s part of my fascination with imagining something completely different and looking at things in a different way, changing variables that you didn’t know were variables – you didn’t know once that this could be something that could be different. We’re all kind of narrow-minded in our view of life and the universe, and sci-fi makes you lift your head and take a step back. It forces you to think outside the box, to look at civilization and humanity and vast arcs of time, and things that go far beyond the experience of our daily lives.

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