1.5 Forecasting the Future

It has already been observed that events constituting history are understood in the context of both motivation and technology over a time continuum. Similar considerations apply to attempting to predict the future--that is, forecasting what might yet happen to society as a result of current and new technology and motivations. On the one hand, the flow of events perceived to date may usefully be projected forward, if this is done in a reasonable fashion that takes into account the most likely results of that flow.

On the other, few modern day forecasters can claim the authority of Biblical prophets, who correctly predicted events in complex detail (and sometimes names) decades or centuries ahead of time. Today's forecasters rely on extrapolating ahead the trends of the recent past, rather than on Divine revelation. Therefore, all such modern attempts at long-term prophecy will fail, at least in part, for they cannot take into account the human-unforeseeable watershed events and decisions that result from creative departures from tradition, and that change a technology and its society quickly and dramatically.

Who could have forecast the uses of electricity, the internal combustion engine, or atomic energy, even ten years before their discovery? Who can take into account the serendipitous discoveries of ten years from now, or the result of, say, a narrow election win or loss on the people governed? Who knows exactly how today's decisions and discoveries will be applied to change the course of society a year from now? Because of such uncertainty, all forecasting implies considerable speculation, even when it appears to be a straightforward extrapolation. Indeed, given the recent history of political and technological change, assuming that things will continue according to current trends may be the most unreliable speculation of all. Any one of the alternative futures proposed by today's forecasters may indeed come to pass--or none may.

Speculation about the future is actually necessary for progress, for scientific, technological, economic, and political breakthroughs are all impossible without the application of a lively imagination to possibilities no one else has seen. Noted speculator and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (Prophets of the Future) has this comment on qualifications for a successful predictor of the future:

I would now go so far as to say that only readers or writers of science-fiction are really competent to discuss the possibilities of the future.

This claim may produce indignation, especially among second-rate scientists who sometimes make fun of science-fiction (I have never known a first-rate one to do so--and I know several who write it). But the simple fact is that anyone with sufficient imagination to assess the future realistically would, inevitably, be attracted to this form of literature. I do not for a moment suggest that more than one per cent of science-fiction readers would be reliable prophets; but I do suggest that almost a hundred percent of reliable prophets will be science-fiction readers--or writers.

There are also those who expect a day when forecasting of at least the broad outlines of future society (and perhaps many details) will become possible--even commonplace. Perhaps the best known fiction with this theme is Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of novels. Asimov portrayed a day when "psychohistory" has become a science, and the future is indeed forecastable. Though it is not possible to dismiss such a possibility altogether, the advent of such techniques is surely a long way off (A discussion of the concept also appears in Michael Flynn's An Introduction to Psychohistory). It would also be foolish to assume that a technique for predicting future history could be developed without the forecasters becoming the managers of that history, influencing critical events to make the outcome better--at least in their own eyes.

This book also deals with many speculations about the future. Most are attempts to determine which outcomes of technology are likely, based on historical experience and existing trends. That is, this work is more concerned with extrapolation than it is with speculation. However, some things are new, or are yet at the research stage, and it is difficult to make predictions with any degree of confidence. This difficulty has not stopped others from publishing their ideas, and there now exists a rich literature of future scenarios, aspects of which will be discussed in more detail later (along with new ones).

Visions of the Future

One of the earliest classics in the field was Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, published in 1965. Ellul had a clear vision of the tragic aspects of the technological revolution. He saw society losing what had made it truly human, blundering rapidly down unexplored paths, following guides competent in narrow technical fields but in little else. Ellul was not afraid of technology, but felt that its material promises were empty, that its faith had come to be in progress for its own sake, and apart from a higher standard of living, there was little for the human spirit to celebrate in the new age. Although his comments were made in the context of the old industrial age and its failures, many others have expressed similar views of the information age since that time.

One of these is Theodore Roszak, long a critic of the goals of artificial intelligence research, whose 1986 book The Cult of Information is subtitled The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking. Roszak castigates many other modern writers as members of an unthinking cult who have made "information" into what he calls a "godword". He desires to re-establish a clear distinction between what machines do when they process data, and what human beings do when they think--a distinction that he feels has been incorrectly blurred by others. Here is Rozak's view of some of the technological optimists:

We might almost believe, from their simplistic formulation of the information economy, that we will all soon be living on a diet of floppy disks and walking streets paved with microchips.

The most optimistic views of the future come from such as Alan Toffler (The Third Wave), John Naisbitt (Megatrends), Grant Fjermedal (The Tomorrow Makers), Harry Stine (The Hopeful Future) and Eric Drexler (Engines of Creation). All of these are willing to foresee many new and better potential worlds resulting from current and projected technologies. A society of plenty, the colonization of space, near immortality, and the removal of class barriers are among the predictions that these and other writers make. They are in a long line of philosophers who believe that Progress is an inevitable upward flow in the state of human affairs. Progress has become a quasi-personalized idea--as have Gaia, Nature, Evolution, Love, and Justice--invested with qualities that resemble those of a deity. Things will always get better, wars are only "mistakes" in the flow of progress, and technological solutions will always be found to all problems.

It is not hard to find data to support such optimism. After all, much of what was science fiction in the 1950s is now a reality. Space flight, cancer cures, information utilities, nuclear power, robots, and many other once fanciful ideas are now taken for granted. Of course, far more of the old predictions have yet to be fulfilled, and perhaps never will be, but the most optimistic in the scientific and technical community often seem to believe that a permanent utopian civilization is within the very grasp of humankind.

Profile On ... A technological optimist

G. Harry Stine is well known among readers of futurist publications for his unabashed confidence in the future. The selection below, from The Hopeful Future is typical of those who believe in Progress to solve problems through new technology. The chapter title for the section from which this is taken is Enough Energy for Everybody to do Everything

The human race has never run out of energy or had a real energy shortage.

The human race will never run out of energy or suffer from an energy shortage.

As Caoanda observed, we're surrounded by energy. In the past when human beings faced the possibility of exhausting or exceeding available energy supplies, thereby creating an "energy crisis," they discovered new energy resources and learned how to use them. Each time, we worked our way out of an energy crisis by developing new energy sources and technologies. If the trends are reliable--and there's no reason to suppose they're not--we'll also work our way out of the current energy crisis . . .

Forecasts about limits to growth are based on specific energy resources and have assumed no future technical developments. Technology defines resources. Waterwheels made water into an energy resource. Steam engines did so for coal. Internal combustion engines did the same for oil.

At the time forecasts about an energy crisis are made, inventors are already quietly developing the new technology that will develop new energy sources within twenty-five years and, within fifty years or less, will completely displace the older energy technology.

Current technologists completely miss when they forecast how we'll work our way out of an energy crisis. For various reasons, they discount or neglect to consider the role that new technology will play in less than twenty-five years.

Technologists prefer to improve familiar technology by a fraction of a percent than to gamble on a major improvement from unfamiliar technology. They manage to make marginal improvements in old technology just before it is made obsolete by new technology.

On the other hand, there is also a rich popular literature of apocalyptic visions of the future--visions of imminent disaster. These see no hope at all for humanity or for earth. If it does not perish in a nuclear holocaust, everyone on it will starve to death when all arable land has turned to desert or poisoned. Perhaps all will freeze when air pollution becomes dense enough to block the sun and lower the temperature, or die of heat when the "greenhouse effect" increases it instead. Alternatively, life could all dissolve in acid rain, perish from hard solar radiation when the ozone layer disappears, or even be destroyed by a superior race of aliens. Not a year goes by without a forecast of global economic collapse, nuclear conflict, or the provision by some would-be prophet supplying a date on which Jesus Christ will return and God is supposed to end the world, despite the Bible stating this cannot be done.

No conclusive evidence can be cited for any of these extreme scenarios. The kind of future expected may depend more on the predictor's personality than on the analysis of today's trends. The optimistic technologist says there is hope for the future; thoughtful philosophers worry that humanity has lost more than gained; and the doomsayers have given up all hope. In the midst of this uncertainty and contradiction, others have tried to find spiritual answers to difficult questions. Some have turned to mystical claims that meditation can bring on a new order; others to the Biblical answer that God the creator alone determines the fate of the universe. Some may see such a refocusing as another manifestation of the tension and balance between the high touch and the high tech. It may be regarded as part of a struggle for liberation of the human spirit from the perceived bonds of the machine age. It may be a holding position while people await more definitive data from the scientific community, in which their long-term faith resides.

The actual near future will likely fall somewhere between utopia and apocalypse. New and existing technologies need to be examined both for their potential to improve the human condition, and for their potential to cause harm. Part two of this book concentrates on the various technological revolutions and the direct effects they may have on society, and part three focuses on the roles of certain major institutions. It is worth noting, however, that if any modern day seers (including the author of this book) really knew what the future would bring, there would be far more money to be made in the stock market than in writing books.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises