What science fiction got wrong

We were drinking at Irene’s the other night, guys of a certain age. We were contemplating what science fiction got wrong, what assumptions science fiction writers made in the 1960s that did prove true.

If you were young in the sixties, you were exposed to Robert Heinlein, J.G. Ballard, A.E.Van Vogt, and many others. One man who appears more and more significant as time passes is Philip K. Dick, 1928-1982, whose stories have been the basis of numerous science fiction movies, most notably Blade Runner, but also including Johnny Mnemomic, Total Recall, Minority Report and others. I have just finished reading a handsome hardback compendium of four of Dick’s most significant short stories.



Philip Kindred Dick, 1928-1982

It is curious and interesting that Dick was no better at predicting the technical attributes of what was, in 1965,  the near future of 2015, than any of the more conventional science fiction writers. Despite imagining psychoactive drugs engendering collective participatory social hallucinations, and the commercial battles for world control that would come from such hallucinogenic drugs, he was as unable as Heinlein to imagine how different the world would be socially from 1965 to 2016. Moreover, the common theme of the science fiction writers was that transportation would be the area of human endeavour   subject to the greatest changes, not communications and computers.

Thus, for all of them, it seems, it was possible to conceive of colonizing Mars by 2015, but that women would still work as secretaries answering telephones. There would still be switchboards, and paper messages left by one’s secretary.

It is quite bizarre, how completely unforeseen was the effect of the computer in the science fiction of the era 1950-1975.

Today, contrary to the order foreseen by the imaginations of 1965, the communications revolution is invading transportation. The combination of massive computer power, and ubiquitous wireless networks, will keep driverless cars on the road and not colliding. What will Google do with all the terabytes of information that the automated car will collect every block, every mile of driving? It will process the information to improve the algorithms governing the car. Cars increasingly are computers with engines and wheels attached.

You have probably heard the story of the poor computer who (should I say “which”?) was tricked by humans into talking and responding like a devoted Nazi? It is going to take as much learning as a human has to go through to prevent  other humans from conning the interface bot into a completely false appreciation of reality. How do humans treat the rube from the country? the sucker born every minute? We con them. We cannot help it.  We engender lack of trust and a resulting degree of skepticism in younger minds as a cruel duty.

If every science fiction writer I know assumed that transportation was going to be revolutionized first, and computers and their social impacts were almost completely unforeseen, then how good are we at envisioning the future, thirty to forty years out?

Which is a way of saying that Nicholas Taleb was on to something vitally important in The Black Swan. There is the known, the (known) unknown, and the unknowable, and of all of them, the unknowable is an immensity beyond …knowing.

We will rely massively on driverless cars long before we have colonies on Mars. That is predictable now. Thus it is safe to say that, projecting forty years out, society will be different in ways we cannot now imagine. Whatever that change is, it will have nothing to do with Islam, the role of women, energy policy, gay rights, human fertility and reproduction, or anthropogenic global warming. It will be unimaginable.