My Kingdom For A Crystal Ball

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Predictions for the future—near and far—are all the rage each new year. Tech, sports and celebrity sites all scramble over one another to announce how the corner of the world they cover will change in the next year, decade and for a few brave souls, longer—usually in dramatically phrased but utterly predictable ways.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to grandly pronounce my own set of predictions, so you can stick around. But the overabundance of prediction lists did send me on a thought train, one related to an issue I mentioned in my previous post "Daring to Dream," to which this post could be considered a sequel.

In a world with FTL travel, cybernetics, cloning and instantaneous communication across the stars, what technological advances which in retrospect will be blindingly obvious am I missing? Perusing some of the “best” predictions out there, I’ve actually started to feel better about my concern, because I’ve come to realize something:

No one is predicting anything truly new, and only rarely in history has someone correctly done so.

A few months ago io9 posted an article with the tantalizing title “10 Mindblowingly Futuristic Technologies That Will Appear by the 2030s.” You can read it at your leisure, but personally, I found the list woefully underwhelming. Of course we’ll have all those things by the 2030s; we have early versions of all of them already (except arguably 3, 5 and 6, and we’re working on them). Granted, the 2030s are now a mere 16 years away—but show a little vision, people!

Indie publishing rock star Hugh Howey made a similar point on a far more focused scale (but on a topic, unsurprisingly, of some interest to me lately) in this post on the future of the publishing industry. As he put it, “But most of the predictions feign newness while describing past and current trends…[t]hese people are in the business of describing yesterdays as if they were tomorrows. And really, it’s hard to blame them. Predicting the unpredictable is best left to desperate gamblers.”

And perhaps he’s right. It’s probably unfair for me to expect even brilliant thinkers to make the leaps of imagination necessary to envision something truly new—much less to be right. Even Isaac Asimov, a brilliant and visionary thinker if there ever was one, limited his predictions for 50 years in the future to ideas based in already-existing technology. Some of his predictions were spot-on (gadgetry, TV, state of robots), some seem laughable now (underground cities), and some have sadly yet to come to be (where are my flying cars already?).

Notably, Asimov missed not only the smartphone, but the internet itself (unless you count laser beams sent through plastic pipes for point-to-point communications)—arguably the two most important technologies in the world of 2014. So again, at least I’ll be in good company.

Maybe 16 years isn’t far enough in the future for truly new innovations. Maybe 50 years isn’t far enough, either. It’s unlikely anything will be a part of our everyday lives in 2074 which isn’t a logical and plausible extension of theories we at least comprehend today.

Unless the Singularity happens between now and then, of course…but that’s a matter for another blog post.

If science fiction had existed in 1800, odds are it wouldn’t have centered around computerization—or included the concept at all. Today nearly all science fiction relies heavily on imaginable advances in computer technology. AIs, robots, quantum computing, mind uploads, machine overlords, virtual worlds, cybernetics—they all center around the notion that computerization will drive us forward (whether to our glorious future or our doom). My own story is no exception.

But the reality is, in 300 years it is quite possible, even likely, that computers will be at most like the internal combustion engine is now—ubiquitous, taken for granted, a commodity.

So what will the world be about? What future innovation will transform society, as computers and the internet did in the Information Revolution of the late 20th century, as machines and manufacturing did in the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century? Thoughts and ideas are welcome in the comments :).

It is of course by definition an unanswerable question. An impossible question.

Doesn’t mean we should stop asking it.