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More Amazing Than Science Fiction!

November 24, 2008

“More Amazing Than Science Fiction.”

That is the top line on the dust jacket (still know what that is?) of a book left after the fall book sale: “Toward the Year 2018: a dozen eminent leaders in science and technology look 50 years into the future.”

We’re forty years into that future, so I had to look.

The first chapter is “Weaponry,” disappointing but not surprising in a book

published by the Foreign Policy Association in 1968.

Materials science proved remarkably productive in the last forty years for many applications, military and civilian. Whereas other possibilities discussed, such as weather and gravity control, are no closer than they were in 1968.

The author calls nuclear weapons “not a subject well-adapted to public discussion.” Yikes!

The developments in electronics at that point were “scarcely plausible even to those who have been closely associated with them.”

Microelectronics made possible and easy a thousand unforeseen things, and even in the military I’d bet one ungrasped aspect was information processing. Knowledge has always been part of the battleground, and modern information gathering and processing has ramped that aspect up considerably.

Near the end of this chapter, the author says, “It is barely possible that a complete new fashion may be in the making: international peace.” Most unlikely, he says, and that was probably his most accurate prediction.

Understatements and hopeful fancy abound in the chapters on communication and energy.

“Already influential, TV is likely to become even more so in the future … perhaps we will be able to record programs cheaply and replay them later … there will be the broadening of vision, the less parochial attitude toward life, that TV brings … could bring something of the unity of view and purpose to the entire world …”

“Congress limits imports to about 25 percent of domestic production to maintain U.S. production facilities and to safeguard the nation from becoming dependent on foreign sources. By the year 2018, production of oil from petroleum wells is likely to be insufficient to meet U.S. requirements for energy in liquid form.”

The subtitle of the chapter “Computer Technology” is: “Machines will do more of man’s work, but will force man to think more logically.”

In discussing ten points about how man can control the weather, the last point declares this caveat: “A distinct probability should be recognized that large-scale climate modification will be effected inadvertently before the power of conscious modification is achieved.”

On behavioral technology, “more will be known of child development,” and indeed that’s true. But what we know tells us we should spend most of our education dollars in the early years.

The author then notes “half a century is probably not long enough to effect any dramatic change in the patterns of family life and parental responsibility,” but I think that’s actually the easier change. Changing the balance of entrenched public policy is the hard part.

Under the heading “Too much information, please,” the information explosion already infecting the 1968 State Department was discussed. “Putting broad-band communications … and instant computerized retrieval in the hands of such an organization is like feeding pastry to a fat man. The problem is clearly not input but also digestion.”

The book is a wonderful stew of close and wildly off. The closest predictions reasoned from human nature and the full expectation that it would not change.

I found nothing predicted about public libraries, but it would be fun to imagine libraries in 2018. Maybe next time.

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