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In the past heaven was the only virtual reality
Sam North

From 1880 to 2050, every decade has a differing vision and set of wants and needs. This opening text serves as a setting for later more speculatative essays about the future. Chapters already on-line deal with the 2000 to 2010 and 2050.

If the future were really predictable, we’d all hang ourselves, right after killing our children. Apocalypse always sells. It sells like lipstick, because it flatters our vanity. Real futurism means staring directly into your own grave and accepting the slow but thorough obliteration of everyone and everything you know and love.”
Bruce Sterling Wired Jan 96

An Introduction:
The purpose of this series of essays is to investigate the expectations of each period examined given what hopes they had for the new discoveries and social changes taking place, then study the reality following the ‘unexpected’ developments that take place in history, such as war or depression. Again, as these periods pass, a new generations of writers and artists, philosophers and pundits will predict a new future based upon the events of the past. Is there a common thread? Do events such as war produce more or less optimistic visions of the future? Do radical new developments in technology change peoples’ expectations of the future? Can the future be predicted?

In a survey made during 1987 by the Global Business Network of opinions about the future of leading businessmen, people everywhere stated they were worried about the future, only the business people of Southeast Asia stated they were optimistic. A year later the Southeast Asian region was in economic tatters. Japan in 1990 was the most economically successful country on earth, yet has experienced a ten year anti-inflationary downward spiral. It has just reintroduced a period of zero interest rates, Japan has experienced ten years of reducing prices for commercial products, year on year, with falling land and property prices causing leading banks to go under. Pensioners have had to play the stock market to get any kind of income at all. Yet Japan still leads the world in research and development. They lead the world in use of mobile web telecommunications. In theory their economy should be thriving but instead people save their money. No one predicted this. In 2001 the stock market experienced a huge crash - down from the highs of March 2000. Investor confidence at a new low, factories laying people off, a new hawk President, seems no one was looking at history at all. Chicken Little versus Reality. Yet we are in the midst of a huge change in our lives. Technolgy stocks are down, but technology will go one changing our lives in a big way . By 2020 our world will have been transformed. You may not like it, but it will be utterly different to now.

You can see some trains coming of course. The rise of the right-wing in Europe will be a response to mass inward refugees from Africa and the Muslim world. Which response will be made? To invest in Africa to make it more self-sufficient or build a wall around Fortress Europe. You do not have to be very psychic to see which way it go.
Since I wrote this in 2000 we have seen extreme right wing governments come to power in Portugal, Spain, Belgium and Holland. France (Le Pen) and Germany are all following suit in mid-2002. Place your bets on Ian Duncan Smith and the Tories in the UK for 2004.

HIV AIDS sems to have receeded as an issue in the West but it is devasting Africa. No one forsaw that, equally precious little is being done about it. In South Africa the President doesn't even like to talk about it - despite it affecting their GDP by 0.5 percent last year and some thirty million are infected with it. HIV will increasingly affect the prime labour market of 20-35 year old males and females. AIDS is literally eating away at African economies. Although now they will at least talk about offering treatment for sufferers.

Prediction is taking what you know now and throwing it up in the air some. How will technology change our lives? For better or worse? Richer or poorer? Technology mostly is a force for good and prosperity, but there are downsides. Some of which we shall explore here.

An examination of the UK economy between 1925 until the outbreak of war in 1939 would have told a similar story. The UK was breaking new ground in all kinds of research and developments of radio, television, electric-diesel engines, the car, new synthetic materials. Yet the economy was stagnant. Mass market applications of those new developments was slow in coming.

With hindsight we can understand the problem. The mass of the UK’s working classes (today’s consumers) were poorly paid, had little job or health security, no access to credit and consumer items were too expensive. No credit, no consumers. They would have to wait until after the war and American style hire-purchase plans to arrive. In the 1930s, few if any pundits were predicting the consumer boom and glut of the 20th Century. Town planners didn’t even imagine the working classes would own cars in council estates built in the 1960’s. The concept of planning for a future where everyone might have access to consumer goods of all kinds and leisure time is almost completely absent from all planning projections almost up until the 1970’s and even more recent than that.

This contempt for trickle down prosperity survives today in almost all planning offices in the third world. State planning has been disastrous and here we are with six billion people on the planet. In fifty years it might be 11 billion. The chances are that we have not planned for them wanting equal access to fresh water, sewage disposal, electric power, education, housing, roads, jobs and food, schools and universities, hospitals - let alone access to beaches or other recreation areas for liesure. Can this be best left to the ‘market’. It would be a brave prediction indeed that would state that the ‘market’ will take care of these new people. Indeed the task seems daunting and for cities such as Mexico with a projected 25 million people, impossible. Yet what were the predictions for Mexico City back in 1925 say, or 1950. Can they have been so unprepared for this explosion of population? Or just unwilling to tackle it. After all, the poor might not even register to vote.

Does New Technology Change Lives?
In the 1890’s, electricity and the automobile arrived together and succeeded in transforming all of human life. In the process transferring global economic and political power to oil companies, then countries that possessed the oil. Equally, atomic power and the computer arrived simultaneously, each necessitating the other as the demand for faster and more sophisticated calculations placed demands upon the emergent computer industry. This is turn changed the future once more. As each invention arrived people speculated its impact on society. Always there were high feelings and much resistance.
The car, people said, would be a menace and never replace the horse, electricity as demonstrated by Benjamin Franklin and later Michael Faraday inspired one Mary Shelley to scare everyone with ‘Frankenstein’, the tale of the dead being reborn with electricity’s magic powers. Superstition lay side by side with sophistication. The new future society based upon the electric powered machine would be inserted into a world that still lived under the mediaeval and feudal structures that had preceded it.

In 1900 many people had pocket watches, the wristwatch was new and was considered a fad. Why would everyone need a watch people asked? In 1961 the 100th million watch was sold. The number now could be a billion. The future was always going to be about time and how we used it. In 2001 Nokia were researching whether anyone might ever want a camera on their mobile phone. Six years later you couldn't sell a phone without an at least 2 megapixels camera and now music and email on the phone are the norm. A perfect case of technology speedingup and inventing 'needs'. The downside in 2007 is the epidemic of happy slapping and fighting between kids recorded on phones and posted on the web. Clockwork Orange anyone?

The twentieth century would change and sweep away all of the past and it would not be easy or pleasant. The resistance, when it came would be very violent, for with the new sciences came immense destructive powers. It was possible to imagine the total destruction of mankind. The great deadly forces of the plague may have retreated to history, but man was quite capable of devising ways of mass-murder. Now at last, it would have the means.

Atomic power arrived, not in the benign form of electricity generation but a deadly explosive force that threatened and still could threaten to obliterate mankind.(As every August 6th , Hiroshima and Nagasaki three days later remember - even if we forget ). This in turn produced a plethora of predictive literature in academic and fiction circles, as well as cinematic essays that doomed a generation to living despair. (From Fail Safe to Dr Strangelove to On the Beach). An entire generation from 1946 to 1989 lived with the fear that the world would end in a fireball in response to a terrible, wasteful political stand-off, labelled the ‘Cold War’. Science-Fiction became a regular source of predictive information and, at least in the first twenty years following the war, provided real insights into the way the world would look in the latter half of the 20th Century. (See Philip K Dick, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov). Most lasting of these visionaries was Philip K Dick, whose vision of a paranoid future people with Robots that wanted to be human and Virtual Travel have fitted so closely with actual reality and expectations.

The computer, first mooted two hundred years before by Charles Babbage with his ‘calculating machine’, has more than just transformed human life, it has embedded itself in every aspect of our lives. The hardware manufacturers thought they were the future, but it turned out to be Bill Gates’s future, the man who owned the operating systems - mirroring what was happening with the car and the transfer of power to oil companies. The 21st Century will see the computer become invisible, embedded in everything we do or own, including our own bodies using nantotechnology. Yet even in 1958 IBM executive Thomas Watson stated, ‘I think there is a world market for about five computers.’ Source: John Cole Global 2050.

No one predicted that every single home would have a computer, comb as much science-fiction as you like, but no one actually predicted the World Wide Web and how it is used even twenty years ago. Even five years ago, no one predicted that the UK alone would have 10.6 million home users on-line by July 2000. The uptake in China is happening so fast it is likely they will be the world’s largest Net users in by 2002. This issue alone will change the nature of the web and how it is used.

Lord Kelvin, a student of Michael Faraday, and someone who should have known better, stated forcefully at various times the following: ‘Radio has no future. Heavier than air machines are impossible. X-rays are nothing more than a hoax’
Sir Richard Van der Riet Wooley - The Astronomer Royal (1956) stated ‘Space travel is utter bilge’.

Predictions in our own time can be amazingly wrong. A.R. Flower wrote in 1978 that ‘the supply of oil will fail to meet increasing demand before the year 2000.’ Yet in 1996 BP research showed that world proven reserves were around 141 billion tonnes with annual production at 3.36 billion tonnes with a reserves to production ratio of 42 years life expectancy. (BP 1997 figures).

1880 saw the the first stage: the mass-mechancial era.
Collective urbanism driven by the growth of the railways, the first wave of mass consumption and production for the new city dwellers. The growth of the city and decline of the agrarian society. Visionaries of the future were Jules Verne, Karl Marx, Horace Greely, Mark Twain. Utopian visions a key element and the first signs of millennium rapture. The dawn of monopolies - Rockefeller, Carnegie.
The development of photography, the production of electricity, the vision of a society powered by electricity. The first city-wide sewage systems was built (Birmingham, UK), the average speed of urban road travel in London was 12 mph. Nursing becomes a profession following Florence Nightingales efforts in 1854 Crimean War. The reality is of a society powered by the horse, coal, gas, little sense of civic responsibilities, it is a society of *full employment, including children. There is no social security and the only refuge from debts is the poor house. Debtors spent years in prison with little hope of release. *Full employment counted only men, it did not count those who were unable to work through illness or incapacity or women.

The prominent critics and commentators were Dickens,Trollope.
There are no antibiotics, no cures for headaches and people still have large families because it is likely that measles, chicken pox, polio, diphtheria, rickets,influenza, malaria, smallpox , even cholera, could kill at any time.
Herr Zeidler invents DDT. 1874 (No use found for it at this time)
Summation. Society is on the cusp of change, but the full impact of the inventions already discovered - the petrol engine and electrical power are not fully understood.

Example: Edison declared that electricity could never travel further than 3 miles and cities should be built close to power stations and limited in size to accommodate this limitation. Even as he declared this, Nikolai Tesla had already patented (AC) Alternative Current which meant that electrical power could be transmitted through power lines for unlimited distances. Together with Westinghouse, the first hydroelectric station was being built at Niagara Falls which would in turn lead to Buffalo New York being the worlds first planned city built around the supply of electric power to factories.

Long Term Consequences:
The most vivid consequences of this early development in hydro-electricy is that investment in coal mining infrastructure began to decline. Coal mining as an occupation would be endangered over the 20th Century, as would that of delivering and manufacturing ice. (Ice men would deliver ice to households and factories on a daily basis all over the US cities. Although very early on the principles of refrigeration using electricity were being researched, it still took fully fifty years for refrigerators to be a common household item.The USA taking the lead in this area.)

In 1865 Jules Verne had written Voyage Around the Moon in which is discussed launching satellites and missions to the moon in the 1950’s. The space capsule actually carried a dog in it that died and was ejected out of the capsule. The dead dog then followed the capsule in it’s orbit. All this pretty much mirrors the Russian satellite experience in late ‘59 and early 60’s.The satellite splashes down in the Pacific Ocean where a US warship is accidentally waiting. It is an extraordinarily prescient book.

Around 1900 H.G. Wells published 'Anticipations' looking forward to fast transportation and progressive agriculture that would feed the world. In 'War of the Worlds' he predicted the arrival of aliens with only hostile intent for mankind (A recurring theme of the 20th century). Like absent aliens, another of his predcitions 'The Time Machine' has yet to materialise, but provided necessary imaginative nutrition for a society that believed that science would change the world and did not yet fear it.

There was a common assumption that electricity had curative powers and its potential to replace gas in lighting homes was generally dismissed. In 1899 it’s ability to power motor vehicles was considered the most likely outcome. Rockefeller had other ideas.

Social development: E.B.Taylor the father of Anthropology wrote the Science of Culture - transforming the study of mankind with the idea of ‘all mankind in one’. This was a radical idea that would have ramifications in the next century.
1880: the number of civil servants in full time paid employment in the UK 20,000.

© Sam North 2000-2007

To continue reading Visions of the Future:
1890-1914. 1919-1923 1924-1939 1939-1946 2050
Another Place To Die
by Sam North

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