OF THE FUTURE
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.
the past heaven was the only virtual reality
the future were really predictable, wed 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
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.
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 UKs
working classes (todays 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 didnt even imagine the working classes would
own cars in council estates built in the 1960s. 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 1970s 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 1890s, 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
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 electricitys 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
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
Gatess 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 worlds 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
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
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 1950s. 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 its orbit.
All this pretty much mirrors the Russian satellite experience in late
59 and early 60s.The satellite splashes down in the Pacific
Ocean where a US warship is accidentally waiting. It is an extraordinarily
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 its 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
© Sam North 2000-2007
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