“Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” – Yogi Berra, but possibly apochryphal
Imagine living in Europe circa 1900. Someone asks you to predict the state of the world in 1950. Are you going to be able to tell them confidently that the continent at that time will be divided into two spheres of influence: One dominated by the United States of America and the other by a successor state to Tsarist Russia modeled on a militarized version of Karl Marx’s philosophy, all of this having taken shape after the second of two catastrophic wars, the most recent one having ended with the U.S.A. dropping a pair of radioactive bombs on Japan that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians?
If your prediction was way off in 1900, you would have been in good company. Conventional wisdom at the time maintained that the economies of Europe were too integrated to ever lead to war, much less a conflict that would first be deemed The Great War and then renamed after its successor was even worse. But there was one realm in which the catastrophe of World War I was foreseen with startling clarity: literature. H.G. Wells’ serialized 1907 novel “The War in the Air” contemplated the immense resources being poured into then-unprecedented war machines (emphasis added; note the prophecy of a decaying Russia and a militant Germany at the end, and the hints of the eventual end of the British Empire throughout):
“It is impossible now to estimate how much of the intellectual and physical energy of the world was wasted in military preparation and equipment, but it was an enormous proportion. Great Britain spent upon army and navy money and capacity, that directed into the channels of physical culture and education would have made the British the aristocracy of the world. Her rulers could have kept the whole population learning and exercising up to the age of eighteen and made a broad-chested and intelligent man of every Bert Smallways in the islands, had they given the resources they spent in war material to the making of men. Instead of which they waggled flags at him until he was fourteen, incited him to cheer, and then turned him out of school to begin that career of private enterprise we have compactly recorded. France achieved similar imbecilities; Germany was, if possible worse; Russia under the waste and stresses of militarism festered towards bankruptcy and decay. All Europe was producing big guns and countless swarms of little Smallways.”
Why did Wells predict the carnage of World War I so accurately – and in a work of fiction, no less – while his peers were distracted by what they wrongly deemed a dawning golden era of global cooperation?
The question brings me back to an old saw of mine: Google’s obsession with science fiction, a genre Wells was instrumental in modernizing. The company’s ambitious “moonshots” division once required that new projects have some sort of basis in or resemblance to sci-fi. Efforts such as flying cars, robots, you name it: all of it was a computer science exercise in catching up to the fantasies of pulp writers from decades ago. Hell, the dummy-piloted taxi cab from “Blade Runner” (a movie released in 1990) is still far out ahead of the billions upon billions of dollars being spent on self-driving cars today by Google and its peers.
Google is not alone; the tech industry often comes off as highly certain of what the future will look like. Predictions about the dominance of automated vehicles, “the rise of the robots,” and so much more are collectively the fuel upon which a thousand “influencer” conferences run. Such events and the companies that participiate in them are at the same time highly dismissive of the value of humanistic education, instead prizing “technical” knowledege above all else. Yet the irony of them fervently chasing ideas from storybooks persists.
At some level, we all seem to trust in the power of fiction to tell us what the future is, whether we trust the explicitly “futurist” visions of sci-fi, or the eschatology of books such as the Bible and the Koran. In regard to tech in paticular, I was startled a few months ago to read Rana Dasgupta’s “Tokyo Cancelled,” a 2005 novel that sort of retells the Arabian Nights – as well as various fairy tales, such as Bluebeard – for the 21st century.
In one of its discrete stories, a man accepts a new job as an editor of people’s memories. He curates thoughts that they have (which have been captured via surveillance) and puts together a retrospective to present to them on individualized CDs. However, he has to be careful to edit out bad memories:
“We have short-listed around a hundred thousand memories that you can work from. They’ve been selected on the basis of a number of parameters – facial grimacing, high decibel levels, obscene language – that are likely to be correlated with traumatic memories….Apply the logic of common sense: would someone want to remember this? Think of yourself like a film censor; if the family can’t sit together and watch it, it’s out.”
Now here’s a Facebook employee, in 2015, announcing the introduction of filters into its On This Day service, which sends you a notification each day linking you to your photos and status updates from past years:
“We know that people share a range of meaningful moments on Facebook. As a result, everyone has various kinds of memories that can be surfaced — good, bad, and everything in between. So for the millions of people who use ‘On This Day,’ we’ve added these filters to give them more control over the memories they see.”
So while Dasgupta was essentially predicting an advanced Facebook service at a time when Facebook itself didn’t even exist yet (“Tokyo Cancelled” was written well before 2005, and Facebook itself was launched in 2004), what were the leading lights of tech predicting? Um…
-Steve Jobs in 2003: music streaming services are terrible and will never work
-Reality: in 2016, streaming drove an 8.1 percent increase in music industry revenue, and virtually everyone has heard of or used Spotify and Apple Music
The gulf between Dasgupta’s futurism and these now-laugable prediction brings me back to the vitality of the often-maligned cultural studies fields. I am reminded again and again of how we have to think about culture as a whole – not just scientific advances, which are undoubtedly important to human improvement, but also the flow of literatures, social mores, art, etc. – to sense where we are going and where we are going to. For example: Max Weber once positioned the Protestant work ethic – a totally incidental characteristic associated with adherence to a specific religion – as a central cog in the growing success of capitalism, which was reshaping Europe in his time. Yes, the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the steam engine, electricity, coal-fired ships, etc. were all vital to the creation of global capitalism, but would it have coalesced into a coherent social system without the cultural glue of Protestantism?
Just as Weber saw religion as an essential way to make sense of and corral new modes of industrial production, Dasgupta saw, by writing speculatively about it, the struggle to deal with information at vast scale (imagine all the CDs needed to contain the memories of the characters in “Tokyo Cancelled”) as a defining issue of the busy yet personally isolating environment of the modern international airport, in which the book takes place. When we give up on studying the humanities (and all “the channels of physical culture” whose underinvestment Wells bemoaned in the passage above), we create huge blind spots for ourselves and miss futures like these that should have been apparent to us all along, whether they sprouted from an Edwardian sci-fi novel or a 21st century fairy tale.