IT’S HARD TO PREDICT, ESPECIALLY THE FUTURE

Published by Gregory Benford on February 2nd, 2013

IT’S HARD TO PREDICT, ESPECIALLY THE FUTURE

by Dale L. Skran, Jr.

with Benford comments in italics

The title is a quotation from Niels Bohr.

“Writers of the Future” had created a time capsule of predictions by SF writers made in 1987, and now, twenty-five years later, have posted them on the web.  I briefly discuss some of the set of predictions, with an emphasis on analyzing why they went wrong–or right.  I won’t address all of them since, frankly, some are just plain silly or are obviously intended as a joke or parody.

The first set of predictions is from Gregory Benford, a well-known hard SF writer that I generally like.  Benford has provided a neat and easy to follow list, so here goes:

* World population is nearly 8 billion:  It turns out to be a mere 7 billion; the reason for the shortfall is that in the olden days of 1987 the extent to which increasing global wealth would depress birth rates was not well understood.  Benford’s prediction was a very reasonable one–it just turned out to be wrong.

Mea culpa!

* Benford next throws out a snide little line about how “Most Americans are barely literate … just like today.”  Although this statement is clearly intended to be witty, it turns out to be true. There seems little doubt that the increasing usage of computers and the playing of video games has decreased the general level of literacy, but, as Benford reminds us, it was never that high anyway!

Sad to be somewhat right on this one.

* As far as I know, Berkeley does not have a theme park dedicated to the 1960s as Benford predicted. This does not seem like it was a seriously intended prediction.

Right—I meant it as a marker for a nostalgia for the 60s, which we certainly had. Indeed, most divisions are at base disagreements about whether the 60s and early 70s were a peak or a pit.

* Benford walks off the deep end, holding hands with just about every futurist who wrote anything about space in the 1980s, predicting a base on the moon and an expedition to Mars, along with vague evidence of intelligent life off the Earth.   None of these things have come to pass.  Generally predictions of progress in space made before about 1940 tend to be very pessimistic compared to what actually happened between 1940 and 1970, while predictions written from 1960-1990 tend to be wildly optimistic about space exploration.  Perhaps the simplistic way to understand this phenomenon is that the earlier group of writers failed to grasp how the Cold War would drive the space race, and the later futurists failed to grasp that the Cold War would end, and with it, the space race.

Alas, yes. But now entrepreneurs are changing that quickly. In a few months I’ll have a long story about this in a new anthology, STARSHIP CENTURY.

  • “I will be old, but not dead”–Benford won on this one all around!
  • And glad to be here!

 



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