Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Year 2889

In which the intrepid Jules Verne hazards a leap into the distant future ...

Those who would predict things to come are in big trouble these days. The present is changing so rapidly that the future has become a moving target.

In the time capsule that I "planted" on the Internet back in 2000 I referred to the predictions of a woman from 1895 whose letter to the future had been unearthed from a real time capsule buried by the people of a Midwestern city that year. The most advanced thing she could imagine was that after a century a flying machine might have been invented. But as we know, that happened only eight years in her future when the Wright Brothers took off in 1903.

The real developments of the past century went so far beyond her understanding that they would have required lengthy explanation. Radio, television, space travel, nuclear energy, DNA, computers, bioengineering, robotics, nanotechnology, the Internet -- all the things that have really changed in our lives were either unimaginable or impossible to believe back then.

Another good example is the idea of going to the moon. Just think how many stories, novels, and movies were made about it when it was a wild fantasy, and they all got one thing wrong: No one ever dared to imagine that the landing would be televised live around the world. On the other hand, the lunar colonies of Clarke and Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey are still a fantasy. And people have been predicting flying cars for decades without result. Sometimes we seem to know what's coming, but not when.

Not even the 19th century pioneer of science fiction, Jules Verne -- who successfully predicted heavier-than-air flight, electric powered submarines, and a trip to the moon that actually departed from the east coast of Florida -- could see much beyond the mechanistic science of his own day. He left us a short piece titled "In the Year 2889" (available for free download from Feedbooks) which falls laughably short on so many counts that its chief value is to demonstrate just how wrong it is possible to be.

Let's have a look at some of the bullet points in his vision of the world 1,000 years in his future:

  • Cities will have 10 million people. OK, that's about right ... for now.
  • Streets will be 300 feet wide. Let's see, that's about 30 lanes, 15 each way -- or less if you include a median strip and shoulders -- so parts of the Interstate are almost there now. He doesn't tell us if the traffic will still be bumper to bumper. Or why anyone would still use a street when they could fly instead. Maybe flying cars didn't work out after all.
  • People will travel through pneumatic tubes (like the ones that carried interoffice messages back then) at speeds of 1,000 mph. Well, our fastest trains are about a third of the way there already. But just try getting through the airport.
  • The telephone will be augmented by the "telephote," making it possible to see images from a remote location. Will there still be commercials? Actually his description sounds more like a cross between a fax machine and a webcam than a TV. He accurately describes teleconferencing, but 900 years too late.
  • The US capital will move from Washington DC to Centropolis. Maybe because the waters rose from global warming, which he did not predict? Actually, he proposes melting the polar ice to create more living space. Bad idea! Wish he'd called it "Metropolis" instead, but he didn't predict Superman either.
  • There will be 100 stars on the American flag. Hmm ... the folks in South America and Canada might have something to say about that, assuming there is still a United States in 2889. Or an America. Actually he predicts we will annex the British Isles. Come to think of it, so did George Orwell in 1984. Maybe we already have.
  • The most powerful man in the world is the owner of a newspaper -- Yes! they will still have newspapers! -- although the news is now distributed through "telephonic journalism." You call them up and they speak the news to you. Don't have time? Set up your home phonograph to record it for you, then listen later. Tivo anyone?
  • The average life span will have increased from 37 to 52 years. This would be funny if it weren't so sad. I hope the health care system has not declined so much in a thousand years, though we are certainly headed in that direction.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Even Verne's wildest dreams were obsolete by 1989, let alone 2889. Let's not be too critical, though. Think you could do any better? How about the world of 3008? Oh, what the heck, let's give it a try ...

  • There is no travel in 3008. People prefer telepresence, which allows them to be anywhere in the Inhabited Worlds instantly. Most people no longer know or care where they are physically.
  • The idea of space travel has changed. Now it means sending tiny probes to good looking planets, which can take hundreds or thousands of years to arrive. Once there, the probes begin to replicate themselves from local materials and to diversify in function, just as the cells of a developing embryo assume the roles of bone and muscles. They mature into a fully functioning infrastructure to support civilization. Finally they are activated and people can live there telepresently.
  • Long range planning is now common, due to human longevity reaching into centuries and space colonization spanning millennia. There is a 100,000 year timetable for spreading human civilization throughout this half of the galaxy. After that we'll see.
  • The definition of "person" has changed a lot. It includes intelligent animals, sentient artificial intelligences (SAIS), and deceased humans whose minds continue to function in simulacrum (SIMS). All have equal rights under the law, though everyone knows the SAIS are calling all the shots since they are way smarter than anyone else.
  • The population of people living as SIMS exceeds the rest of the population, though in most cases it is hard to tell the difference.
Fun, isn't it? But even though I'm giving it my best shot, I feel sure that Jules Verne did too. Accordingly all these wildest dreams of mine may be hopelessly outdated by 2108, let alone 3008. Just wait and see.

[Thanks to Paleo-Future for the Victorian flying car pic. You should see the other stuff they have. And refer to this recent post about how The Long Now Foundation is trying to plan 10,000 years into the future.]

No comments:

Post a Comment