Forward to the past

Forward to the past

Charlie Stross, the British science fiction writer, recently posted a “21st Century FAQ” on his blog that has aroused some reaction in futurist circles.

Let it be noted that I’ve had a few drinks with Charlie, and he is a pleasant, engaging, and very intelligent guy, and writes really excellent science fiction. But I have a bone or two to pick with his FAQ.

Q: What can we expect?
A: Pretty much what you read about in New Scientist every week. Climate change, dust bowls caused by over-cultivation necessitated by over-population, resource depletion …

How well would someone in the “aughts” have predicted the 20th century by reading, say, Popular Mechanics?

1902 Popular Mechanics1910 Popular Mechanics

There were, in fact, a couple of things that could be viewed as predictions with the benefit of hindsight, such as aerial bombardment and snowmobiles:

PM aerial bombardmentPM snowmobile

But PM didn’t really even predict the airplane; they just reported it. This cover is from 1910:

PM airplane and car

But the key thing you would have picked up was the general sense of technological excitement and optimism. It was the zeitgeist then. If you go to the New Scientist now, you’ll see a lot of the same kind of gee-whiz kind of stuff, but served up with today’s zeitgeist instead: currently fashionable doom and gloom.

This zeitgeist is captured in the mood and tone of the movies that are evoked by this quip of Paul Graham:

It’s hard to predict what life will be like in a hundred years. There are only a few things we can say with certainty. We know that everyone will drive flying cars, that zoning laws will be relaxed to allow buildings hundreds of stories tall, that it will be dark most of the time, and that women will all be trained in the martial arts.

So here’s the really interesting question: Compared to the people in 1900, we live a lot longer. We’re healthier. We’re enormously richer. We have an almost incredibly greater array of choices available to us, ranging from what kind of food we want to eat, where we want to travel, what kind of lifestyle we want to live, and on and on and on.

So why are we the pessimists and they the optimists?

One part of the explanation is hinted at by this graph. This looks just like the kind of thing you’re used to seeing in these futuristic essays, perhaps showing Moore’s Law or other exponential trend:


But this one is not technology: it’s the rate of indictable offenses in England and Wales, taken from this report by the British government. The crime rates are roughly 50 times as high at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. (Note that the US is not any better, but the graph is confounded by lots of noise such as the enormous crime wave in the early part of the century caused by Prohibition.)

No, I’m not suggesting that the crime rate is causing people to be pessimistic, per se. What I am suggesting is that the rate is an indicator, a proxy, for something in society that was right in 1900, and has gone wrong at an accelerating pace across the 20th century.

Charlie writes:

The big picture is that since around 2005, the human species has — for the first time ever — become a predominantly urban species. Prior to that time, the majority of humans lived in rural/agricultural lifestyles. Since then, just over 50% of us now live in cities; the move to urbanization is accelerating. If it continues at the current pace, then some time after 2100 the human population will tend towards the condition of the UK — in which roughly 99% of the population live in cities or suburbia.

This is going to affect everything.

Nope — it already did affect everything. Charlie’s stat is worldwide; the transition is largely done in the industrialized nations.

Is urbanization what has “gone wrong” and made us so pessimistic? People certainly feel safer in rural than urban areas. Cities are noisy, ugly and unnatural, constructed primarily of hard unliving stuff that’s usually dingy.

But they don’t have to be. It’s possible to construct high-density living areas that are pleasant, comfortable, and safe. It’s just expensive. But the continued increase in productivity we should see in the 21st century would make it possible to do that for everyone — but only if we see that as a goal and ditch the defeatist zeitgeist. Things “gone wrong” can be identified, understood, and fixed — or at least worked on. Optimism may be unfashionable, but it’s not unwarranted.

Here’s Charlie again:

Q: Space colonization?
A: Forget it.

Q: The Singularity?
A: Forget it.

(Together with an explanation that what he means is that they won’t affect 99+% of humanity if they do happen.)

I’d agree with the space colonization if we assume today’s technology. But that’s like predicting, in 1909, that 99% of humans would be unaffected by air travel, based on the range and capacity of the Wright Flyer. But I think that nanotech — real nanotech — is capable of most of what would be needed. And it’s silly to imagine that basic physics has just stopped and there will be no more fundamental discoveries.

As far as the Singularity is concerned, Charlie’s notion of it is not the same as mine, so arguing this point would be a case of talking past each other. But I will strongly claim that an AI/nanotech revolution that kicks the economy into a growth mode that looks like Moore’s Law, “is going to affect everything.”

The great challenge of the 21st century is going to be to make our large-scale systems — from cities to economies to the global ecosystem — work properly. The political structures we use to run things now are incompetent. Nanotech will help. AI will help more.

What happens in the 21st century depends entirely on what we do. Two centuries ago flying was a ridiculously impossible dream. Today you can hop on a plane and cross the continent in hours. The difference is that one century ago a lot of people were possessed by a vision of flight, and worked like crazy to make it come true.

The same is true of all the possibilities we can see, from nanotech to AI, from SENS to powersats. None of this will happen if we just sit around whining and moping. Alan Kay said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” But the only way to live in the future you’ve invented, is to build it.

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  1. JamesG March 3, 2009 at 8:43 am - Reply

    Nice post, I agree with everything you’re saying. Many people have dismissed nanotech/AI out-of-hand, before we have even begun to really try making those things, it’s sad because by spreading the nanotech/AI are impossible meme without knowing for sure they have set the technology back. Politicians are not funding MNT/AI, because of wide-spread sillyness like people calling it a religion and so on. MNT/AI should be our number 1 priority, once achieved all other solvable problems are solved. Instead of getting millions of dollars, MNT/AI should be getting billions. There just seems no way to combat the ignorance and pessimism that’s so widespread. Too bad Drexler, Freitas, Kurzweil, etc. don’t get together and really talk someone like Bill Gates into funding this stuff. 30 billion (half of his fortune) he wouldn’t even miss and if it led to MNT/AI he would never have to worry about money again like everyone else, anyway.

  2. […] FORWARD TO THE PAST: “How well would someone in the ‘aughts’ have predicted the 20th century by reading, say, Popular Mechanics?” Read the whole thing, which makes a number of interesting points. […]

  3. Anonymous March 4, 2009 at 6:25 pm - Reply

    Heck, forget a hundred years ago. Twenty-five years ago my company was still charging itself 500 dollars per hour of CPU time. Forty years ago everyone thought that communicator thing that Kirk and Spock hung off their belts was sooo twenty-second century. Fifty years ago people thought that Sputnik thing was spooky and would lead to nuclear war.


  4. Anonymous March 4, 2009 at 7:45 pm - Reply

    Regarding Star Trek, I was watching some TNG episodes on YouTube. Note that TNG ran from 1987-94.

    Captain Picard gets his reports on something that is exactly the size and thickness of the Kindle 2.0. He has it on his desk. This was considered futuristic, when 1987-94 writers were envisioning the 24th century.

    That is why the last Star Trek series aimed low and was set in the 22nd century, attempting to fill out that era of the Star Trek future. I don’t think anyone is bold enough to do a whole series that goes forward to the 25th century. Even imagining that world is challenging at this time. The improvements from the 23rd century to the 24th involved the holodeck, replicators, and transwarp. What more is there for the 25th century? Time Travel? Too hard to manage within canon.

  5. Anonymous March 5, 2009 at 3:57 am - Reply

    Do remember that in the closing decades of the 19th century we had the concept that progress and innovation had reached a peak, so much so that we could close the patent office. The thinking that technical progress is coming to an end or reaches a saturation point is one that also appears from time to time.

    Gordon R. Dickson had a very interesting concept in the demise of ubanized society with the opening of space travel as the condensed masses of humanity formed ‘marching societies’ that were disrupting social order. Those would snowball into a human diaspora where self-contained ideas on religion, science or just how to lead one’s life would push to leave Earth and become splinters of humanity each seeking a different way forward. That is an extrapolation of the known problem of primitive society with few social structures reaching a maximum stable size at 120 to 150 people. It is very possible that urbanized humanity, likewise, has a density limit that cannot be overcome by any form of current technical or social organization and the decay we see is the start of those limits being expressed, just like the ‘marching societies’ but with less order to as we are only at the start of the process.

  6. Anonymous March 5, 2009 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    20 years ago they said we would have the assembler in 20 years. We still don’t have it.

    I think the Feds should finance it. Put up $1 trillion or more with the goal of an assembler within 10 years. It worked for Kennedy.

    The benefits greatly outweigh those of the Apollo program. Greatly increasted life spans, an end to disease and poverty. We can’t afford to wait any longer.

    I’d like to see Obama do whatever it takes to get the world motivated towards building the assembler.

  7. Anonymous March 5, 2009 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    I agree. Let’s do it. Here is my email: Lets together you and I draft a letter of some sort about assemblers and the vital importance of developing them, and send this letter to President Obama and his administration.

  8. Anonymous March 6, 2009 at 12:29 pm - Reply

    Just like to point out that probably most of the “indictable offense” problem regarded here is a problem of reporting the crime. I’d suggest that 1900’s poor villages reported way less crimes than do today’s cities, where it’s way less to escape the society. I’d say though that “pessimism” may be well correlated with this, because perception, not reality, is key.

    To suggest, as the author does, that the 1900’s village lifestyle was better than 2010’s city’s lifestyle, is to be gullible and susceptible to eden myths that never existed. As you put the graph reported crime rates, why not also put the expected lifespan? Was it the Doom’nGloom zeitgeist? You betcha!

    But you’re still in time to recover from it. I now I did.

  9. Anonymous March 6, 2009 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    Certainly urbanization could have some affect, but how do we know it isn’t just increased willingness/effort to report crimes. Also,

    “the graph is confounded by lots of noise such as the enormous crime wave in the early part of the century caused by Prohibition.”

    Which clearly the current drug prohibitions create their own enormous crime wave; thus “causing a lot of noise” if future societies end those prohibitions, which some appear to be considering.

    Anyhow the amount pessimism seems to hard to measure, and I’d say depends too much on where you get your news.

  10. Anonymous March 6, 2009 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    Your response was much nicer than mine. Maybe I should try to be more polite.

    Sometime can you post about why you don’t think that MNT is likely to lead to uncontrollable arms races or unfriendly AI?

  11. Anonymous March 6, 2009 at 9:17 pm - Reply

    I don’t believe we will ever have an Apollo-style program for MNT, and I am no pessimist. The reason I say this is that the people who have the majority of wealth and power do not want to lose either. MNT will level the playing field for the rest of us, and they do not want that to happen.

    I think that the first assemblers will come from someone’s garage or basement, similar to the way Bill Gates “created” Windows. This person or small group will probably be working at IBM or some similar entity, and move it to their own lab.

    …my $0.02 – Bobbo

  12. Anonymous March 6, 2009 at 9:45 pm - Reply

    I knew a lady who wrked at a library and brought home a lot of 50-year old popular mechanics magazines. The headliners often never saw the light of day (although the autosled is amazingly like a snowmobile!), but often in the back pages was a quarter column on something that DID change the way things are.

    Nevertheless, those who were born in the early 20th century and are still around, I believe are the generation that has seen the greatest revolution in the way Men live that has ever been seen or ever will be seen in history. In 1900, few had electric lights. You rose and went to bed with the sun, and most energy expenditures were still muscle power. A 10th century man transported to 1890 would not see much a difference in the way most people lived in his time and the way they lived in 1890. Move that same person ahead 100 years, and he would be lost.

    Now, I predict that you can take today’s man and move him forward 500 years, and he will still be functional. Yes, there will be dramatic technological changes. But the basics of the way people live their lives will not be foreign to today’s man. We are contemplating nantotech today. 500 years from now, we may see it realized. Todays man in 2500 would be enthralled, but he will NOT be surprised!

    The ability to disconnect our sleep cycle from the sun brought on by artificial light, the information age, the ability to have plentiful fresh food year round. . . . These things have fundamentally changed the human way of existence far beyond all the groovy gadgets we’ve got. This sort of change happens very infrequently.

  13. Anonymous March 7, 2009 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    I don’t believe we will ever have an Apollo-style program for MNT, and I am no pessimist. The reason I say this is that the people who have the majority of wealth and power do not want to lose either. MNT will level the playing field for the rest of us, and they do not want that to happen.

    Without MNT, those with wealth and power will lose it when they die.

    Without MNT, almost everyone alive today will be dead in less than a century. With it, perhaps these people will live thousands of years with more “wealth” than they could possibly imagine.

    Nanotechnology has the potential to greatly increase lifespans and eliminate poverty.

    Assemblers powered by free solar energy will use open source plans to create anything we could want or need out of garbage.

    Isn’t that goal worth spending whatever it takes to get it as soon as possible?

  14. […] Nanodot: Nanotechnology News and Discussion » Blog Archive … […]

  15. Anonymous March 11, 2009 at 5:39 pm - Reply

    the fertilizer extrapolation seemed plausible. of course nano fixes everything.

  16. […] But the pendulum has swung back and the acolytes of neo-Malthusian apocalypticism are again in full cry. In recent months the blogosphere has been echoing with claims that lo and behold, the Limits to Growth scenarios have been coming true over the past 30 years: A real-world analysis of a controversial prediction made 30 years ago concludes that economic growth cannot be sustained and we are on track for serious economic collapse this century. […]

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