Playing the Indian Card

Friday, October 23, 2015

Mark Steyn on the Future

I disagree with Mark Steyn.

October 21 was Back to the Future day: the day to which Marty McFly and Doc Brown time- travelled in the 1989 movie Back to the Future II. Steyn points out all the many ways in which the future as forecast in the movie is more advanced than the reality we live with, and concludes that Western Civilization is running out of steam. The future, it seems, isn't what it used to be.

Wrong. First off, predictions, expecially by experts, are almost always wrong. This is because the most likely thing is always continuity, but nobody will listen to you or pay you as an expert if you do not predict major change. So the future is always more futuristic in the telescope than through the window. Remember monorails? Flying cars? Personal jet packs?

Given that the experts are wrong, it seems silly indeed to take your predictions from a popular movie. The purpose of this movie is to entertain, not to make accurate predictions. “Jaws 19”—very funny. Making the future as different as possible from the present is obviously the best option for entertainment value. How could anyone take the predictions as serious?

Steyn goes on to argue that, if someone were taken by a time machine from 1890 to 1950, they would be stunned by all the changes. Cars, planes, electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing, radio, maybe TV. But jump them another 60 years to 2010, and thinks would still look pretty much the same as they did in 1950. Cars, planes, electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing, TV.

He's right, but I'd say looks here are deceiving. Historically, the first things we tackled were the big machines, large engines such as are needed for transportation or manufacturing, because those were the easiest things to build. They did not require as much precision. But, being big, they were and remain the most visible.

Since about the 1940s, we have moved on to the small things: printed circuits, transistors, lasers, computers, software, nanotechnology, DNA sequencing, GMOs, and so forth. These are less immediately visible, being small, but they are probably more important. The green revolution is close to eliminating starvation worldwide. GMOs will go further. There is serious talk, at least, of extending lifespans indefinitely. That would be a big change, surely? The Internet and the accessibility of multimedia to everyone will probably be more significant than the invention of the printing press; quite possibly than the invention of writing. 

Videophone, as predicted in France circa 1900.

Last week I went to buy a new phone, and was surprised to discover that I no longer had the option to buy an “ordinary cell phone” of the old Nokia variety. All the phones on offer were smart phones, with touch screens, cameras, massive memories, Internet connections, and apps available of all sorts. But they cost less than the cell phone I bought two years ago. And when I was teaching IT just five years ago, “smart phones” were not even predicted by the text we used. It talked instead of “Personal Digital Assistants.”

When I went to put in my old SIM card, I found it no longer fit. For the new phone, I needed either a micro SIM or a nano SIM. When I brought my old SIM card to the connectivity provider, the clerk laughed to see something so old fashioned. But I was using it in a phone I bought only two years ago!

I agree with Steyn that there are bad signs for the future of Western Civilization. But I don't think technology is where the problem is manifesting.

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