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Falling Forward

A Science Fiction Writer Looks at the Twenty-first Century

Brian Dana Akers

Me typing 

 

Contrary to popular belief, science fiction writers usually don’t make predictions—especially about the future. They claim they are not in the prediction business, that they are just laying the possibilities on the table, giving the reader a chance to walk around and sniff the air in a variety of possible futures. Mostly, though, they just don’t want to look like fools.

Although science fiction has had its moments of prescience—atomic energy and space travel come to mind—it has also suffered from myopia. Think about it. Have you ever seen flying cars, personal helicopters, or jet packs in the Galleria parking lot? Have you bought your summer togas yet? Come to think of it, shouldn’t we be wearing all-white by now instead of all-black? More seriously, do you realize that science fiction gave us plenty of giant, electronic brains—but did not foreshadow personal computers? It’s true. What’s more, you’d be hard-pressed to find a science fiction novel in which the USSR simply . . . dissolved.

I honestly don’t know why everyone else is so bad at foreseeing the future. It’s not so tough. Here is the straight skinny on the next century. In fact, clip this article and check in with me in 2100. We’ll go over the list together—we both might still be around.

I’ve divided my predictions into four categories: Written in Stone, Slam Dunks, Probable, and Possible. The alert reader will notice that I don’t always specify quantities. (Will sea level rise by two centimeters, or two meters? Will the number of species decrease by hundreds, or hundreds of thousands? No one knows.) Note, also, that I’m looking at the entire world, not just the United States. Finally, although it’s often said that we are living in the post-modern world, I disagree. With half the people in the world yet to make their first phone call, we are only halfway through the modern era that began two centuries ago.

 

Written in Stone

You can absolutely count on the following happening.

•Massive, rapid change. The twenty-first century will be the make-or-break century for Planet Earth. Immense transformations of all kinds—political, social, economic, and more—will rumble through the century, driven primarily by the twin forces of demography (which has incredible mass) and technology (which has incredible velocity). Our green valley will not escape the whirlwind. Lift your gaze up from that copy of Modern Maturity, and you will see the world transformed.

•Fewer species. There will be less variety of living things in 2100 than in 2000 because species are being annihilated faster than they are coming into existence. We don’t know yet if this will be merely a shame, a tragedy, or a catastrophe.

•Fewer languages. The number of human languages spoken will decline from about six thousand today to half that number a century from now. Why? Because about three thousand languages spoken today are no longer being learned by children. English will be even more dominant.

•More city dwellers. Half a century ago, less than a third of humanity lived in cities; now half of us do. Two centuries ago, only London had a million people; today, 326 cities have more than a million people, and of these, fourteen have more than ten million. This trend will continue. If these numbers make you dizzy, take a reservoir walk before proceeding.

 

Slam Dunks

The following will almost certainly happen, but sometimes a slam dunk catches the rim and bounces out quite spectacularly.

•More people. We just passed the six billion mark in October and probably have several more billion to go. Virtually none of this growth will occur in the mid-Hudson Valley. Where will it stop and how many people can the Earth support? No one knows. Most estimates place the Earth’s long-term capacity at four to sixteen billion. Some place it as low as one billion. Oops.

•Global warming. The Earth’s temperature will rise. The Earth’s sea level will rise. Weather will become more violent. If you enjoyed Hurricane Floyd, you’re going to love the twenty-first century.

•Computers everywhere. Information technology will continue to drive change in the next century. Let’s see—nine billion people, 100 computers per person (mostly embedded in other things), each computer a million times more powerful than today’s PC, and all of them interconnected. You can deal with it—you just took a reservoir walk. Keep reading.

 

Probable

The following will most likely happen.

•More countries. The trend toward more and smaller countries will continue. Since countries rarely merge voluntarily—and the Age of Conquest is over—this is probably a one-way street. The Soviet Union broke into fifteen parts; the Chechnyans would like to make it sixteen. And East Timor could be the thread that unravels the Indonesian batik.

•Longer lives. Average life span will definitely continue to rise. Maximum life span may rise, perhaps spectacularly so. One hundred fifty candles on the cake and still healthy? Imagine going to a club to meet a cute guy and the main competition is your great-grandmother—or your great-granddaughter. Imagine what this will do to actuarial tables.

•Alternative energy arrives. Big time. The basic science and engineering for an energy economy based on nonpolluting, renewable sources may be completed early in the century—say by 2025. We’ll stop converting carbon into carbon dioxide by simply burning it, and instead use the precious molecular bonds in our finite supply of fossil fuels to create materials. Global implementation will take most of the century.

•Space exploration. The slow exploration and inhabitation of our solar system will continue, assuming political stability. More probes, more satellites, more orbiting observatories, colonies, and interplanetary travel, along with some new players: China, Japan, Korea, and others.

 

Possible

The following are wild cards that might happen. They have certainly powered the plots of more than a few technothrillers.

•Nuclear exchange or meltdown. Given the dispersion of nuclear know-how, the disintegration of the former Second World, the number of nuclear weapons extant, the number of persistent enmities, and the number of reactors, it seems entirely possible that we will see at least one more Hiroshima, one more Chernobyl.

•Plague. Biological know-how is expanding and dispersing, too. Imagine a disease that kills like rabies and travels like the flu. Half a billion dead? And you know terrorists will hit the City first. Shun the weekenders.

•First contact. An alien civilization could be detected at any moment, or never. More of us will certainly be listening in the twenty-first century than in the twentieth. You can even join the fun. Go to SETI@home to help sift through radio emissions from space.

•Really really advanced technologies. Biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial life. What these will bring—especially in the out years: 2070, 2080, 2090—is beyond my ability even to guess.

 

Hot, crowded, and overwhelming—not most people’s idea of a cheery future. Can’t we just go back to the way things were? No, that is one thing we absolutely cannot do. The teeming masses of humanity cannot be fed with nineteenth-century agriculture, the hosts of genies cannot be stuffed back in their bottles, the internet was designed to survive a nuclear exchange. There is no turning back, there is no standing still.

What does science fiction say about our future? There are three main alternatives.

1) Everything goes wrong. The nukes fly, the crops fail, the robots go berserk and the cockroaches inherit the Earth. A post-apocalyptic, dystopian nightmare plays out on a shattered planet.

This could happen. From On the Beach to Terminator 2, a whole disaster subgenre lays out the many different paths to hell—some ludicrous, some chillingly plausible.

2) Everything goes right. World leaders sit down together and wisdom prevails, family planning becomes universal, technology becomes foolproof, solutions are applied pro-actively and human beings inherit the Earth.

This could happen, too, but how likely is it? I’ll simply note that few utopian novels have been written in the last three-quarters of a century. The writers don’t believe in them, and neither do most readers.

3) We try our best to walk forward. There is no turning back, there is no standing still. Walking is controlled falling. With each step, your foot catches you just in time. Try taking a step at a time in the right direction.

This is the only alternative that is both realistic and hopeful. Vote with your ballots, vote with your dollars, vote with your words and deeds. Use the internet as a fulcrum. Do as little or as much as you can. And remember—

It’s either you, or the cockroaches.

 

The primary source of statistics for this article was the Worldwatch Institute’s Vital Signs series.

Copyright ©2000 Brian Dana Akers. All rights reserved.

 

 

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