Thursday, 31 January 2013

Profiling the future: science predictions of a bygone age

I recently heard a joke along the lines of: "Question: What would a scientist from one hundred years ago find most disconcerting about current technology? Answer: whilst there are cheap, mass-produced, pocket-sized devices that can hold a large proportion of mankind's knowledge, they are mostly used for viewing humorous videos of cats!" The obvious point to make (apart from all the missed potential) is that the future is likely to be far more unpredictable than even the best-informed science fiction writer is capable of formulating. But if SF authors are unlikely to make accurate predictions, what are the chances that trained scientists will be any good at prognostication either?

As a child I read with breathless wonder various examples of mainstream science prediction delineating the early Twenty-first Century: flying cars, underwater cities, domestic robots and enormous space colonies; after all, I did grow up in the 1970s! Unfortunately I wasn't to know that these grandiose visions were already fading by the time Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. Yet if this was caused by a decline in the Victorian ideal of progress (or should that be Progress) why didn't the authors of these volumes know about it?

Despite the apparent decline in mega-budget projects over the past forty years - Large Hadron Collider and International Space Station excepted - popular science and technology exposition continued to promote wild, wonderful and occasionally downright wacky ideas into the 1980s. One of the best known examples of the genre is Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future, originally published in 1962 but with updated editions appearing in 1973, 1983 and 1999. As a leading SF writer and 'Godfather of the Communications Satellite' Clarke seemed better placed than most to make accurate predictions, and thus making him a suitable example with which to explore this theme. Indeed, the first edition of Profiles… contains what was to become his First Law, a direct reference to one of the dangers of prophesizing developments in science and technology: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong." Unfortunately, by always following this notion Clarke's prognostications frequently appear overly optimistic, utilising a schoolboy enthusiasm for advancement that downplays the interactions between science and society.

Interestingly, this optimism appears in exact opposition to earlier generations, wherein scientists and pioneer SF writers were frequently pessimistic as to the impact that new science and technology would have on civilisation. Whilst some of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells' fictional predictions have been realised their most negative visions have yet to occur, unless you consider the West's current obsession with witless celebrities and consumerism as a veritable precursor of Wells' post-human Eloi. (Note: if you enjoy watching TV shows such as Celebrity Chefs' Pets' Got Talent you should probably read Wells' The Time Machine as soon as possible…)

While the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century equivalents of Michael Crichton were raising the possibility of technologically-led dystopias, their scientific contemporaries frequently abided by a philosophy antithetical to Clarke's First Law. The likes of Lord Kelvin, Ernest Rutherford and even Albert Einstein opposed theories now part and parcel of the scientific canon, ranging from black holes, meteorite impacts on Earth and quantum electrodynamics to the ensuing development of heavier-than-air flight, atomic bombs and even commercial radio transmission. Given how quickly advances in science and technology occurred during Clarke's first fifty years, perhaps he and his fellow prophets could be forgiven for thinking progress would remain on a steady, upward path. After all, in terms of astronautics alone, the quarter century from the V-2 to Apollo 11 vindicated many of their ideas and at the same time proved that some of the finest scientific minds of the early Twentieth Century - Rutherford, J.B.S. Haldane, various Astronomer Royals, et al - had been completely wrong.

However, even brief analysis of recent history, say the post-Apollo era, shows that scientific developments are subject to the complicated interactions of culture, economics and leadership; and of course, simple serendipity. The first edition of Profiles of the Future stated that the Ground Effect Machine (A.K.A. hovercraft) would soon become a prominent form of land transport. In the context of the time - the SR.N1 having only made its first 'flight' three years earlier - this would seem to be a reasonable proposition, but once you stop to consider the invested interests in the established transport sector it is readily apparent that such a new kid on the block could not get established without overcoming major obstacles (of a non-technical variety). As Stephen Jay Gould was fond of pointing out, it is exceedingly difficult to replace even suboptimal technology once it has become established, the QWERTY keyboard layout being a prominent example.

As a converse, pioneers such as British jet engine inventor Frank Whittle found themselves snubbed by an establishment that failed to see the advantages of disturbing the status quo. Another issue concerns how theories can easily get lost and only later rediscovered, such as the work of genetics pioneer Gregor Mendel. By failing to take enough notice of these issues, Clarke's generation watched their predictions fall out of synchronisation after what appeared to be a promising start. In contrast, futurists with a keen interest in the sociological implications of new technology, Alvin Toffler perhaps being the best known, have long noted that progress can be non-linear and subject to the vagaries of the society in which it develops.

Although Arthur C. Clarke is remembered as a 'prophet of the space age' it is interesting to ask how original was he: inventive genius, smart extrapolator from the best of H.G. Wells (and numerous pulp SF writers) or just a superb mouth piece for the cutting edge technologists? The Saturn V architect Wernher von Braun for example wrote The Mars Project, a 1948 detailed study for a manned mission to Mars that showed parallels with Clarke's writings of the period. Bombarded as we are today by numerous examples of space travel in fact and fiction, it's hard to imagine a time when anyone discussing the possibility was deemed an eccentric. For instance Robert Goddard, the American pioneer of liquid-fuelled rockets during the 1920s and 30s, faced enormous criticism from those who considered his physics flawed. Only with the development of the V-2 rocket (again, involving von Braun) was there some science fact to back up the fiction and the start of the change in public perception of astronautics from crackpot to realisation. Ironically, the new advances also provided fuel for a moral opposition, C.S. Lewis being a prominent example, who argued that humans shouldn't develop space travel until their ethics had improved. Clarke may be known for his anti-nationalistic stance concerning space exploration, but during the late 1940s and early 1950s even he wrote both fact (The rocket and the future of warfare) and fiction (Earthlight) discussing its military potential.

Just because some of Clarke's ideas - in distinct opposition to all the naysayers - came to fairly rapid fruition doesn't make him a genius at prediction; in the broad sweep of developments he was frequently correct, but when it came to the details there are marked differences. His landmark 1945 paper on global communications from geosynchronous orbit also suggested that atomic-powered rockets would be commonplace by the mid-1960s, a topic elaborated on by his British Interplanetary Society (BIS) colleagues several years later. Whilst Project NERVA did test such systems during that decade, various factors put this line of development on indefinite hold. Clarke also thought the orbital communications system would consist of three, large manned stations rather than dozens of small, unmanned satellites. But then, the development of the microchip in 1959 led to a paradigm shift in miniaturisation largely unforeseen by any prognosticator. It's interesting that although Clarke was postulating remote-controlled war rockets by as early as 1946 he didn't discuss automated space probes until much later: is it possible that the fiction writer within him wanted to downplay the use of dramatically weak unmanned missions? Also, in an unusually modest statement, Clarke himself claimed that he had advanced the idea of orbital communications by approximately fifteen minutes!

So if the technological aspects of Profiles… are reasonably unimpeachable, the failure to consider the infinite complexities of human beings and the societies they build mean that many of Clarke's ideas remain unfulfilled or have been postponed indefinitely. Even for those examples that have been achieved such as the manned moon landings, albeit some years ahead of Clarke's most optimistic timeline, the primary motivations such as the Cold War overshadowed the scientific aspect. Clarke admitted in later years that Project Apollo bore an uncanny resemblance to the first South Polar expedition, the latter being largely motivated by national pride. Indeed, Amundsen's 1911 expedition was not followed up for almost half a century. Clarke even suggested that had he and his BIS armchair astronaut colleagues known the true costs of a lunar landing mission they would probably have given up their feasibility studies in the 1930s! So when as late as 1956 the then Astronomer Royal Richard van der Riet Woolley stated that such an expedition was impractical on grounds of cost alone, he was not far from the truth. As it was, even with a 'minor war'-sized budget an enormous amount of largely unpaid overtime - and resulting divorce rate within project staff - were key to achieving President Kennedy's goal.

Unfortunately, it was a long time before Clarke admitted that non-technical incentives play a key role and he seems to have never fully reconciled himself to this. Although he occasionally promoted and inspired practical, achievable near-future goals such as educational broadcasting via satellite to rural communities in the developing world, his imagination was often looking into deep space and equally deep time. Yet his prominent profile meant that the ethos behind Profiles of the Future was frequently copied in glossy expositions by lesser authors and editors. When in his later years Clarke delineated specific forecasts using his standard criteria, they almost entirely failed to hit the mark: his 1999 speculative, if in places tongue-in-cheek, timeline for the Twenty-first Century has to date failed all of its predictions, with some unlikely to transpire for some decades or possibly even centuries to come. That's not to say that we couldn't do with some of his prophecies coming true sooner rather later: even relatively small advances such as the paperless office would of enormous benefit, but how that could be achieved is anyone's guess!

As a writer of both fact and fiction, Clarke's works have a complex interaction between the world that is and the world as it could be. Many space-orientated professionals, from NASA astronauts to Carl Sagan, claimed inspiration from him, whilst the various Spaceguard surveys of near-Earth objects are named after the prototype in Clarke's 1973 novel Rendezvous with Rama. One of his key ideas was that intellectual progress requires a widening of horizons, whereas a lot of contemporary technological advances are primarily inward-looking, such as electronic consumer goods. But as I have mentioned before, won't we require thought leaders to share something of Clarke's philosophy in order to limit or reverse environmental disasters in the near future? Stephen Hawking for one has stated his belief that the long-term survival of humanity relies on us becoming a multi-planet species sooner rather than later, as unforeseen natural or man-made disasters are a question of when rather than if. Na├»ve they may appear to be to our jaded, post-modern eyes, but as a visionary with realist tendencies Clarke had an enormous impact on succeeding generations of scientists, engineers and enthusiasts. But to see how Clarke's successors are faring in our relatively subdued times, you'll have to wait until the next post…