Khun Don Sambandaraksa, Bangkok Post
Future shock: We got it wrong
* Published: 22/12/2010 at 12:00 AM
* Newspaper section: Database
I must have spend much of my childhood wondering about the future. As a child of the '70s, I grew up seeing a bleak, post-apocalyptic vision. Whether it was in the aftermath of a war with the USSR or just a meteor shower leaving humanity blind and eaten by man-eating plants (as in Day of the Triffids) or brainwashed and put into bubble-skinned suits (The Prisoner), the future was scary, yet intriguing, and something to be held in awe.
Philip K **** (famous for what became Blade Runner) wrote about robots that were indistinguishable from humans but, when shot at, would explode into cogs and gears. Yes, robots would run on clockwork, what else would they use? The protagonist of Blade Runner, the Nexus Six Android replicant, was activated in 2015, just four years from now. Blade Runner might have got the timing of genetic engineering not quite right, but the incessant rain from climate change was spot on.
Of course, all the talk of the future might be for nothing if Earth was destroyed by a fleet of Vogon constructor ships to make way for an intergalactic bypass (Douglas Adams's classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).
In the far future, Earth would be a fable, a distant memory, as in in the writings of Isaac Asimov or Battlestar Galactica.
Of course, the coolest space (and time) craft would always be a blue Police Box with Tom Baker and his impossibly long scarf at the helm in Doctor Who.
Science fiction also often has a subliminal message about politics. It often deals with the concept of individualism versus the state; of weakness through diversity or strength through central, often alien, control - in other words, democracy versus communism.
Time and again, science fiction taught me that democratic bickering was generally weaker than alien central control, but that Earth would always be saved by a hero who was born out of the diversity of democracy. Well, most of the time. It almost makes you understand why fantasy writers were often accused of communism during the Cold War.
I have with me one particular book, The Usborne Book of the Future, published in 1979. It is a trip to the year 2000 and beyond. A children's book, it gives a glimpse of a possible future, from energy to cities to healthcare and travel, but it is the section on computers and electronics that is the most interesting. Now, 31 years later, I'm looking back at the predictions made.
The Book of the Future predicted giant-sized TVs bright enough for daylight viewing. It predicted that in the 21st century, we would no longer be viewing videos on film but on a spool of magnetic tape. Well, not quite. But the magnetic tape would feed 3D holographic images. Kinect meets VHS? They missed each other by a decade or so.
The Book of the Future predicted TV-screen based shopping, in other words e-commerce, and of news being delivered on the screen. It predicted video-disc players for films and recording off TV.
Domestic robots would be helping out in the home. Well, despite the best efforts of the Japanese, that has not quite happened yet.
It predicted email. "By 1990 most mail will be sent in electronic form. Posting a letter will consist of placing it in front of a copier in your home or at the post office. The electronic read-out will be flashed up to a satellite, to be beamed to its destination." Well, it predicted the fax at least, if not email as we know it today.
Back in 1979, the authors predicted a 3D form of teleconferencing and that electronic conferences would save enormous amounts of time, money and energy. Hello to HP Halo or Cisco Telepresence. They envisioned designing cars on television screens where changes would be made to the product, quicker and cheaper - or, in other words, CAD.
Phones, fixed-line phones, that is, would have video screens too. Well, not quite.
As for mobile? The "risto" - short for wrist radio - would allow for mobile phone calls, provide for instant voting and true democracy, and help guide rescue crews and police in times of emergency. Rather than being cellular, ristos would link to a giant satellite in orbit.
I also find it intriguing that the only "smart" application mooted for the mobile, or the risto, was e-voting.
Elsewhere, the Book of the Future has made predictions that are wrong but, in doing so, it reveals a very different mindset.
In the 21st century, it says, oil will run out so new sources of energy will need to be found. Mankind will find power from waves, from nuclear fusion and from temperature differentials between the surface and deep sea water.
On this front at least, the futurologists here scored zero out of four. Oil has not run out and the reason we are trying to find alternative fuels is because of global warming, not lack of oil. There is plenty of oil, but burning it would destroy the world. None of the alternative energy sources have been mastered, save some limited tidal power.
The book says that space flight will be commonplace by the 1990s, with reusable heavy lift vehicles taking up to 227 tonnes of cargo per trip. Huge satellites will harvest solar energy and send it down to earth via microwave and, later, polluting industries will be put into orbiting factories to give the planet a chance to heal.
The Book of the Future predicted electric vehicles, but also emphasised the need to keep fit with traditional bicycles with large lights to keep safe. There would be rocket belts for some. Mag-lev trains (which we have) running in vacuum tunnels (which we do not have) would link continents.
But perhaps most importantly, it gave us a choice of two worlds. One was a smog-filled, dirty, overcrowded city where alternatives to petrol were not pursued and huge, ugly apartment blocks would struggle to keep up with failed population control. The other was a garden city on a cared-for planet with electric monorails, automated underground pipe-based delivery, clean hydrogen-powered jets and electric vehicles, where people use bicycles to keep fit and care for the environment at the same time.
Looking up into the smog-filled skies of Bangkok, with bird songs on CD piped into our ears above the drone of heavy traffic, one wonders why we chose the path we did.
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