reflections: Asimov technology
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The turning of the year is a time of soothsaying and people getting their crystal balls out. So it was with some surprise that I read this 50-year old prediction from Asimov in 1964 – hat-tip to Slate for the heads-up.
As a teenager I rotted far too many of my brain cells reading science fiction. The future engineer was drawn to this genre, and I didn’t have enough life experience to make sense of all the mushy stuff that polluted novels featuring more human characters. I loved the Foundation series and in particular the notion of psychohistory - even now I am drawn to the myth of the macro trend though experience has tempered it a little bit in that the shocking chaotic variations of real life throw those macro trends off course. Asimov did pretty well as a fortune-teller, and it’s striking how well he cast an eye over five decades of future human development. I was particularly struck by
One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better.
Right on the nail old boy. I wandered into Carphone Warehouse while Mrs Ermine was getting some part of her mobile fixed after it’s been trodden into the mud while wrangling a bunch of errant hogs. It was a pretty alienating experience – people ready to plump down a shitload of money on smartphones and tablets and what-have you. In small print was the up-front price of one at £200, and in great big letters was the monthly price of £21 a month. On what looked like a two year contract – basic ‘rithmetic doesn’t seem to be a strong point round here, or Ipswich is full of high data users…
A little piece of me started to die when I read this exhortation to get out into the Real World™ and immediately nullify the whole point of doing that. I had just come up the main road, noting the slack-jawed punters in the betting shops feeding money into the fixed odds betting terminals while others watched loads of flat screens showing sport. And now we have ads saying you need this gadget to do something rad – like going into the woods and firing up Facebook. That Thoreau geezer was so full of shit when he wrote
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
Nope, Henry, you were on the wrong track, m8. You go to the woods to plug yourself into the hive mind, because in 200 years of human progress since you wrote that cobblers in Walden we have discovered that in a life well lived you find meaning from without, preferably garnished by ads…
All round it was a bad day for the customer experience – a while ago I read “Authenticity” Which was meant to have been a seminal work in helping brands connect with customers. It seriously disconnected this customer as I have been sensitized to fake-real crap ever since, and I wasn’t a great fan to start with. In Wilko I was treated to a classic example of what they meant with this complex cardboard easel rigged up to look like wood. Wouldn’t it have been easier to have a quick word with those nice Swedish fellows at Ikea? And maybe send a few of your employees back to school… Making the mistake is fair enough, but surely someone on the staff spotted it by the afternoon?
Asimov was absolutely right, and we now have people worrying that nature deficit disorder is turning our children into sociopathic screenbound slobs. At least Asimov’s Solarians weren’t fat bastards though they hated being in the presence of real people and the real world. So Asimov got there first, though I am not sure that withdrawing from nature suits us that much better – I listened to ‘The Slow Coach’ on Radio 4 – this was someone who was coaching people to not fill their lives up with so much artificial garbage they forget to live.
Asimov did well on estimating the 2014 human population, and that we would start to get a handle on it by limiting the birth rate – as Hans Rosling shows us engagingly in his TED talk
Self-driving cars – check. 3D movies – check. Sight-sound communications is a quaintly archaic description of Skype, Facetime or Cisco Telepresence.
It’s also interesting where Isaac Asimov went wrong -
Although technology will still keep up with population through 2014, it will be only through a supreme effort and with but partial success. Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.
Hmm – I do not believe this is the case now, relative to the 1960s, at least in the predicted increase of inequality across the globe – the narrowing of this may be softening the Western expectation of your children will be better off than their parents, but not elsewhere in the world.
The situation will have been made the more serious by the advances of automation. The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction.
Sort of draw on that – yes and no. I’ve reserved Asimov’s epic fail for last
Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!
You were one smart cookie, Isaac, but I contend that work is vastly overrated Although thinking back to the slack-jawed in Ladbrokes, maybe that’s also a score-draw…
Looking back over several decades of work, it struck me that most of the advances we have had have been due to technology – the advances in fundamental science have been much slower. One of the discoverers of the DNA double helix structure, Francis Crick, never lived to see any discoveries that would explain consciousness and repudiate vitalism 1 – he’d still be waiting. To my knowledge we have no scientific understanding of what is essentially different about consciousness or whether the very precept behind cryonics misses the point entirely. After all, we struggle to determine the information-theoretic death when decades of searching has still to find the structures within an animal that record memory, despite this regular structure being immediately obvious in any machine memory store on microscopic examination 2
The sequencing of the genome, while it is a stupendous technical achievement, hasn’t led to specific drugs and the other malarkey it was meant to lead to, because it appears that we cannot read the language properly, or we are looking in the wrong place. In the same way as leaving out all the vowels of this post would still be readable, there seems to be a lot of redundancy. In physics gravity is still out on its own and we still don’t have a theory of everything, just as my professors bemoaned at Imperial in the early 1980s.
But technology, it’s been the bees knees. In some ways the accuracy of Asimov’s predictions may be a result of the failure of fundamental science since the 1960s to deliver breakthroughs that would have looked like magic 3 to him. We have had evolution, not revolution. So much works better, faster, smaller than when I started work. I’m not absolutely sure that withdrawing from nature into virtual worlds to Facebook from the woods was exactly the pinnacle of human existence that he might have wished for, and the problems of excess leisure were a common theme in his books showing an unhealthy influence of the Protestant work ethic 4.
It’s strange to look back and see that over my lifetime the remarkable advances have been largely due to improvements in technology rather than improvements in scientific understanding. That wouldn’t have been the case for the first half of the twentieth century. It’s also notable how the STEM story is so dismal now – it’s all about stuff going wrong and global warming – in the 1960s it was all about he white heat of technology, and people going to the Moon and upbeat. Maybe it’s because I’m looking through the wrong end of the telescope, I hope our kids are seeing exciting opportunities and a great story in the STEM area. Otherwise our technology is going to run out of science at some point. Sic transit gloria mundi…
- in 1966 Crick delivered himself of the statement “And so to those of you who may be vitalists I would make this prophecy: what everyone believed yesterday, and you believe today, only cranks will believe tomorrow.” ↩
- it is obvious in its regular repeating structure in a microphotograph of a microcontroller or other single-chip processing device ↩
- One of Asimov’s contemporaries, Arthur C Clarke said that Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic ↩
- Asimov was of course of Jewish heritage and an atheist/rationalist as an adult – the work ethic is thus a cultural influence from the society he inhabited ↩