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Predicting the Future Is Hard, Old Man’s War Edition

old-mans-war

I’m currently reading Old Man’s War, John Scalzi’s much acclaimed 2005  debut novel.  Having all but abandoned fiction years ago, it’s a welcome diversion and a breezy read.

I couldn’t help but being amused, though, that just seven pages into a sci-fi novel set into what would seem to be a very distant future, the protagonist is sitting in a military recruiting office thumbing through the latest Time and Newsweek magazines. As regular readers are aware, Newsweek’s last print edition was in December 2012. Time surely can’t be far behind.

While this development was easily predictable even in 2005 by those of us who are news junkies and keep up with the vagaries of the news business, clearly Scalzi was unaware of the trends. There’s no reason he should have been, though: he was a philosophy major at Chicago and a freelance writer. Presumably, he’s got some hobbyist interest in science, space travel, and the like.

The bottom line is that predicting the future is just ridiculously hard. If you don’t follow the intricacies of an area, you’ve got no reason to think long term trends won’t continue indefinitely. Moreover, even experts are horrible at predicting even one year out, much less 20 or 200. We have an exercise at the office on the first work day after the new year where we go around the table predicting things that will happen in the calendar year. The predictions are generally fall into two categories: bland and obvious (no Israel-Palestinian peace again this year) or fantastically, even humorously, wrong.

Correction: The post originally had the book published in 2005; that’s when the mass market paperback debuted.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    Ten years ago in a book I predicted self-driving cars for right about now. Not bad, really, we’re close. Worst “prediction” I ever made? Betting in 1995 that kids ten years or so later would still know who Axl Rose is. On the other hand I guessed right with Green Day.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. john personna says:

    Maybe “thumbing” is slang, like “dialing.”:

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    Read the entire series:
    The Ghost Brigades
    The Last Colony
    Zoes’s Tale

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  4. Herb says:

    Haven’t read that one, but one of the more famous examples of wrong predictions in sci-fi is the Pan Am flight Heywood Floyd took to the moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I guess it seemed reasonable in 1968…

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Herb: Oh, sure. But being wrong about 2001 in 1968 is a very different thing than being proven wrong about a distant vision you wrote in 2007 by 2012.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  6. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    Technically published in 2005, but pretty much the same internet environment then, yes.

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  7. superdestroyer says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Zoe’s Tale is not worth the effort. However, if you are into popular culture, I would suggest reading Redshirts by the same author.

    one of the more interesting technological changes are those who guess that portable computers that connected to data would be developed. The one I find oddest in some forms of science fiction is how all of the writers underestimated how expensive technology would be and hard many things would be to do. I lose respect for any author who has the lone genius splicing genes in his basement.

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  8. Ron Beasley says:

    @superdestroyer: I agree with you on Zoe’s Tale. Another thing Sci Fi writers fail to take into consideration is energy. There is always plenty of it but they rarely explain where it comes from. But that’s Sci Fi – they need abundant energy and the ability to zip between stars for the story line. Then again they have been prognosticators before so who knows?

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  9. Michael says:

    James, you’ve got it all wrong, he’s predicting the rebirth of the printed form for those journals.

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  10. superdestroyer says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    A lot of the writers dance around the energy issue by making fusion very easy or creating some type type of physics to explain a new phenomenon. However, I find it odd that the William Gibson thinks a guy working by himself can do something like splice genes in his basement. Maybe the forget how much the equipment costs today to do something like that.

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  11. john personna says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Redshirts was fun. There could be a lot alternate “red shirt” stories but that was a good fanciful one.

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  12. Brett says:

    @James Joyner
    Considering how the book is “squishy soft” SF and Scalzi was portraying Earth as a technological backwater (compared to the setting), I wouldn’t be surprised if he deliberately went over the top with that. It’s not like e-books were an unknown concept in the early 2000s – Scalzi himself released Old Man’s War in increments on the Internet.

    @Ron Beasley

    Another thing Sci Fi writers fail to take into consideration is energy. There is always plenty of it but they rarely explain where it comes from. But that’s Sci Fi – they need abundant energy and the ability to zip between stars for the story line.

    What I don’t get is why they’re constantly doing “high energy tricks” for their technology. If your SF tech is a black box anyways, why not go for a low-energy trick for Faster-Than-Light Travel?

    Yet the only story I can remember that happening with was in a Turtledove short story, where alien lizard people with antigravity spaceships attack Earth . . . . except that the spaceships are iron-hulled, and all they’ve got are repeating rifles. The idea being that FTL and anti-gravity were trivially easy to discover – humanity just didn’t figure it out in the usual amount of time.

    @superdestroyer

    A lot of the writers dance around the energy issue by making fusion very easy or creating some type type of physics to explain a new phenomenon.

    I’d love to see a “low-energy” space opera setting where that didn’t happen – fusion turned out to not be practical in a spaceship, and nuclear reactors have too many issues once you try to make them much bigger for spaceflight (such as radiation and getting rid of the heat).

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  13. James Joyner says:

    @Michael: @Brett: Yeah, in a back-and-forth on Twitter after I posted this, Scalzi joked that “future hipsters bring back demand for printed magazines in 2136!”

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  14. scott says:

    @superdestroyer: The price of genetic engineering is dropping rapidly. There are high schools which have science labs that explore the technology. That idea is not too far out.

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  15. Stonetools says:

    Isaac Asimov had engineers using slide rules in the 21st century and just about every SF author has us having space travel by now but no Internet, cell phones, or portable computers. You just never know.
    Who would have predicted at during the year of the Summer of Love and the moon landing, the most significant technological discovery of the time was at some little known government laboratory , when engineers successfully sent packets of information between two computers over a network for the first time?

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  16. Barry says:

    @superdestroyer: “I lose respect for any author who has the lone genius splicing genes in his basement. ”

    Wow. You have almost a perfect record.

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  17. MarkedMan says:

    @superdestroyer: Why are you always so dang sure you are right about everything?

    From the NYTimes, more than 3 years ago:

    IT ALL STARTED with a brawny, tattooed building contractor with a passion for exotic animals. He was taking biology classes at City College of San Francisco, a two-year community college, and when students started meeting informally early last year to think up a project for a coming science competition, he told them that he thought it would be cool if they re-engineered cells from electric eels into a source of alternative energy. Eventually the students scaled down that idea into something more feasible, though you would be forgiven if it still sounded like science fiction to you: they would build an electrical battery powered by bacteria. This also entailed building the bacteria itself — redesigning a living organism, using the tools of a radical new realm of genetic engineering called synthetic biology.

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  18. MarkedMan says:

    Whoops. sorry, that last should have been “more than twoyears ago”

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  19. Al says:

    I’d advise skipping Zoe’s Tale. Most of it is a retread of The Last Colony.

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  20. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Ten years ago in a book I predicted self-driving cars for right about now.

    Back in 2008, I predicted :

    2028 First self-driving cars allowed on public roads.
    2058 Majority of cars on the road will be self-driving.
    2108 Illegal for people to drive cars on the public roads, without special permission. Driving cars will be a hobby , limited to “car driving parks”.

    Of course, I also predicted that a democratic revolution will be underway in China by now, by so I am as bad at predicting the future as everyone ( and maybe worse than most).

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  21. Brett says:

    I think that once you have regular commuters riding around in self-driving cars everywhere, you’ll see the societal consensus shift pretty quickly against “human driving”. Since most accidents happen because of “driver error”, you’ll see driving the car yourself characterized more and more as something irresponsible to do on any sort of crowded public road or highway.

    In fact, more and more cars in such a situation might not even be built for human driving. If you don’t have to personally drive the car, you can re-arrange the internal space drastically to meet other needs.

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  22. stonetools says:

    @Brett:

    Robert Heinlein predicted moving highways replacing mass transport by human driven cars in a story, “The Roads Must Roll” , based on a societal consensus to halt the rising toll caused by human driver error. He was wrong about how things would develop, though.

    In the movie ” Minority Report” transportation is driving by self driving cars on roads not built for human driving. Three states now allow for “autonomous cars”.Sergei Brin predicts the first such cars will be available to the public in ten years. Others make similar predictions.

    What there will most likely never be though, is mass adoption of “flying cars”.

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  23. Ernieyeball says:

    @stonetools: What there will most likely never be though, is mass adoption of “flying cars”.

    Oh yeah? You can get one today…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-sJ4V9x6Xk

    Or you can wait for 2019 Los Angeles…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ywd0yNXmHaA

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  24. stonetools says:

    @Ernieyeball:

    Heh. The propulsion system isn’t quite there, yet. Absent the development of anti gravity, I stand by my prediction . I think film ” Minority Rights” will be the most successfully predictive film of what near future tech will be. They already got multitouch, gesture based interface, and retina scanners . To come:

    Insect robots.
    Facial recognition advertising billboards.
    Crime prediction software.
    Augmented reality with hand control.

    I hope they’re wrong about the billboards, but there is strong economic incentive for that, so it’s the most likely.

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  25. Ernieyeball says:

    @stonetools: Crime prediction software.

    Maybe you saw this:
    “Researchers are, however, claiming to have developed computer programs that can predict not who will commit a crime, but at what locations they are likely to occur. Welcome to the brave new world of predictive policing.”
    http://reason.com/archives/2012/07/10/predictive-policing-criminals-crime

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  26. superdestroyer says:

    @MarkedMan:

    After reading the article about the college students, it should be more obvious that a lone genius cannot do everything. The article discussed meeting of students, a wiki site, a bank of genes. Government grants are paying (directly or indirectly) for all of those.

    Also, I judge high school science fairs. I want take an online course on PCR because so many science magnet programs have purchased one.. I doubt if many students would be using one if the government was not paying for the reagents or the maintenance contract.

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  27. MarkedMan says:

    @superdestroyer: so after reading the article wherein community college students are doing gene splicing projects, you think you are even more right about an evil genius being unable to this on their own? Because, something about meetings and needing community college level equipment? SD, is there anything that would ever change your mind about anything?

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  28. superdestroyer says:

    @MarkedMan:
    I guess you missed the part about the government funded gene back where the students could get samples. How do you go from that to a guy in his basement would have the money to fund everything he needs and to do it himself.

    The article was about the massive support network the students had and you take away the idea that a lone person could do the same thing without a support network?

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  29. MarkedMan says:

    @superdestroyer: I’m not sure why I’m bothering here, but… do you really think an evil genius wouldn’t have access to the same things that someone enrolled in a community college can use? Heck, just assume the evil mastermind is the community college student. Remember how your initial complaint was how ridiculous it was that someone acting on their own could do serious genetic experimentation? And now that you know that community college students are doing it for the heck of it, you only feel more certain of your point of view?

    BTW, there is at least one “Maker” type lab, completely private, that offers the same type of access to amateur scientists, kind of like on a co-op model. If anyone other than SD wants the link, I’ll try to find it.

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  30. Ernieyeball says:

    Deckard: [narrating] They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop. Ex-blade runner. Ex-killer.

    In the newspaper?

    “Blade Runner” Dir. Ridley Scott’s vision of 2019 Los Angeles in 1982.

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