Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Future of the Future

The Future, in 1901
Much of the value of this blog is in the comments, and Jean Remy made a thought provoking observation in comments on 'Worlds Beyond, Once Again':

If in a mere 60 years we've learned enough that the predictions of the Futurists then have become "zeerust" today, how long before the predictions on this very blog become subject of ridicule and sympathy directed at our naivete?

In fact, of course, it will be exceedingly cool if, 60 years from now, anyone who stumbles across this blog finds it quaintly amusing rather than merely old, irrelevant, and dull.

The future, as I noted in the early days of this blog, has a rather brief past. In fact, the past itself hasn't been around all that long either, not in the sense that we now say that the past is a foreign country. Sometime in the Renaissance, artists figured out that Romans didn't wear doublets and hose, but Sir Walter Scott, so far as I know, was the first author to reconstruct a past unlike his own era.

Mary Shelley probably gets credit for the first true work of science fiction, but it was set in her own present. Even Verne's famous works weren't futuristic as such, or at most were set 'the day after tomorrow.' His Paris in the Twentieth Century is a true SF future world, but in a strange twist on futurism it sat in a drawer for generations and was published only in 1994, by which time Paris was nearly out of the 20th century.

It is an odd fact that the retro-future of 110 years ago gets much more positive treatment than the retro-future of 60 years ago does. Aether ships are charming, atomic cars are silly. This, I imagine, is for a couple of reasons. One is that in spite of occasional historical artifacts like the image above, our picture of the steampunk future is largely a modern re-creation - 2010 imagining 1900 imagining 2000.

The rocketpunk era future, by comparison, is all too well represented by genuine artifacts, many of them embarrassing. The Jetsons alone wrought incalculable damage, making it difficult for an entire generation to take the future seriously.

You could argue, in fact, that the future is a dead concept in the popular culture, buried when Tomorrowland was recast with a steampunkish retro theme. Indeed there has been a distinct fin de millénaire distaste for the whole boring old concept of the future, from the End of History (remember that?) to Left Behind, to SF's own Singularity.

But history, as you may have noticed, failed to end, suggesting that even the future may still have some life in it.

What current prediction, on this blog or elsewhere, will sound silliest by 2110?

The image (via Paleo-Future) suggests that the City of the Future, with its 50th floor skyways, was already an established trope by 1900 - I had thought it dated only to the film Metropolis (1927). Note the combined above-and-below monorails, heralding the future in all their wonderful impracticality.

Related post: The view from 1900.


Buzz Ryan said...

As a Steampunk and spaceflight aficionado I applaude this article!

Yes, everything is much cooler the further you go back into history. Atomic cars are to close to the realities we faced in the Cold War. 60 years from now when everything is run from a cold fushion reactors they are going to laugh at our coal and fuel driven utilities!

The only thing for sure is our descendents are going to find some way to laugh at us.

Jean-Remy said...

Like Ryan I agree that the reason Atomic cars are poorly regarded is the same reason nuclear power in general is viewed with more fear than awe. The destruction of two Japanese cities by nuclear fire did more to kill nuclear power than incidents like Three Mile Island and Czernobyl. The radiation leakage of 3-Mile was lower than the background reaction, and that's after *everything* went wrong. The explosion of Czernobyl was really a steam explosion... with heavy water steam.

Yet the vision of giant mushroom clouds is indelible in our minds, and so closely associated with "atomic" that few people actually realize any explosion big enough will result in a mushroom, or that a small nuclear explosion will not result in a mushroom cloud any more than an HE shell. Games like Fallout 3 aren't really helping with the latter, and a video of the upcoming Mass Effect 2 game shows a micronuke exploding with the same mushroom effect.

So why? We are, I think, wracked by the guilt. Part of the 'Murrican collective consciousness, and spread through the entire western culture, is the realization that it we who unleashed such fearsome power, before we even knew the full import of the act. Bikini Island tests placed US soldiers close to the blast because radiation was an unknown by-product. Like Neanderthals we discovered fire after a lightning strike, and, with little to no understanding of it, we used it. We got burned for it.

Then came the Cold War and the sudden awakening that we could, in fact, as a species, vanish into the dark. I think the Future died the day we fully understood that maybe there wasn't one, that we could, in a moment of prideful stupidity, make any future vanish.

I do think it can be overcome. It seems that SF is making a comeback in popular culture, and is no longer just the domain of aficionados as ourselves (read: geeks). I think the hoped-for success of Virgin Galactic, in fact the existence of such a thing at all, is a sign that perhaps we got tired of looking at our feet and seeing mud, and that we might be starting to look up again.

"Oh my God, it's full of stars!"

Citizen Joe said...

Personally, I have no problem with a Betavoltaic car. That relies on nuclear decay of tritium to produce electricity. It is technically an atomic battery. Radiothermal atomic cars is essentially a steam powered car with a radioactive heat source instead of coal.

Jean-Remy said...

I don't think anyone on this blog shudders at the idea of nuclear power. Hard to imagine anything going through the vast distances *without* a nuke under the hood. The general public however dictate that nuclear = life obliteration bomb, so no betavoltaic cars.

M. D. Van Norman said...

Our understanding of cosmology itself has been turned on its head just in the last 15 years. I’m still pleased that my own thought experiments on the subject (based on the astronomical observations of the day) were coincidentally validated by real physicists. That alone shows that our predictions are probably wrong … at least on galactic scales.

Anonymous said...

North Americans have a problem with nuclear power. The French don't. And only a minority of Japanese have a problem with nuclear power. Clearly it's not the mushroom cloud effect that gives nuclear power a bad rep. I suspect this rep has more to do with the grotesque mismanagement of North America's attempts at nuclear power generation.

As for what predictions on this blog will seem silly in a few generations - All of them. The ones that are almost right will seem obvious, as things clearly could not have worked out any other way. The ones that are wrong will be simply wrong-headed, blatant examples of just how poorly past generations understood the world.


Thucydides said...

Futurism and science fiction, like everything else, reflects the time and place where it was made.

Nuclear cars sound silly today (and I'm sure level headed engineers probably shook their heads when the idea surfaced), but it reflects the sort of attitudes prevalent at the time, a mixture of optimism and acknowledgement that the introduction of nuclear technology changed everything. Atomic aircraft and atomic rockets date from the same era, and the United States and Soviet Union did experiments with nuclear aircraft (to the extent of making test rigs and flying live reactors in test aircraft), and the United States did extensive live tests with nuclear thermal engines (Kiwi, Rover and NERVA).

Practical experience and politics combined to end these ideas (politics in the positive sense of "allocation of limited resources". The advantages of nuclear aircraft and rockets wasn't great enough to justify the expenditures).

Thinking ahead a bit, we are now hearing lots about the decline of the United States, yet demographic trends tell us the EU and Russia will be facing a demographic crisis in the 2020's (not enough workers to make things, not enough young men to man the borders) and China will be in that unenviable state in the 2030's (with an additional decades of turbulance starting in the 2020's as a huge inbalance in the male/female ratio appears in the sexualy active population). The United Staes is projected to have up to 500 to 550 million people by mid century, enough workers, soldiers and consumers to keep things humming along until 2100 at least. The happy and prosperous United Staes of mid century will look back at today in wonder...

Jean-Remy said...


Oh yeah I'm French and very proud to be from the most nuke-friendly nation in the world. 80% of electrical generation is nuclear, for those who didn't know. The rest of Europe however doesn't quite follow, Germany and Italy's yes-no-maybe ambivalence notably. Keep in mind France didn't get a lot out of Marshall Plan. The Plan allowed for US culture to seep in a lot faster in those countries that received it (ex-axis countries mainly) and France's withdrawal from the military NATO pact have insulated the country against this prejudice, I would guess.

As to the population projections: that, or the US will be an overpopulated isolationist paranoid extremist nation and Europe will be an efficient technologically advanced supranational state. 100 years ago the European Empires had little doubt their world-wide hegemony would last into the next century. Funny how things change. But that's the point of this post, isn't it?

"I, for one, welcome our insect overlords."

zmil said...

@Jean Remy
"Like Ryan I agree that the reason Atomic cars are poorly regarded is the same reason nuclear power in general is viewed with more fear than awe. The destruction of two Japanese cities by nuclear fire did more to kill nuclear power than incidents like Three Mile Island and Czernobyl."

Eh? The era of atomic cars and atomic everything else reached its heyday well after Hiroshima. Atomic power was cool up to the blossoming of the environmental movement. Scary, but cool. Undoubtedly the scary bit eventually helped make it uncool, but the fact that it was still cool 20 years after we first saw its destructive potential suggests that other factors were at least equally important in its downfall.

That's not to say that the image of Hiroshima is not an important part of the negative perception of nuclear power. I think, however, that that image gained power slowly, first as people gradually realized the dangers of nuclear radiation, and then as people wildly exaggerated those dangers. Explosions, however dangerous, are cool. Radiation is not cool, but creepy.

You might have a point with the guilt thing, though. Could help explain why the only nation to actually experience a nuclear attack so willingly embraced nuclear power while the only nation to use a nuclear weapon is totally creeped out by anything atomic.

Sabersonic said...

For the futurist-science fiction prediction of things to come, personally I find that the least discussed, least explained of props tend to be more accurately embraced by the general public and popular culture in just a few decades then the more "obvious" factoids of sci-fi. The Star Trek communicator is a good example: A small, hand held devise that allows one to communicate wirelessly to another individual with a compatible device. Back then, it was pretty futuristic. Today, it's a commonality (and the source of ire to those older generations who never had a cell phone when they were eight years old). For sci-fi troupes of this blog and elsewhere that would be considered amusing, and sometimes romantic? It'll be easier just to count the things that ARE plausible and possible.

As for the nuclear power thing, well, Fission Power Plants would need to refine their image a bit more and PR friendly, considering that the global petrolium supply is getting a bit expensive to extract from the ground.

Better, more environmentally friendly waste management wouldn't hurt either.

- Sabersonic
Gmail Address

Jean-Remy said...

"Better, more environmentally friendly waste management wouldn't hurt either."

Interestingly enough I had an ecology-minded college class in a US university, one assignment was a series of debate. I chose a pro-nuclear debate position (I was pretty sure no one else in that class would've dreamed taking that assignment) and in the course of my research found that atmospheric pollutants had gone down in France since the switch to nuclear. Environmentalists do not seem to be aware that nuclear power is actually far more eco-friendly than traditional oil and coal sources, or refuse to acknowledge it. Ah, well...

But I am derailing a subject that I apparently (and unintentionally) started, so back on subject.

"personally I find that the least discussed, least explained of props tend to be more accurately embraced by the general public"

I like the idea that the big flashy technology (atomic cars) become ridiculous, while on the side, innocuously, an unseen detail (flippy communicator device) actually comes true. I had to blink when you spoke of communicators because to us modern audiences a handheld, folding, wireless communication device is so ingrained into our daily lives we don't even notice that it was nearly inconceivable at the time. A field radio in Viet Nam was a heavy backpack device with an enormous hand set. There was one man, the commo guy, tasked with carrying the radio around, and it was a precious commodity, far more valuable than any rifle. The comm badges from Star Trek and the wristcom from Babylon 5 don't even attract our attention as "futuristic" because they are doable now if we wanted to, or so nearly so they are hardly worth noticing. But back when Kirk flipped this device open and talked to a ship in orbit it must have been quite an intellectual leap.

What tiny little piece of overlooked technology in our current SF will have repercussions in the future? Holographic keyboard? Flying camera? Good guess, thanks for playing, better luck next time. The answer: in our January 2099 issue.

VonMalcolm said...

From a layman's point of view the only thing that really scares me about nuclear power, other than gross incompetence, is if the 'bad guys' cause an accident. I wonder how secure these facilities are 24/7 especially when you look at an incident like Fort Hood when obvious signs of extremism were being ignored. . . or 9-11 for that matter: one of the hijackers took lessons to fly a plane, not LAND a plane. What red flags are being ignored right now? And are these signs being ignored inside a nuclear facility? What are the fail safe's against sabotage? Just a little paranoid that's all!

VonMalcolm said...

As for predictions of the future: I am not sure if or how much robots/AI's have been discussed on this blog, but claims of quantum computing becoming so powerful as to make the human intelligence/race obsolete (Skynet?), robots eventually having far more versatility than the human body, or replicators 'grey gooing' the world seem really out there to me. Though some amazing video of robot dexterity at the following link does make me think LeBron James's days just might be numbered:

Perhaps the AI Overlords will be laughing at me, for this comment, 50 years from now!

Citizen Joe said...

On the face, cell phones may appear to be Star Trek communicators, but keep in mind that in order for our cell phones to work, they need a whole infrastructure of towers and relays. The Star Trek communicator was able to contact a ship in orbit, and apparently even on the other side of the planet. That is a huge range.

Anita said...

We don't know how much in the way of a communication support system was tucked away on the Big E and all other star ships. Trek was never a documentary nor did it ever have a unlimited budget.

I believe it may be inferred that Lt Uhura. as comm officer. did much more than just answer the phone. She and her staff were responsible, among many other things, for the maintenance of the communicators. They may well have needed the 23rd century equivalent of towers and relays. There was a time when every house had a tv antenna on the roof - so 20th century.

(Trek trivia: A major event in the Nerd Olympic Internet Games)

Jean-Remy said...

": one of the hijackers took lessons to fly a plane, not LAND a plane. "

I can (could) fly a Cessna. I can't land one. I must be a terrorist. Or wait, it means I just took 5-6 hours of flight school and take-off and landings are far more complex tasks and you don't really get into that until you are further along in the lessons. Personally, I dropped out when a turbulence dropped me 200 feet with no warning whatsoever, and I decided I was too young to die (I was 17). The point stands. First you learn to fly, then you learn to take off. The very last and most dangerous step is landing, and you don't get to that part until you really got a handle on the other parts.

"I wonder how secure these facilities are 24/7"

Probably better than any refinery. Funny thing is a large Oklahoma-type bomb exploding anywhere near a refinery will be disastrous. The concrete shell around a nuclear reactor can withstand the impact of a fully-loaded (missiles/fuel) jet fighter slamming into it a Mach speed. That works both ways, so putting a bomb inside the concrete bunker isn't going to be any more damaging that trying to crash a 737 into it. Eco-terrorists fired a shoulder-fired rocket at the French Superfenix reactor. It caused no construction delay as there was absolutely 0 damage to the structure. As far as defenses against terrorism, nuclear reactors are very far down on my list of potential targets.

"We don't know how much in the way of a communication support system was tucked away on the Big E"

Comparing communicators to cell phones was probably incorrect. The communicators were satellite phones, which are slightly more bulky. About the size of a communicator, actually.

VonMalcolm said...

Jean Remy: Point taken, and, according to Wiki: 'Despite later reports, Moussaoui did not skip the training for takeoff and landing', though he did exhibit other odd behavior which authorities did act on.

As for a nuclear facility terrorist incident I did talk to a couple workers who eased my fears as far as security checkpoints goes, but the information you gave is good to know; I'll go back to worrying about dirty bombs!

Rick said...

On nuclear power, I had my own minor brush with the North American nuke power experience.

In the late 70s I moved to the California central coast, near the Diablo Canyon nuke plant, then under construction amid heated protests. I argued in defense of nuclear power, but then it turned out that Diablo Canyon plant construction was seriously flawed.

Supposedly they mirror imaged some blueprints and were building the plant reversed. That part may be urban legend, but it was a huge screwup, and made any arguments for nuclear power seem naive.

There were other things going on, such as the same general reaction against Big Technology that hit the post Apollo US space program. But the nuke power industry shot itself in the foot, big time.

I can think of a couple of reasons why the French experience was different. Distancing themselves from the Cold War may have limited the social fallout, so to speak.

And, as with the TGV, nuke power just goes well with the French dirigiste approach. Some things just work better when systematically planned rather than being allowed to just grow up.

Rick said...

We may have entered a phase of the industrial revolution where the things we do with technology are more surprising than the technology itself.

I keep thinking about how un-predicted the Internet was, and not because of the technology. Internet technology is, conceptually, just a bunch of tarted up email applications, such as this blog.

One or two science fiction stories kind of stumbled around the edges, but by and large SF imagined people communicating with computers (a la HAL), NOT people communicating with each other using computers. Which has turned out to be far more important.

I expect we'll have more surprises along those lines in this century and the next.

Rick said...

Oh, and welcome to a couple of new commenters!

Jean-Remy said...

Excellent point about the internet. That one really kind of blindsided everyone, didn't it?

The two-way TV of 1984 could be called a primitive form of internet, and it is about humans interacting with other humans (spying on them and reminding them of their duty) through technological means. Orwell simply failed to see if it could connect BB with every citizen, then perhaps it could also connect citizens to each other.

I think the shift is far more profound than a simple technology issue, however. It is an information revolution that has reshaped the social canvas. The interesting part is the way the public jumped on it so avidly that most computer evolution really comes from the sudden popularity of the computer, and the reason the computer is popular is because of the internet, thereby funneling more money into internet and computer technology. A great percentage of households (in the US and Europe at least, increasingly in other developed countries, starting to spread through developing countries) now own computers, and most of them exist only to connect its owners with friends and family who own same across town, across state, across the world.

Funny how many people see the computer as a causing a loss of interpersonal contact. I think the generation that was born in the age of the internet will have a more global view of the world than any previous generation. Apollo showed us the Earth was a little blue bubble. The internet made us realize the person on the other side of the world is another living, breathing, thinking person rather than a racial cliche. Who is to say which was the greatest discovery?

Jim Baerg said...

Re: differences between countries in acceptance of nuclear power.

What about the existence of a substantial fossil fuel electricity generation industry, thus meaning there are people with the money & motivation to quietly fund opposition to nuclear power? That would explain much of the difference between Germany & France on the issue.

Anonymous said...

Jim, it's possible. You don't even have to worry about conspiracies or powerful lobby groups funding anti-nuke programs. All it takes is for the society to have a lot of fixed costs sunk into their fossil-fuel infrastructure. Then it just becomes too costly and inconvenient (At least, on most short- to mid-range time scales) to make a substantial change to nuclear power.

Of course, I don't really know what the infrastructure investments are like in Germany or France. So this is more of a general observation.


Thucydides said...

The mention of "1984" once again demonstrates the time and place when it was written. Orwell may not have considered telescreens as a means of interpersonal communication, Orwell was commenting on the abusive nature of Socialism and totalitarian regimes, which would never consider organizing communication systems in a horizontal fashion like the modern Internet. In Oceania even thinking about interpersonal communication through the telescreen would be reason to be sent to room 101.

Interestingly enough, a similar idea appears in John Brunner's "The Shockwave Rider", where a seemingly free society is connected via dumb terminals and central servers, which are used to manipulate the population by controlling the server's outputs and monitoring the inputs.

Of course the libertarian commenter's who proclaimed the Internet would overthrow dictatorships failed to appreciate how much effort people would go to to defeat the Internet; from the Great Firewall of China to mendacious "editors" rewriting reference pages on Wikipedia and eliminating posting privileges to people with opposing views.

I think the real reason the future is so difficult to predict is that social rather than technological or political forces shape things. I'm pretty sure it was Jerry Pournelle who pointed out that cars had been predicted for hundreds of years (and a primitive "car" was built in the 1700's), but no one predicted drive-in movies, or how cars changed social and sexual mores, or strip malls....

Jean-Remy said...

Great points Thucydides.

I guess I was sort of groping around the edges of it without really seeing what I was writing, but you hit the nail right on my thumb. Social developments dictate the direction of technological developments more than the opposite. It depends on where the money goes. And since social trends tend to be unpredictable...

I think on further consideration that the most successful futurist visions are the broader ones. Throw enough darts and even blindfolded you might hit the target once or twice, and then later you get to be called a visionary (say, the inventor of the satellite) because one of the developments you predicted turned out to be in the vicinity (promptly forgetting all the other places where you were dead wrong.)

(Sorry to Clarke fans, but this whole "inventor of the satellite" has always bugged me. Jules Verne was never called the inventor of the Lunar program and he was about as close. I like Clarke, but come on.)

Anonymous said...

I don't have too much to contribute right now, except to point out that the Internet was actually more or less predicted by a few authors. Murray Leinster in A Logic Named Joe is probably the most dramatic example, and he managed to catch a few pretty important cultural features too (The Internet is for Porn, for example).

I think that goes back to Jean Remy's dartboard, which holds not only for any single author but for the genre in general. The more science fiction is written, the greater the chances that someone will get something right.

H said...


I would go even one step further on the aspect of how the society changes. Prediciting it is going to be dificult, but even more dificult is to predict how society will change in response to tecnological change. This in turn drives further technological inovation.

The internet is a good example: Probably no one of the pioneers who worked on the military an research nets during the 60s-70s would have been able to predict the reaction society would have to their invention. And that reaction is driving progres in electronics and information technology even further than many "futurologist" would have predicted. (Wasn´t it IBM who predicted that by 2000 there would be a market of 10 computers a year?).

The other aspect many of those predicitions fail is that it is imposible to preict what today you can only consider science-fition. What would you look like if you travel back to the 1900s and tell people of nuclear power, computers and cell-phones? By that time, nuclear phisics and radio were just scientific curiosities.

In other words: simply using our recent history and projecting it into the future won´t work, at least if you aren´t talking about the near future. Because you are failing to account for the unexpected.

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter, and thanks for the reminder of 'A Logic Named Joe.' Note that even Leinster merely used the idea as a hook for a traditional SF story about machine intelligence.

Linear projection of the recent past is a very familiar crash & burn for predictions!

VonMalcolm said...

It appears to me that Nostradamus had it right: mask your visions in verse so only the truly wise (wink) can understanding your foresight. So here are my five predictions for the future hidden in a Cinquain:

The Future Conan?

The Metallic Beast with fire in his eyes and lightning in his soul will exude much power and will over the people.

The Cosmic Phoenix will travel forth into dimensions unseen, revealing truths unimagined.

The Manmade Mind of God will lead the Earth into law, then into chaos, and eventually into salvation.

When Humanity Unifies its Laws and Spirit it will unify its will to sing and dance with the Angels.

Technology will be beat in unison with the Relative Clock; Machines will have a Will; Weapons will advance past a Madman’s Game; Vehicles of the Individual will function as Vehicles of the Masses; and Flesh and Metal will reverse their current roles.

A side note on Nostradamus according to Wiki. . .
‘Little else is known about his childhood, although there is a persistent tradition that he was educated by his maternal great-grandfather Jean de St. Rémy.’

Jean-Remy said...

Oh no! My cover is blown.

*pulls onlong white beard in frustration*

Nyrath said...

In Isaac Asimov's THE STARS IN THEIR COURSES, he has a thought provoking essay called "The Sin of the Scientist". He says a scientific sin is one that besmirches the good name of Science.

His argument goes that before 1910, science was seen as a Shining Angel leading humanity to a Wonderful Future. After 1920, science is suddenly a demon creating nightmarish inventions. One would think this was due to the invention of the atomic bomb, but that was too late.

Asimov says that the sinner was Fritz Haber, who invented the Haber process which was utilized to create chlorine poison gas. This nightmare invention, used in World War I, was a rude awakening to the general public.

Suddenly they realized that science can be used for evil, as well as good.
And from that moment on, the future was never the same.

Jim Baerg said...

"Asimov says that the sinner was Fritz Haber, who invented the Haber process which was utilized to create chlorine poison gas."

Not quite:
Before WWI Haber devised his process which combines nitrogen from the air to make ammonia. This is a crucial 1st step in making both fertilizer & explosives. Haber then *also* was involved in the development of poison gas for use is warfare.

The use of the Haber process for making explosives was crucial for the German war effort, since before Haber the largest source of nitrates for explosives (& fertilizer) were mines in parts of the world far from Germany.

The Haber process illustrates how one technology can be used both constructively & destructively, while Haber's development of poison gas was his 'sin'.

Thucydides said...

Looking for a prediction, it occurs to me that while we live in an era of relative abundance (the "poor" in the Western world have colour TV's and Internet access, while insurgents and pirates in the third world communicate over a global cell telephone network), we still have issues utilizing this cornucopia effectively. (This isn't a prelude to a socialist screed, I'm talking about you and I using this abundance of goods and services to the maximum effect to satisfy our personal, social and economic goals).

The one true bottleneck in the system can be considered bandwidth. There is only so much time and so much attention that you as an individual can apply to anything, while an effectively limitless supply of information, entertainment, goods and services exists without.

The game changing social or technological event will be a means of increasing the human bandwidth. This could be technological (better interfaces for input and output), medical (drugs to eliminate the need for sleep or biological enhancements to increase the ability of the brain to process information) or social (new organizational models to allow humans to effectively multitask, new models of education, changes to language [like text messages] etc.)

This isn't an impossible idea; people are pretty comfortable with performance enhancement using drugs like steroids and alleged brain boosters today, and cosmetic surgury is a multi billion dollar business, so if a surgical or medical technique to enhance mental ability was offered, people would flock to take advantage.

Perhaps the means to do this isn't in any of these lists; the means may be unintuative or even impossible, but human enhancements may indeed be the future of the future.

Anita said...

Perhaps the closest thing to an invention developed deliberately for warfare was the portable flame thrower (Richard Fiedler, 1901). Yes, Greek Fire had been around in all its variation for centuries, but Fiedler developed it specifically for use by the German Army.

What the technology of WWI did was make warfare mobile and three dimensional, therefore almost impossible to control by field commanders. The fog thicken and events could change so rapidly that a decision made on intell 5 minutes old could be disasterous. Admiral Nagumo, WWII, found this out the hard way.

It also elimated the chimera that war was heroic and a rite of passage for a real man. The American Civil War hinted at this "War is all hell"; it took WWI to get the point across.

Jean-Remy said...

I *don't* think people are comfortable with enhancements. Whenever a sports figure is found to be using (abusing) such, the fallout is generally career-ending. Our mental stimulants are little more than improved sugar pills meant to increase cellular energy production. However the cost of spikes in energy production is to require more sleep. Alleviating the need for sleep is next to impossible. Sleep-deprivation studies have shown the tremendous damage it can do. In excess, sleep deprivation is nothing short of lethal.

But let's say we could. The problem with increasing our "neural bandwidth" is that rather than helping us focus, it only helps us see how many more problems there are, thereby causing us to lose focus. The more we are aware of the world, the more we realize its complexity and the less we can fixate on solving one problem simply because we realize that fixing one problem is a drop in a very very big bucket. We're really playing whack-a-mole, and rightly so, sadly. There's not only so much we can focus on, there's only so many resources to be spread around. There are 200 nations in the world, a smattering of which are democracies. Should we go to war with all of them to spread democracy? This is not just a question of attention span or mental bandwidth, it's a question of resources, not just money but manpower and industrial production. We can send aid and supplies, but a lot of those totalitarian regimes do not even allow those to enter their territory, so we're back to either going to war or sadly sitting back and ignoring the problem (to free up bandwidth) and concentrate on that which we can fix.

We have access to more information than ever, and aware of the world in a more holistic manner than ever. But we're hardly in a post-scarcity world (and we will never be: post scarcity would require near-infinite energy and resources which is of course impossible) and so, even if we could focus on everything (which is also impossible as it would require near-infinite bandwidth) we couldn't solve everything anyways.

Bandwidth I would say is the least of our problems, actually.

Jean-Remy said...

Jim and Anita:

I really don't think the direct application of science into weapon creation is a 20th century phenomenon. The sword was the first implement solely developed for warfare. Most other primitive weapons (axes, spears, poles, maces, hammers, flails...) were changes to farming or hunting implements Most advances in the science of metallurgy have always been closely linked to sword-making. Science applied directly to warfare is hardly new.

As for the idea that warfare was somehow ever a glorious thing, I mainly think this is how our 20th century minds wants to think of our ancestors. Do we base that impression on paintings of Washington in uniform standing proud? What will our ancestors think about a picture of George W. Bush in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier. What is our impression of the braces of shiny medals pinned to the chest of Napoleon? Take a look at the "fruit salad" on the breast pocket of General Patton. And there is hardly any difference between a Roman General's victory parade and the modern "ticker-tape" parade for Admiral Chester Nimitz. Of course those are the prominent records of the past that have survived and give us this impression. The scribblings of terrified Roman or French or American revolutionary soldiers are mostly gone, but I very much doubt they saw war as anything but hell.

Nothing ever changes and everything is older than we think.

Anonymous said...

There are some excellent primary sources from almost all eras regarding warfare. Basically, it sucked then, it sucks now, and it will always suck in the future. Only the official propoganda tries to portray warfare as anything other than a wheelbarrow full of reeking suckage dumped into an open sewer of rotting maggot-infested further suckage.

As for 'enhancements', I've noticed that most of the people who talk about transcending human boundaries with chemical and cybernetic systems are people who haven't come anywhere near reaching human potential. Most transhumanists have never written a sonnet, built a house, painted a picture, climbed a mountain, mastered amusical instrument... But are still convinced they've reached the peak of human potential. On the other hand, I know people who have done all those things and more, and none of them are interested in these so-called enhancements.

Another problem with the 'brain-enhancing' nootropics is that they all enhance concentration, the ability to focus on small details, and the willingness to spend time at boring mental tasks. In other words, make you a better bureaucrat and petty middle-manager. They work off a technocratic and very narrow definition of intelligence, and are actively harmful to creative capacity, artistic composition, and problem-solving intelligence.

Our big problem right now isn't bandwidth, or lack of information, or lack of ability to process information. It's the interfaces we use to organize and display that information. Most of our displays, including the so-called cutting-edge stuff, are still just a layer of shiny overtop of engineer-designed technical displays. We're slowly starting to re-design these systems, but won't see real progress in that area for a generation. Probably a short generation, say 15 years before consumer electronics are really designed for normal people rather than culturally-autistic engineers.

As for post-scarcity cultures - Northern America and Western Europe have been post-scarcity cultures for decades now. We didn't take that opportunity to reduce poverty, end hunger within our borders, or enhance our own democracies. We have stuffed our living spaces so full of shiny stuff that we now take courses on how to organize and keep track of all our stuff. Our problems are not how to get more stuff, but how to get rid of the stuff we have without poisoning ourselves. We are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of avarice and it has only made us fat, sick, and bored. The decades before the 21st Century saw the world transformed into a playground for Westerners, and we shat in the sandbox. We indulged our every whim, we took excess to levels the devil could never even dream of, and we have nothing worthwhile to show of it. Every sage in every land and age has preached the middle path as the route to contentment, and we proved them right. The post-scarcity utopian future has been and gone. Now we have to learn to share.


Anonymous said...

Oh wow, that totally degenerated into a rant. Ima go get coffee now.


Anita said...


I believe the thrust of the argument was many, if not most, inventions have been turned into weapons or battle enhancers and sometimes the reverse (radar and sonar), but few were deliberately so made with no other useful purpose.

No argument that the grunt down through history seldom saw war as a glorious, heroic event. John Keegan's The Face of Battle goes into detail about that. On the other, it was often a source of profit for them and sometimes advancement - a marshall's baton in the back pack.

However, consider the war poetry WWI. It was written not by grunts, but by young officers, front line commanders, the elite of their society, for most part trained and prepared to take up arms for King and Country.

Before them did any of their kind write or even speak such searing wholesale condemnation of war?

Thucydides said...

If it's war you want...

Read the Iliad carefully and you can see even the Bronze age aristocrats found the act of battle terrifying (and Homer never pull punches when describing the effects of bronze age weaponry on the human body); one can only imagine their relatively unprotected followers had it even worse.

Why would they fight anyway? Crass materialism comes to mind; capturing and ransoming an enemy, stripping armour from the dead or the chance to capture cattle and slaves provided avenues to gain wealth equal to a lifetime scratching out a living on a farm.

The vast increases in scale of warfare in the 1800's led to the growth of bureacratic systems that dominate our lives today (blame the rise of railroads and the need for military planners to effectively schedule the use of rolling stock) while the 3 dimensionality of war has compounded that growth in the 20th century.

Perhaps one example of the social changes that I was referring to can be seen in the rise of so called fourth generation war; dispersed groups who operate under a general set of instructions but are otherwise not closely coordinatied. Terrorists and SOF operators work this way, and the close coupling of SOF operators and overflying aircraft in 2002 in the battles against the Taliban and their AQ allies is an example of using fourth generation techniques coupled to third generation manouevre war and second generation industrial war.

If there is a "fifth generation" of warfare it will be super empowered individuals with very limited or non existant ties to any central authority or logistical train, soldiers or terrorists will essentially be able to "roll your own" munitions and supplies from available materials and powerful, low cost technologies. Even today, it is possible to buy genetic bases, the machinery to put it together and look up the sequence of Anthrax or Variola Major (Smallpox) on the internet. While this is still something only a well funded organization could attempt, the costs only go down.

WRT enhancements; we may sneer a sports figures who are caught using enhancements, but it is a billion dollar industry, so lots of people who are not sports stars are very much into this.

WRT resources, while there are limits to resources, for an individual in the West there are effectively no limits except time and space, and the same sort of empowerment which soldiers and insurgents have today will become more common in the future. How individuals handle the empowerment is up to them (if they choose to fritter away all their extra time, so be it), I think we all can see the other potential problem of super empowered individuals in our neighbourhoods when they start building rockets or genetic engineering labs in their back yards...

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VonMalcolm said...

To Anonymous on 'Stuff':
by George Carlin:

'Actually this is just a place for my stuff: Ya know? That's all, a little place for my stuff. That's all I want; that's all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff: Ya know? I can see it on your table; everybody's got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff; that's your stuff; that'll be his stuff over there. That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time.

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you're taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you're saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get... more stuff!

Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore. Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else's house, you never quite feel a hundred percent at home? You know why? No room for your stuff. Somebody else's stuff is all over the goddamn place! And if you stay overnight, unexpectedly, they give you a little bedroom to sleep in. Bedroom they haven't used in about eleven years. Someone died in it, eleven years ago. And they haven't moved any of his stuff! Right next to the bed there's usually a dresser or a bureau of some kind, and there's NO ROOM for your stuff on it. Somebody else's shit is on the dresser.

Have you noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff? God! And you say, "Get that shit offa there and let me put my stuff down!"'

Rick said...

Once again, what the hell am I supposed to add to this discussion?

On war, although literature going back to the Iliad pulled no spear thrusts, so to speak, in describing the horrors of war, there was also a distinct cultural tradition of treating war as a sort of Xtreme sport.

One factor is that danger used to be more sporadic, at least for the warriors. There were exceptions, but generally battles were over in hours, and someone with an active military career might only engage in a few.

Which, not by coincidence, is the way we tend to portray warfare in Romance - wandering around the galaxy, wenching pretty blue girls, or equivalent, and battling it out with the occasional imperial star destroyer in a good clean engagement leaving just time for the episode coda.

Dammit, this is turning into a nascent blog post.

On direct human enhancement, I am in the skeptical school. Monkeying around with apes is looking for trouble. You are dealing with an extreme level of complexity, and whatever you amp up is going to set off all sorts of unexpected feedback loops, most of which will cause problems.

That said, we're 'enhancing' ourselves with gadgets, but there is nothing new about that, but we are probably going to find the saturation level, where we've got as many apps on our iEverything as we can friggin handle. Then we add one more ...

A mint, sir?

VonMalcolm said...

Human enhancement through genetics, bionics, biocybernetics, biosynthetics, nanotechnology, all of the above? I definitely envisage artificial, perhaps even extreme, advancement in all areas of human biology, except the brain... that we are going to have to enhance on our own, IMO... which won't happen in general: too much... well... thinking. And even if one could potentially artificially enhance one's intelligence (after conception), what would be the risk of accidentally lowering it in the process? Who would take that risk? You're a 150 IQ; we can take you to a 200 IQ, but there is a decent chance you'll end up with a 100 IQ and you'll end up saying things like...

"The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation's history... this century's history.... We all lived in this century. I didn't live in this century."
-- Dan Quayle, then Indiana senator and Republican vice-presidential candidate during a news conference in which he was asked his opinion of the Holocaust.

"I support efforts to limit the terms of members of Congress, especially members of the House and members of the Senate."
-- Vice-President Dan Quayle

"It is wonderful to be here in the great state of Chicago."
-- Former US Vice President Dan Quayle

"I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn't study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people."
-- Former US Vice President Dan Quayle

"It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it."
-- Former US Vice President Dan Quayle

Quotes source:

As for an intrusive computer/brain interface, wouldn’t even a very powerful mind/sense enhancing one be like wearing an off button on your head? -No knife, gun, bomb, or laser needed to take you out; just a nice tug, tap, zap, or untimely mishap to transmutate your brain into vegetable lasagna.

Citizen Joe said...

I had a plausible future history for the design of a neural interface. The intent would be to allow paraplegics (particularly war veterans) a means to control artificial limbs. The process would involve a multiplexer (probably attached at the back of the neck) with nanites that would attach to the existing neural pathways in the brain, forming a link back to the multiplexer. These nanite chains would pick up the neurons firing and send them back to the multiplexer for translation. The subject would then 'think' his arm to move repeatedly until the multiplexer recognized the pattern. Then it would send this to some computer which would then control the artificial limbs. As technology improved, the NNPs could be used on healthy people and with proper training allow them to control 'phantom limbs' that they never had in the first place. This might be an actual limb, like a tail or extra set of arms, or it could be something like a radio. Obviously, only certain individuals can actually get this to work. There's also the huge drawback of a strong magnetic field ripping the NNPs right through your grey matter.

Jean-Remy said...

Actually there are labs working on that kind of things, although right now, not having nanites, it is not so much a question of tying into the natural motor control centers. It is a matter of learning what kind of signal does what and it takes a long time in therapy for the user to "rediscover" how to move their artificial limbs by stimulating areas of the brain where the connections are installed. That is, the subject does not manipulate his arms and legs as we would, subconsciously, but by consciously activating otherwise lesser used zones and having the computer read the electrical impulses. It's no so much the computer "reading our mind" but the user figuring out how to stimulate the right electrodes consciously be redirecting electrical currents. In other words, the computer is not learning how to read your mind, but our mind adjusting to triggering the right impulses. This goes to show how complex and flexible our minds are, and rather than showing us how a complex computer can adapt to us it is proof that our minds are so complex that we can adapt to a computer. The more we know about our brains, the more complex it appears.

Native Jovian said...

This discussion illustrates pretty well why I dislike "futurist" predictions as a whole. Here we have a group of predictions about the future, including the widespread use of mental and physical performance-enhancing drugs; warfare being waged by literal one-man armies that act as their own combat force, logistics corp, intelligence network, and command and control; an assertion that we're already living in a post-scarcity world and it's a consumerist dystopia instead of an enlightened utopia; a competing assertion that a post-scarcity society is literally impossible; a belief that the biggest limit on human advancement is "bandwidth" in the sense of our ability to focus on a given thing; another belief that the biggest limit on human advancement is human nature; and a third belief that the biggest limit on human advancement is information display/retrieval (and, furthermore, that this will relatively soon be fixed).

They all sound good, and I'm sure they each have plenty of thought behind them. And yet there's no real argument behind any of them. There's no evidence, there's no logic, there's no "this has lead to this, which will lead to this". It's just people throwing out their thoughts on what would be cool (steroids that enhance your brain instead of your body!) or things they're afraid of (in the future, we won't own our stuff, our stuff will own us!) without much rhyme or reason or any real rationale behind what will make these visions of the future likely to even possible.

Yesterday's Nostradamus is today's "futurist".

Rick said...

Native Jovian - Your points remind me of the saying that prophesy isn't about the future, but about the present.

'Enhancement' is a preoccupation of our society in the age of steroids and Botox; a hundred years ago there was quite similar speculation about eugenics. For that matter, the discussion really goes back to Mary Shelley - who first asked the question, so far as I know, then stepped right up with the most alarming possible answer.

Anonymous said...

Ok, folks, here is my prediction about what people of 2110 AD will find silly/quaint/wrong/amusing about this blog...EVERTHING!...but especially about all of our comments about space economics and space warfare!

Why? Because some of our basic assumptions are wrong (which ones? Got me...), and the core principles of the economics of space and the tactics of space-war will be different from our imagies of it for the very reason that the future people will have concerns and social norms as different from ours as ours are as different from those of people who lived in 1910.
(floating airfields replacing battleships? preposterous! Railroads and ships not the primary means of rapid, long-range travel and transportation? You're mad, MAD, I tell you!)

Yeah, so I can see the rise of Callesto-to-Titan trade and space warfare conducted primarily between colonies with jerry-rigged spacecraft and weapons.


Rick said...

Because some of our basic assumptions are wrong (which ones? Got me...)

Truer words never spoken, on this subject.

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

VonMalcolm said...

Top 141 Bad Predictions about the Future

I threw this list together from several sites; I make no claims to its veracity!


#1 King George II said in 1773 that the American colonies had little stomach for revolution.

#2 "Four or five frigates will do the business without any military force."
- British prime minister Lord North, on dealing with the rebellious American colonies, 1774.

#3 "What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense."
- Napoleon Bonaparte, when told of Robert Fulton's steamboat, 1800s.

#4 "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist-"
- Last words of Gen. John Sedgwick, spoken as he looked out over the parapet at enemy lines during the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864.

#5 "You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees."
- Kaiser Wilhelm, to the German troops, August 1914.

#6 "Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Those officers and men are wasting their time and are not pulling their proper weight in the war."
- Fourth Lord of the British Admiralty, 1915.

#7 "The idea that cavalry will be replaced by these iron coaches is absurd. It is little short of treasonous."
- Comment of Aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Haig, at tank demonstration, 1916.

#8 "War to end All Wars."
Woodrow Wilson, April 2,1917.

#9 "This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time."
- Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, September 30th, 1938.

#10 "Where Napoleon failed, I shall succeed: I shall land on the shores of Britain."
- Adolf Hitler. May 30, 1940?.

#11 "Mr. Churchill tells his people that England will win, but I tell you that victory will belong to Germany."
- Adolf Hitler, Nazi Dictator (after the first initial battles in the Battle of England).

#12 "England has already lost the war. It is only a matter of having the intelligence to admit it."
Adolf Hitler, April 4, 1941.

#13 "Whatever happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping."
- Frank Knox, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, on December 4, 1941.

#14 "A thousand years hence Germans will speak of this battle [of Stalingrad] with reverence and awe, and will remember that in spite of everything Germany's ultimate victory was decided there… In years to come it will be said of the heroic battle on the Volga: When you come to Germany, say that you have seen us lying at Stalingrad, as our honor and our leaders ordained that we should, for the greater glory of Germany."
- Reich Marshall Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe (1942).

#15 "We should declare war on North Vietnam. . . .We could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and still be home by Christmas."
- Ronald Reagan, 1965.

#16 "I see light at the end of the tunnel."
- Walt W. Rostow, National Security Adviser, Dec. 1967.

#17 "I'm not going to be the first American president to lose a war."
- Richard Nixon, Oct. 1969.

#18 "We believe that peace is at hand."
- Henry Kissinger, Oct. 1972.

#19-22 "History, Schmistory."
* Custer, at Little Big Horn: "Indians, schmindians!"
* Crockett, at The Alamo: "Mexicans, schmexicans!"
* Castle guards in full armor: "Genghis, schmengis!"
* Two Mastodons: "Neanderthals, schmeanderthals!"
- From Gary Larson's Far Side strip, 1994:

#23 "There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. As this operation continues, those weapons will be identified, found, along with the people who have produced them and who guard them."
- General Tommy Franks, March 22nd, 2003.

VonMalcolm said...


#24 "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote."
- Grover Cleveland, U.S. President, 1905.

#25 "Our country has deliberately undertaken a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far reaching in purpose."
- Herbert Hoover, on Prohibition, 1928.

#26 "Democracy will be dead by 1950."
- John Langdon-Davies, A Short History of The Future, 1936.

#27 "We will bury you."
- Nikita Krushchev, Soviet Premier, predicting Soviet communism will win over U.S. capitalism, 1958.

#28 "It will be years - not in my time - before a woman will become Prime Minister."
- Margaret Thatcher, future Prime Minister, October 26th, 1969.

#29 "Read my lips: NO NEW TAXES."
- George Bush, 1988.


#30 "Capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of nature, its own negation."
- Karl Marx.

#31 "Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."
- Irving Fisher, economics professor at Yale University, 1929.

#32 "In all likelihood world inflation is over."
- International Monetary Fund CEO, 1959.

#33 "Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop - because women like to get out of the house, like to handle merchandise, like to be able to change their minds."
- TIME, 1966, in one sentence writing off e-commerce long before anyone had ever heard of it.

#34 "This antitrust thing will blow over."
- Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft on 11 July, 1995.

Light Bulb

#35 "When the Paris Exhibition [of 1878] close, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it."
- Erasmus Wilson, Oxford Professor

#36 "... good enough for our transatlantic friends ... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men."
- British Parliamentary Committee, referring to Edison's light bulb, 1878.

#37 "Such startling announcements as these should be deprecated as being unworthy of science and mischievous to its true progress."
- Sir William Siemens, on Edison's light bulb, 1880.

#38 "Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize it as a conspicuous failure."
- Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, on Edison's light bulb, 1880.


#39 "A man has been arrested in New York for attempting to extort funds from ignorant and superstitious people by exhibiting a device which he says will convey the human voice any distance over metallic wires so that it will be heard by the listener at the other end. He calls this instrument a telephone. Well-informed people know that it is impossible to transmit the human voice over wires."
- News item in a New York newspaper, 1868.

#40 "It's a great invention, but who would want to use it anyway?"
- Rutherford B. Hayes, U.S. President, after a demonstration of Alexander Bell's telephone, 1876.

#41 "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
- A memo at Western Union, 1878 (or 1876).

#42 "The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."
- Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer, British Post Office, 1878.

#43 "Transmission of documents via telephone wires is possible in principle, but the apparatus required is so expensive that it will never become a practical proposition."
- Dennis Gabor, British physicist and author of Inventing the Future, 1962.

VonMalcolm said...


#44 "Radio has no future."
- Lord Kelvin, Scottish mathematician and physicist, former president of the Royal Society, 1897.

#45 "Lee DeForest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public ... has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company ..."
- A U.S. District Attorney, prosecuting American inventor Lee DeForest for selling stock fraudulently through the mail for his Radio Telephone Company in 1913.

#46 "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?"
- Associates of David Sarnoff responding to the latter's call for investment in the radio in 1921.

#47 "Home Taping is killing music."
- A slogan for a 1980 campaign started by BPI claiming that people recording music off the radio onto cassette would destroy the music industry.


#48 "The cinema is little more than a fad. It's canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage."
- Charlie Chaplin, actor, producer, director, and studio founder, 1916.

#49 "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"
- H. M. Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, 1927.

#50 "Forget it. No Civil War picture ever made a nickel."
- MGM executive, advising against investing in Gone With The Wind.

#51 "That rainbow song's no good. Take it out."
- MGM memo after first showing of The Wizard Of Oz.

#52 "You better get secretarial work or get married."
- Emmeline Snively, advising would be model Marilyn Monroe in 1944.

#53 "Reagan doesn't have that Presidential look."
- United Artist Executive rejecting Reagan as lead in 1964 film.


#54 "While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming."
- Lee DeForest, American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube, 1926.

#55 "Television won't matter in your lifetime or mine."
- Radio Times editor Rex Lambert, 1936.

#56 "Television won't last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."
- Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

#57 "Television won't last. It's a flash in the pan."
- Mary Somerville, pioneer of radio educational broadcasts, 1948.

VonMalcolm said...


#58 "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM 1943.

#59 "Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons."
- Popular Mechanics, March 1949.

#60 "It would appear we have reached the limits of what it is possible to
achieve with computer technology."
- computer scientist John von Neumann, 1949

#61 "I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."
The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957.

#62 "But what... is it good for?"
- IBM executive Robert Lloyd, speaking in 1968 microprocessor, the heart of today's computers.

#63 "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
- Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), maker of big business mainframe computers, arguing against the PC in 1977.

#64 "We don't need you. You haven't got through college yet."
- Hewlett-Packard's rejection of Steve Jobs, who went on to found Apple Computers.

#65 "640K ought to be enough for anybody."
- Bill Gates, 1981.

#66 "By the turn of the century, we will live in a paperless society."
- Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors, 1986

#67 "I predict the internet ... will go spectacularly supernova and in 1996
catastrophically collapse."
- Robert Metcalfe, InfoWorld, 1995."

#68 The Millennium Bug

#69 "We are on a tear to be the undisputed winner in China."
- eBay CEO Meg Whitman on 10 February, 2005. By December 2006, eBay said it would close its operation in China.

#70 "Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput."
- Amstrad founder, Sir Alan Sugar, in February 2005.

#71 "There's just not that many videos I want to watch."
- lamented Steve Chen, a co-founder of YouTube, in March 2005.

#72 The death of spam
- Another bad prediction from Gates, who declared in January 2004 at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland that spam would be dead in 24 months. Two years later, security firm Barracuda said that in 2007, 95-percent of e-mail messages were spam.

#73 "We will never make a 32 bit operating system."
- Bill Gates, the CEO of Microsoft. The prediction turned false when Windows 98 was released by Microsoft, at launch of MSX in 1983.


#74 "Rail travel at high speed is not possible, because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia."
- Dr Dionysys Larder (1793-1859), professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, University College London.

#75 "What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?"
- The Quarterly Review, March edition, 1825.

#76 "Dear Mr. President: The canal system of this country is being threatened by a new form of transportation known as 'railroads' ... As you may well know, Mr. President, 'railroad' carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by 'engines' which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed."
- Martin Van Buren, Governor of New York, 1830(?).

VonMalcolm said...


#77 "The ordinary "horseless carriage" is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle."
- Literary Digest, 1899.

#78 "The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad."
- The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903.

#79 "That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced."
- Scientific American, Jan. 2 edition, 1909.

#80 "With over fifteen types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself."
- Business Week, August 2, 1968.


#81 "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."
- Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, president of the British Royal Society, 1895.

#82 "It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the [flying machine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere."
- Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1895.

#83 "Man will not fly for 50 years."
- Wilbur Wright, American aviation pioneer, to brother Orville, after a disappointing flying experiment, 1901 (their first successful flight was in 1903).

#84 "Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical (sic) and insignificant, if not utterly impossible."
- Simon Newcomb; The Wright Brothers flew at Kittyhawk 18 months later. Newcomb was not impressed.

#85 "Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value."
- Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, 1904.

#86 "The Americans are good about making fancy cars and refrigerators, but that doesn't mean they are any good at making aircraft. They are bluffing. They are excellent at bluffing."
- Hermann Goering, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, 1942.

#87 "There will never be a bigger plane built."
- A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that holds ten people.

#88 "Very interesting Whittle, my boy, but it will never work."
- Cambridge Aeronautics Professor, when shown Frank Whittle's plan for the jet engine.


#89 "Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."
- 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard's revolutionary rocket work.

#90 "A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth's atmosphere."
- New York Times, 1936.

#91 "... too far-fetched to be considered."
- Editor of Scientific American, in a letter to Robert Goddard about Goddard's idea of a rocket-accelerated airplane bomb, 1940 (German V2 missiles came down on London 3 years later).

#92 "Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours
from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold
of rocket mail."
- Arthur Summerfield, U.S. Postmaster General under Eisenhower, 1959.

VonMalcolm said...

Space Travel

#93 "To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to earth - all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances."
- Lee DeForest, American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube, in 1926

#94 "Space travel is utter bilge."
- Richard Van Der Riet Woolley, upon assuming the post of Astronomer Royal in 1956.

#95 "Space travel is bunk."
- Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of the UK, 1957 (two weeks later Sputnik orbited the Earth).

#96 "There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States."
- T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, in 1961 (the first commercial communications satellite went into service in 1965).

Atomic and Nuclear Power

#97 "There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom."
- Robert Millikan, American physicist and Nobel Prize winner, 1923.

#98 "There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will."
- Albert Einstein, 1932.

#99 "The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine."
- Ernest Rutherford, shortly after splitting the atom for the first time.

#100 "Atomic energy might be as good as our present-day explosives, but it is unlikely to produce anything very much more dangerous."
- Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister, 1939.

#101 "That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done [research on]... The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives."
- Admiral William D. Leahy, U.S. Admiral working in the U.S. Atomic Bomb Project, advising President Truman on atomic weaponry, 1944.

#102 "The basic questions of design, material and shielding, in combining a nuclear reactor with a home boiler and cooling unit, no longer are problems... The system would heat and cool a home, provide unlimited household hot water, and melt the snow from sidewalks and driveways. All that could be done for six years on a single charge of fissionable material costing about $300."
- Robert Ferry, executive of the U.S. Institute of Boiler and Radiator Manufacturers, 1955.

#103 "Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years."
- Alex Lewyt, president of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt Corp., in the New York Times in 1955.

VonMalcolm said...

Other Technology

#104 "Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for
further developments."
- Roman engineer Julius Sextus Frontinus, A.D. 100

#105 "Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to find to find oil? You're Crazy."
- Associates of Edwin L. Drake refusing his suggestion to drill for oil in 1859.

#106 "Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever."
- Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1889 (Edison often ridiculed the arguments of competitor George Westinghouse for AC power).

#107 "Everything that can be invented has been invented."
- Charles H. Duell, an official at the US patent office, 1899.

#108 "I am tired of all this sort of thing called science here... We have spent millions in that sort of thing for the last few years, and it is time it should be stopped."
- Simon Cameron, U.S. Senator, on the Smithsonian Institute, 1901.

#109 "I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea."
- HG Wells, British novelist, in 1901.

#110 - An official of the White Star Line, speaking of the firm's newly built flagship, the Titanic, launched in 1912, declared that the ship was unsinkable.

#111 "The world potential market for copying machines is 5000 at most."
- IBM, to the eventual founders of Xerox, saying the photocopier had no market large enough to justify production, 1959.

#112 "[By 1985], machines will be capable of doing any work Man can do."
- Herbert A. Simon, of Carnegie Mellon University - considered to be a founder of the field of artificial intelligence - speaking in 1965.

VonMalcolm said...


#113 "The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name, others for the sake of mere gain."
- Martin Luther, German Reformation leader, Table Talk, 1530s(?).

#114 "I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious sensibilities of anyone."
- Charles Darwin, in the foreword to his book, The Origin of Species, 1869.

#115 "Law will be simplified [over the next century]. Lawyers will have
diminished, and their fees will have been vastly curtailed."
- journalist Junius Henri Browne, 1893

#116 "It doesn't matter what he does; he will never amount to anything."
- Albert Einstein's teacher to his father, 1895.

#117 "The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible." (not exact quote?)
- A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service, 1962. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

#118 "If anything remains more or less unchanged, it will be the role of women."
- David Riesman, conservative American social scientist, 1967.

#119 "If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000."
- Paul Ehrlich 1969

#120 "If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder by the year 2000...This is about twice what it would take to put us in an ice age."
- Kenneth E.F. Watt, 1970

#121 "This cooling has already killed hundreds of thousands of people. If it continues and no strong action is taken, it will cause world famine, world chaos and world war, and this could all come about before the year 2000."
- Lowell Ponte, 1976

#122 "If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said 'you can't do this'."
- Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M "Post-It" Notepads.

#123 "The case is a loser."
- Johnnie Cochran, on soon-to-be client O.J.'s chances of winning, 1994.


#124 "Ours has been the first [expedition], and doubtless to be the last, to visit this profitless locality."
- Lt. Joseph Ives, after visiting the Grand Canyon in 1861.

#125 "The phonograph has no commercial value at all."
- Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1880s.

#126 "Converting the best left-handed pitcher in baseball and converting him into a right fielder is one of the dumbest things I ever heard."
- Tris Speaker, baseball Hall-of-Famer, talking about Babe Ruth,1919.

#127 "Can't act. Can't sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little."
- A film company's verdict on Fred Astaire's 1928 screen test.

#128 "You ought to go back to driving a truck."
--Concert manager, firing Elvis Presley in 1954.

#129 "It will be gone by June."
- Variety, passing judgment on rock 'n roll in 1955.

#130 "A short-lived satirical pulp."
- TIME, writing off Mad magazine in 1956.

#131 "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out."
- Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

#132 "The Beatles? They're on the wane."
- The Duke of Edinburgh in Canada, 1965. They went on to produce a string of No 1s.

#133 "The lead singer [Mick Jagger] will have to go; the BBC won't like him."
- First Rolling Stones manager Eric Easton to his partner after watching them perform.

#134 "And for the tourist who really wants to get away from it all, safaris in Vietnam"
- Newsweek, predicting popular holidays for the late 1960s.

VonMalcolm said...


#135 "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."
- Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872.

#136 "The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut of from the intrusion from the wise and humane surgeon."
- Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria, 1873.

#137 "X-rays will prove to be a hoax."
- Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1883.

#138 "If excessive smoking plays a role in the production of cancer, it seems to be a minor one."
- W. C. Heuper, National Cancer Institute, 1954.

#139 "That virus is a pussycat."
- Dr. Peter Duesberg, molecular-biology professor at U.C. Berkeley, on HIV, 1988.

#140 "There will be one million cases of AIDS in Britain by 1991."
--World Health Organisation in a 1989 report. It over-estimated by 992,301 cases.

End Of The World

# 141 Any number of Doomsday Predictions set to happen before January 27, 2010.

Links to sources:,139023166,339284671,00.htm <<< HILARIOUS!!!

Rick said...

Those are a hoot! Though I suspect that a few of them - mainly to do with pop culture - may be urban legends.

One thing that surprised me was the 'global cooling' quotes. Growing up in the 60s, I took for granted that another ice age was coming, but only in the distant future. I never heard of it as a near-term concern, or really even heard much about it at all.

It was just one of those funky things that all science geeks knew, like the meaning of 'long pig.'

Jim Baerg said...

#103 "Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years."
- Alex Lewyt, president of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt Corp., in the New York Times in 1955.

By 1965 there were a few nuclear plants supplying electricity to the grid & plenty of vacuum cleaners plugged into the grid, so technically that prediction is correct.

Re: the global cooling quotes.
See this

and this

Rick said...

I thought exactly that re the atomic vacuums. In my little rail oriented alt-universe, in the mid 60s the Santa Teresa transit system labels one of its streetcars a Nuclear Powered Vehicle, complete with stylized electrons orbiting the headlight.

On 'global cooling' your quotes confirm my recollection: It had a modest place in the geek pop culture of the time, but was not a subject of much actual scientific discussion or concern.

emdx said...

On rails, there is a whole series of novels regarding a future ice age where whole armies battle each-other's nuclear-powered steam locomotives on rails criss-crossing an ice-covered Earth. That is "La compagnie des glaces" ("The ice company"*) by Georges-Jean Arnaud. There are over 98 books published in the series.

* A bad pun, as "compagnie des glaces" could very well be an ice-cream stands franchise... Here, the name is of the railroad company that builded it's network on the frozen oceans, following the naming traditions of past french railroads.

Jean-Remy said...

If you want FTL train SF then there's Timothy Zahn's Quadrail series, starting with Night Train to Rigel and Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth books starting with Pandora's Star. Of course there's the anime series Galaxy Express 999. The granddaddy of them all however is a mention in Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon of future trains to the moon.

It would appear that the second most used star travel metaphor after naval vessels is the train. Interesting.

Rick said...

Interesting about La compagnie des glaces! So much out there that I have no idea existed!

There have been a few historical battle trains, and one was portrayed in the movie 'Dr. Zhivago.'

I once read an SF novel - alas, forget both author and title - with the most unusual FTL I have encountered. People traveled through some para-landscape in wagons pulled by 'waybeasts,' but the wagons were hitched together train-wise, with a diner, a lounge car, sleepers, and so on.

VonMalcolm said...

Reading this blog I am more drawn to Thucydides idea of 'increasing my bandwidth'. As much as I like this blog I notice I have to be in a certain frame of mind to tackle it, otherwise I am just wasting my time. I want to get caught up on the older posts as well as the many articles on other science and science fiction websites (esp. Atomic Rockets) but eventually my brain says ENOUGH! I definitely wish I could get a little more out of myself before that ENOUGH voice takes over and I find myself checking out ESPN to watch grown men argue over a ball.

Rick said...

That's just Father Darwin reminding you that you are after all an ape, and like all of us sometimes have to do ape stuff.

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Anonymous said...

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Jim Baerg said...

The illustration at the top of the post looks a bit like a stylized version of this:

The author makes a good case for using these ropeways more under at least some conditions.