20 Mistakes Into the Future
September 15, 2015 3:03 AM   Subscribe

Why Futurism Has a Cultural Blindspot, or "We predicted cell phones, but not women in the workplace" by Tom Vanderbilt (previously)
from Nautilus Magazine's "2050" issue, which also features Lee Billings on Stanislaw Lem's futurism and Rachel B. Sussman visiting NASA’s Ames Research Center
posted by oneswellfoop (32 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Coal, notes the historian David Edgerton in his book The Shock of the Old, was a bigger source of power at the dawn of the 21st century than in sooty 1900; steam was more significant in 1900 than 1800.

First strike against this article - steam itself is not a power source.

My bigger gripe is it just looks like a criticism of 'what everybody thinks'. Who is everybody?

And is it really true that no one ever predicted the entry of women into the workplace? I kind of doubt that.
posted by newdaddy at 3:56 AM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Coal, notes the historian David Edgerton in his book The Shock of the Old, was a bigger source of power at the dawn of the 21st century than in sooty 1900

We used more coal in 2000 than 1900 as energy demand went through the roof in that period. Relatively, the share of coal in world primary energy peaked in around 1920-1930 and went below the 1900 level in about 1950. By 2000 coal was on a par with gas and below oil in terms of global primary energy share. (Sanden & Azar, Energy Policy journal, vol 33, pp1557)
posted by biffa at 3:59 AM on September 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


My 2 pfennigs worth includes the fact that vast majority of self labelled futurists are middle aged male technogeeks advising their peers in global organizations. This narrow frame of reference thus ends up focusing on technology fuelled utopias of robots driving cars while the emergence of the entire developing world and its own frontiers (mobile money, for instance) gets overlooked until it shows up as a "surprise".
posted by infini at 4:02 AM on September 15, 2015 [19 favorites]


But as the economist Robert Fogel famously noted, if the railroad had not been invented, we would have done almost as well, in terms of economic output, with ships and canals.

I also find this hard to believe. I live near the C&O canal. The C&O was a race to build, pitting rail against canal. (Now it's a fabulous rails-to-trails conversion.) When the canals got eight years behind the railroad, they gave up.
posted by newdaddy at 4:04 AM on September 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


“The horse,” he writes, “made a greater contribution to Nazi conquest than the V2.”

That's a pretty low bar to set. But the V2 directly contributed technology which enabled intercontinental ballistic missiles, which forever changed our politics, international relations and the balance of power. We could all be killed in an hour now, and that wasn't true before.

This article I feel is cherry picking and selectively ignoring a lot of history.
posted by newdaddy at 4:13 AM on September 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


“When we think of information technology we forget about postal systems, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and television,” writes Edgerton. “When we celebrate on-line shopping, the mail order catalogue goes missing.”

Who really is the "we" in these sentences? (Sorry, I'll stop now. Too much coffee already, I apologize.)
posted by newdaddy at 4:15 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't get it. He says that we could have achieved much the same economic growth with ships and canals as the railway provided, then says that we underestimate social change. The railways radically changed working society and created rapid access to markets and social mobility in ways that canals and ships could never do. What's he trying to say?

And as for 'can't see women in the workplace': you didn't have to predict it if you'd lived through WWI.

I wonder if his fingers are stained red from picking quite so many cherries? That's a lot of one-shot quotes - which is what you use if you're building straw men (though not straw women - eleven men quoted to just one woman, on a rough check).

This article is certainly demonstrating narrowness of vision and shoddy thinking, thought not perhaps in the way the author intended.
posted by Devonian at 4:16 AM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


There's some incredible work going on in futurology. New methods from computational statistics that will make it more than 98% accurate are only about ten years away now.
posted by Segundus at 4:30 AM on September 15, 2015 [20 favorites]


This rings true. I recently started re-reading the first book of the Foundation trilogy. It was shockingly sexist and lacking in any kind of cultural vision.

In the beginning the protagonist, who's the head of this large secretive anti-government scientific organization is caught. He sits down to have a cigar (all the men smoke) with his adversary and asks that if they're going to jail the scientists they may as well let the women (who couldn't possibly be scientists) and children free.

Also, they had janky ipads with colored buttons and lights, not displays. Point is, people look at the future as supercharged versions of the present. The actual future is unknowable.
posted by sp160n at 5:02 AM on September 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


technology fuelled utopias of robots driving cars

My robot will be chauffered in my self-driving car, thank-you very much!
posted by fairmettle at 5:10 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


“When we celebrate on-line shopping, the mail order catalogue goes missing.”

Does anyone actually miss those things? My mother died recently, and after setting things up to receive her important mail, I've also been getting all the catalogues she was on the list for. I am fucking drowning in the things. Plus the occasional credit card offer for my father (who's been dead since 1983) and for my pre-transition name (which I haven't used in like eight years).

I mean, yeah, it was cool to look at them when I was an eight year old poring over the new toys for my Christmas list. Now I just go on Twitter during E3 and skim over friends' reactions to the keynote presentations and links to various articles on Cool Indy Games!. I don't need a paper listing of all that stuff any more and I'm pretty glad.
posted by egypturnash at 5:23 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Nah, I can't think of anyone who truly misses catalogs, but they were important bridges from the industrial or urban world to the (often rural) customer.

My grandmother, who has never lived in a large city, loved mail order catalogs because they assured her that she had as much right as any cosmopolitan woman to buy a labor saving appliance or even something frivolous. She jumped right in to the computer age and uses Amazon for the same purpose.

Of course this is only feasible because the FCC incentivized rural internet, and rural telephone service before that, and the federal government ran electricity to the farmhouses in the area in the 1940s, and the federal government mandates the post office serve her address.
posted by Monochrome at 5:49 AM on September 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


I agree that the first article is pretty weak. I think the premise is spot on, but it focuses more on technology than sociology, which would have made our interesting. The Lem article is worth a read, though.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:02 AM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Instead of getting bogged down in the specifics, like trains vs. canals, the idea is no single change happens outside of other societal changes. Sometimes things amplify, but often they simply shift.

There is another semi-famous historical study of labour saving devices in the last century, and how we have this idea that the explosion of cheap white goods and appliances saved all this unpaid labour. When, in fact, it simply moved the cost and timing of that labour around.

But the simple idea of progress is compelling, and when notions of progress and futurism collide, we get some strangely myopic futures. The kind we feel free to laugh at in our own strangely anachronistic manner.

Anything that helps us think outside of the box of just-so stories in the style of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is necessary if we are going to get ourselves out of this mess.

Nice essay.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:06 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


When we celebrate on-line shopping, the mail order catalogue goes missing.

My apartment's mailbox, come, let me show you its bounty.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:41 AM on September 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


When we celebrate on-line shopping, the mail order catalogue goes missing.

When you shop online, it spawns paper catalogs. Amazon doesn't do it, but almost everyone else does. Drives me nuts.
posted by elizilla at 6:55 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


There is another semi-famous historical study of labour saving devices in the last century, and how we have this idea that the explosion of cheap white goods and appliances saved all this unpaid labour. When, in fact, it simply moved the cost and timing of that labour around.

Do you know what the study was? It sounds interesting and clean shirt and pants wise, its difficult to see how the washing machine isn't a big time saver.
posted by biffa at 7:01 AM on September 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


In the UK I note that Argos stores still have a big box of free to take catalogues outside. Perhaps wise to the idea that many of their customers may have limited internet access as yet.
posted by biffa at 7:03 AM on September 15, 2015


There's some incredible work going on in futurology.

Too true. Most of it is completely unbelievable.

Who really is the "we" in these sentences?

Ask D-503.

“When we celebrate on-line shopping, the mail order catalogue goes missing.”
    Does anyone actually miss those things?
    My apartment's mailbox, come, let me show you its bounty.
    When you shop online, it spawns paper catalogs.


Before this remark generates any further personal anecdotes, the author is not saying there aren't any catalogs anymore, nor that people regret their disappearance; he's saying here's an example where futurist fail to consider (or mention) the antecedents of the 'new' technologies they celebrate. There's a direct cultural line from mail-order catalotogs to online shopping, and they do in fact co-exist -- just as horse-wagons and supersonic jets co-exist as transportation technologies.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:09 AM on September 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Do people really forget about the telegraph? Maybe I spend more time than average thinking about the Civil War, but the text of Lincoln's First Inaugural was delivered to California by Pony Express in a record-breaking seven days. His Second Inaugural was delivered to California instantaneously, by transcontinental telegraph.

US history is incomprehensible if you don't pay attention to the telegraph. Without it, the American West is functionally Siberia and there's no way such a large area could have been brought under the permanent control of a single government.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:13 AM on September 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


clean shirt and pants wise, its difficult to see how the washing machine isn't a big time saver.

Prior to the advent of cheap home machines, doing laundry was such a pain in the ass the vast majority of middle and upper class people sent it out or had a servant do it.
posted by Diablevert at 7:16 AM on September 15, 2015


"We predicted cell phones, but not women in the workplace"

I remember watching 2001 in the late-seventies, about ten years after its release, and thinking how dated the vision of an all white, all male, all northern European future seemed. The technology all still looked futuristic as hell but in about a decade the social aspects seemed ancient.
posted by octothorpe at 7:17 AM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Predicted not a single mention of climate change, and wasn't disappointed - and while the one of the largest wildfires in US history is raging out of control, driven by beetle-killed trees, 3 hours from Silicon Valley.

I'll take Charles Bowden or Elizabeth Kolbert over Elon Musk anyday for a clear-eyed vision of the future. Futurism has a cultural blindspot because it stands to make a fortune off the status quo, plain and simple.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:19 AM on September 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Technological progress improves our stuff. Cultural progress (hopefully) improves our beliefs.

It is much easier for us to imagine the former is flawed than the latter. Consequently, we have little problem when SciFi tells us our cars will be obsolete in the future, but reject any SciFi that tells us that one of our morals will be.
posted by justkevin at 7:31 AM on September 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


Cultural progress (hopefully) improves our beliefs.

Monsieur, your can of worms is served.
posted by biffa at 7:43 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


From the initial article, "people forget the injunction of the historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee: Ideas, not technology, have driven the biggest historical changes. " While we can debate the merits of the specific examples the author has chosen, I felt like this was the crux of the essay. Did the ideas of humanity change our world more than any specific technology? The foundation of America as a democratic republic, the idea that all humanity is actually created equal, and no one should own another, the simple belief in freedom and the fight(s) to define that freedom; aren't these types of ideas greater drivers of change than say, a cell phone, a television, or a rocket?

Then of course the other side is as mentioned above, the example of the telegraph, did that particular invention change the way the world developed? And really, isn't the telegraph, or any technology, formed from an idea than humanity had?

Interesting stuff, I enjoyed the articles in the post. Thanks oneswellfoop!
posted by HycoSpeed at 8:21 AM on September 15, 2015


There's another form of blindness, I don't have teh technical words for it. I'll just give the example.

In Feb 2007, I made this post on the way mobile phones (cell phones in N/America) were changing lives among the lower income, the rural, especially in developing parts of the world. There were the usual arguments on "the poors need water, food, shelter, not phones".

Since then, bigname hugelycredible research on GDP changes, economic impact and all that jazz has demonstrated the value of the mobile phone far far beyond its replacement of a dish of porridge.

Yet, today, we still have headlines feeling the need to justify the existence of smartphones among refugees.

The bottomline is that the assumptions underlying your predictions, your scenarios and your forecasts, are not only what are most critical but also most likely to be implicit and left unquestioned. I would make a fortune from interventions aimed at this exact point in the entire exercise.
posted by infini at 9:20 AM on September 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


And as that first comment in the Feb 2007 FPP demonstrates, that was the first multi link post. Could we have predicted the emergence of award months and prizes, just under a decade later?
posted by infini at 9:22 AM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


The foundation of America as a democratic republic, the idea that all humanity is actually created equal, and no one should own another, the simple belief in freedom and the fight(s) to define that freedom; aren't these types of ideas greater drivers of change than say, a cell phone, a television, or a rocket?

I dunno. Personally I tend to think stuff changes, people don't change. Technology gives us new capacities, human culture warps and spreads to fill them like a slime mold solving a plexiglas maze. In pursuit of those new resources and opportunities, we take on new forms and textures, and this we call culture. Did white people conquer the West because of Manifest Destiny, or was that just a happy label to slap on the successful spread of an invasive species introduced to a new ecosystem? Did slavery end because we all collectively decided it was bad, or because the industrial revolution introduced a new mode of employment which was more efficient and enabled it to be dispensed with? Would we have feminism without the changes in the nature of labor that reduced the worth of muscle power relative to intellect for the masses, and meant you didn't need to pop out 8, 10, 12 kids to work the farm? The improvements to medicine that meant 1/3 of women didn't die in childbirth? The pill? The ideas that formed the backbone of feminism were present at Seneca in the 1840s. Women successfully began entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s, 10 years after they finally got access to a reliable method of birth control.

If we learn to love each other any better as a species in this century, it will be because the internet and the airplane have left us no escape from each other.
posted by Diablevert at 11:06 AM on September 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


First strike against this article - steam itself is not a power source.

Neither is coal, if you want to be pedantic about it. They're both ways of storing and transmitting solar energy.
posted by straight at 12:20 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you're being really pedantic then steam is neutral in terms of whether it is derived from solar or another energy source, geothermal being an obvious alternative.

Regarding coal, the electricity sector uses coal, gas, oil, nuclear etc as short forms for the respective power sources, it's a standard term of art.
posted by biffa at 1:45 PM on September 15, 2015


yeah, I guess you could say nuclear and geothermal aren't solar energy in the sense that they ultimately come from fission of heavy elements probably formed by supernovas of stars that weren't our sun
posted by straight at 10:23 AM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


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