Alberto Mingardi  

Psychohistory and us

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OpenCulture has just re-published some predictions by Isaac Asimov about life in 2014. I read Asimov as a teenager and, as I'm sure many of you were, I was always delighted by his science fiction and his sense of humor. His most famous novels are the seven volumes of the Foundation series. In those books, Asimov's most notable narrative trick is the concept of "psychohistory", a blend of mathematics and historicism. Psychohistory allows those who master it to predict the future, albeit just for macro trends and not in minute detail (the capitalist system will collapse... someday...). Therefore I suppose it is kind of fair to test Asimov on his own predictions.

Dan Colman at OpenCulture is convinced that Asimov "peered into the future during the 60s and got it right". Let's just go through a few of Asimov's forecasts:


Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare 'automeals,' heating water and converting it to coffee; toasting bread; frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on. Breakfasts will be 'ordered' the night before to be ready by a specified hour the next morning.
This is good enough, by Hari Seldon standards: people like gadgets, and they continue to do so. And yet, besides the fact that I can't see much technological improvement in ordering breakfast the night before (do you need a technological kitchen to take ten hours to prepare a meal?), the tentative "detailed" prediction doesn't sound very accurate.

Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica.
This is remarkably good indeed.

Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.
Very broad, but ok as far as it goes.

[H]ighways ... in the more advanced sections of the world will have passed their peak in 2014; there will be increasing emphasis on transportation that makes the least possible contact with the surface. There will be aircraft, of course, but even ground travel will increasingly take to the air a foot or two off the ground.
Not quite yet.

[V]ehicles with 'Robot-brains' ... can be set for particular destinations ... that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.
Still waiting for Google's self-driving car.
[T]he world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000." And later he warns that if the population growth continues unchecked, "All earth will be a single choked Manhattan by A.D. 2450 and society will collapse long before that!" As a result, "There will, therefore, be a worldwide propaganda drive in favor of birth control by rational and humane methods and, by 2014, it will undoubtedly have taken serious effect.
More than a prediction, this is a political statement.
Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be 'farms' turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors.
I shall go to my grocer and check what algae I'd better have for breakfast tomorrow.
[T]he most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!" in our "society of enforced leisure.
Uh-uh.

Asimov had a deep interest in imagining the future - that's part of being a science fiction writer, or at least it was at the very beginning of this form of literature, he was one of the pioneers of. His imagination sometimes may strike us as extremely farsighted, but just as often it doesn't. Karl Popper pointed out that as we cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our knowledge, we cannot predict the future course of human history.

We can dream of future technologies - as Asimov did. When a dream is dreamt by many, somebody will pick it up and try to realize it. Google's self-driving car is an example of that. But from those that fifty years ago tried to look in the crystal ball, perhaps we shall learn but one thing: predictions may be fun, and yet not very useful.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Adam writes:

Most accurate predictions? H.D. Thoreau's 19th century prediction for Cape Cod development makes it into my top 10. The book's last paragraph, written prior to 1860, predicts that:

The time must come when this coast [Cape Cod] will be a place of resort for those New-Englanders who really wish to visit the sea-side. At present it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them...What are springs and waterfalls? Here is the spring of springs, the waterfall of waterfalls. A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit it; a light-house or a fisherman's hut the true hotel. A man may stand there and put all America behind him.
Kyle Walter writes:

I find it rather ironic that Asimov never seemed to consider space colonization as a solution to the alleged problem of overpopulation.
Also, I once read somewhere that Paul Krugman was inspired by the Foundation novels to become an economist because he considered it the closest thing to being a psychohistorian.

LD Bottorff writes:

Are the predictions half right or half wrong? Some of these predictions are howlers. I don't know of any home (other than maybe the International Space Station) that has isotope powered appliances. I certainly don't see an hover-craft driving around my neck of the woods. But, I also didn't see any when I was touring Los Angeles this past spring.

LD Bottorff writes:

Are the predictions half right or half wrong? Some of these predictions are howlers. I don't know of any home (other than maybe the International Space Station) that has isotope powered appliances. I certainly don't see an hover-craft driving around my neck of the woods. But, I also didn't see any when I was touring Los Angeles this past spring.

BZ writes:

Both Asimov and Heinlein included the idea of "rolling roads" in their fiction. The idea always struck me as terribly amusing but a more dangerous way to travel than currently available means. Thankfully the only rolling roads we encounter in 2014 are only 1 lane, and either go up and down (escalators) or are only found in airports.

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