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A fictional timeline of the future Robert Hickson Nov 28

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In an earlier post I noted how optimistic some early 19th Century visions of the future were. I wondered then whether we are getting more pessimistic. Now there is some real data to play with. Brain Pickings has published an infographic from Giorgia Lupi called A visual timeline of the future based on famous fiction.

 

The figure characterises stories as having an overall positive, negative or neutral perspective about the time in which they are set, and tags the stories theme as being primarily about the environment, science, technology, society, travel/adventure or politics. I don’t know what criteria they used to decide what was positive or negative, but I’ll take that as face value. Sixty two stories (novels, short stories, and comics) are covered, so it isn’t a comprehensive review. Some of the most prolific authors (such as Issac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein) only have a couple of stories in the graphic, and some well know authors are absent (George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin).  The analysis is also skewed to having a relatively large proportion of the stories being published in the last two decades.

 

Stories by decade

But what the hell, you can still extract superficial impressions. (And apologies for he graphs being on the small size, there is no goldilocks zone for image size in Word Press).

There are three times more “negative” (29) views of the future than “positive” (10), with the neutral stories (23) sitting in between them. The 2000′s seem a pretty glum time to be writing about the future based on this sample, while the 1950′s produced a cheerier ouevre. But overall, you can’t claim that science fiction has taken a more, or less, positive trajectory over the past 60 years.

 

 

Positivity and negativity over the decades

 

Stories focused on the environment and society in the future tend to be more negative, while ones about travel to other planets have a more even handed perspective. The degree of social dystopia isn’t surprising, but if you just watch sci fi movies you may be surprised at the number of less negative stories about the future environment (and science & technology).

Stories by tone and theme

 

As a posting by David Levine noted a couple of years ago, science fiction tends to mirror recent social issues, and they are mostly hopeless at predicting what will happen.

Future Postcards From The Past Robert Hickson Oct 17

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The Singularity Hub shows some 19th Century French Postcards (relax/sorry, nothing risqué) that depicted life in the year 2000. I’ve seen a couple of these previously (the blog site Paleofuture posted a few of them several years ago), but Singularity Hub shows a more extensive set, along with comments about how accurate some of them seem to have been. Robotic machines feature frequently.

The postcards were created after, and presumably inspired by, some of Jules Verne’s stories. The cards (originally 50 in total) weren’t apparently distributed – they were intended to be included as inserts in either some toys or cigarette packets, according to Isaac Asimov who rediscovered them.

One of the striking things about the postcards (and other attempts at sketching the future) is not the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the predictions, but how the environment and clothing in the pictures usually remains unchanged. So not a fancy Roomba-like vacuum cleaner, just a semi- autonomous good old fashioned scrubbing brush (wireless not yet invented). And 19th Century clothing and parquet flooring.

Jean-Marc Côté’s vision of the year 2000

That illustrates some of the traps in foresighting – extrapolating from the current situation, and focussing on the technology rather than also considering how the environment in which it will sit will also change.

The postcard of the school of the future is also a delight – not quite what Google has in mind, I hope, for digitising books. Or how National Standards will play out.

 

Most of the postcards appear optimistic about the future. Not unsurprising, given Jules Verne’s techno-enthusiasm. These days popular culture (or at least things that end up in the cinema) tends to have a more pessimistic future outlook. Paleofuture also shows how some US children in 1976 imagined what 2076 would be like.

If my drawing was any good, I’d think about doing some postcards showing “solutions” for the National Science Challenges. Maybe some schools, and others, may like to give that a go to help inspire creativity in framing what the biggest issues facing NZ are and potential ways of overcoming them.

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