On predicting the future….

“Anyone can imagine a car or an interstate highway system. It takes a science fiction writer to come up with a traffic jam.”

So said one of the panelists, Connie Willis, during a discussion last weekend at COSine in Colorado Springs on the relevancy of Robert Heinlein.

I feel like I might need to justify my weekend actions momentarily. I never, not in my wildest dreams, thought I’d be an attender of a Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention, let alone an ANNUAL attender. What I know about both of those genres is limited to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings…and that’s a feeble attempt at understanding, at best. But my husband is nuts about fantasy novels and can appreciate sci-fi stories so we started going to this tiny “con” a few years ago and we’ve started to really enjoy ourselves. The whole weekend is full of discussion panels which meant little to nothing to me at first. Now I can appreciate them for the underlying information they represent. I digress.

I wound up at the Heinlein discussion at the behest of my husband who, incidentally, wound up playing with our dogs during the discussion, thereby missing most of it. Heinlein is sort of the father of science fiction. I don’t know anything about his work, but I do know that he played an important role in science fiction as we know it today. In fact, it’s been said that he influenced an entire generation to pursue the study of space travel and technology. Where would Niel Armstrong and Steve Jobs be without Mr. Heinlein?

Connie Willis brought up what I think was the most important issue of the entire discussion: Predicting technology isn’t necessarily hard or amazing; it’s trying to predict the effects that technology will have on social mores that gets really tricky.

Think about it. Without cars, there would be no backseat sex, right? Before cell phones and email, people actually walked to each other’s homes, sat down over coffee or wine, and had long conversations because it might be a while before they saw each other again. Microwave ovens and TV dinners have all but negated the necessity of someone actually making a legitimate meal from real, non-preserved food. Credit cards have resulted in the notion that we can have whatever we want right now and worry about it later.

None of these things were ever “problems” 50, 60, 100 years ago. It just wasn’t heard of. Yet Heinlein and many other like him could pretty accurately extrapolate on what a credit care, cell phone, or microwave looked like and how they worked. I mean, he was pretty dead on when it came to these technological advancements. But never once in his novels (and I’m guessing here, simply going on what I learned over the COSine weekend) did the idea come up of cheating on your spouse or nuclear families being broken or rushing through meals to watch a television program. There’s really no way to accurately predict any of that.

So it makes me wonder: how will the iPad ultimately affect our society? What will happen if space travel becomes something us civilians can do on the regular? Will flying cars and hoverboards change our society in the dramatic ways that the automobile did? And with all the technology we do have, is it possible to even TRY to predict the societal implications of future technologies? Or should we just leave it to the sci-fi writers like we always have?

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