Towards the end of 1983, Canada’s The Star newspaper turned to famed science fiction writer and professional speculator-about-the-future Isaac Asimov and asked him to offer his thoughts on what life on Earth would be like in 2019.
The new year, 1984, was a celebrity year, made famous by George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” That novel, published in 1949, looked 35 years into a bleak future. As 1984 dawned, The Star asked Asimov to do the same, peering 35 years into the future. Asimov’s conclusions were decidedly more optimistic.
If one forgives the Jewish sci-fi master’s perhaps over-eager expectations of a ring of orbiting solar-powered space stations above the equator, there’s plenty in his oracular article that he got spot-on.
First, computers. By 1984, computers had already “made themselves essential to the governments of the industrial nations,” but by 2019 they would make the leap and become “comfortable in the home.”
The effects of mobile computing would be especially felt, he said. “An essential side product, the mobile computerized object, or robot, is already flooding into industry and will, in the course of the next generation, penetrate the home.”
And it would become as ubiquitous in the developing world as in the industrial West. “The growing complexity of society will make it impossible to do without them, except by courting chaos; and those parts of the world that fall behind in this respect will suffer so obviously as a result that their ruling bodies will clamor for computerization as they now clamor for weapons.”
Asimov would not have been surprised at Xi’s China, or the high-tech boom in India.
But, he warned, the transition from an industrial society to a massively computerized one would be painful.
“Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of humanity was engaged in agriculture and indirectly allied professions. After industrialization, the shift from the farm to the factory was rapid and painful. With computerization the new shift from the factory to something new will be still more rapid and in consequence, still more painful.”
New jobs would be created to replace those made obsolete by computers, he assured readers, “however, the jobs created are not identical with the jobs that have been destroyed, and in similar cases in the past the change has never been so radical.”
In other words, “the next generation will be one of difficult transition as untrained millions find themselves helpless to do the jobs that most need doing.”
Computers would put a specific sort of worker out of work, those with “jobs that are simple enough, repetitive enough, and stultifying enough to destroy the finely balanced minds of those human beings unfortunate enough to have been forced to spend years doing them in order to earn a living, and yet complicated enough to rest above the capacity of any machine that is neither a computer nor computerized.”
The bottom line for the new worker: “a vast change in the nature of education must take place, and entire populations must be made ‘computer-literate’ and must be taught to deal with a ‘high-tech’ world.”
He got what computers could do for education and access to information — “Education…will be revolutionized by the very agency that requires the revolution — the computer. Schools will undoubtedly still exist, but a good schoolteacher can do no better than to inspire curiosity which an interested student can then satisfy at home at the console of his computer outlet. There will be an opportunity finally for every youngster, and indeed, every person, to learn what he or she wants to learn. in his or her own time, at his or her own speed, in his or her own way. Education will become fun because it will bubble up from within and not be forced in from without.”
He did not expect, or did not mention, that the computer console at home risked becoming the sort of all-consuming distraction that can make learning harder than it was in the past.
Asimov’s biggest mistake in the 1,900-word prognostication was probably his belief that humanity would be taking new and gigantic leaps into space by 2019.
“By 2019, we will be back on the moon in force,” he assured readers. “There will be on it not Americans only, but an international force of some size; and not to collect moon rocks only, but to establish a mining station that will process moon soil and take it to places in space where it can be smelted into metals, ceramics. glass and concrete — construction materials for the large structures that will be put in orbit about the Earth.”
Those structures would include a space-borne “girdle” along the equator of solar energy stations beaming power down to a humanity that, because of the technical necessity to share the beamed-down energy, no longer pursued war, which got in the way of enjoying space’s super-national bounty.
But he wasn’t all wrong about space. There is also an expectation that “observatories will be built in space to increase our knowledge of the universe immeasurably.” Hubble, Chandra, the upcoming Webb and countless other space-dwelling telescopes have enabled scientists to peer at the stars without an intervening atmosphere, and to see billions of years into the past, into the hearts of galaxies and along the vast x-ray beams blasted across the universe by immense black holes.
Finally, he said, space could provide humanity with a simple solution to a vexing and ancient problem: where to put all the garbage.
“Space, you see, is far more voluminous than Earth’s surface is and it is therefore a far more useful repository for the waste that is inseparable from industry,” he noted.
“Nor are there living things in space to suffer from the influx of waste. And the waste would not even remain in Earth’s vicinity, but would be swept outward far beyond the asteroid belt by the solar wind.
“Earth will then be in a position to rid itself of the side-effects of industrialization, and yet without actually getting rid of its needed advantages. The factories will he gone [into space], but not far. only a few thousand miles straight up.”
We’re not yet putting our garbage in space, nor — yet — beaming our energy down from it.
But kids tapping away at computer consoles in their homes — he sure got that right.