How Isaac Asimov got 2014 both so right and so wrong

In 1964, the famed writer shared his vision of our time. Some predictions were spot-on, while others were wildly off base. Crave's Eric Mack thinks he knows why.

Asimov imagined a future exactly like the present for 2014, but with underground cities, moon colonies, and awesome hovercars. Rowena Morrill/Wikimedia Commons

In 1964, legendary writer of science fiction and science fact Isaac Asimov visited the World's Fair, where a General Electric pavilion chronicling advances in electric appliances inspired him to imagine how that progress might continue into the future. So Asimov sat down and penned his vision of life in the year 2014, 50 years in the future at that point.

Asimov has awed me since I was a small child reading a pop-up book inspired by his work in robotics, but I read this particular essay of his for the first time on my way to the International Consumer Electronics Show this year. There, much like Asimov 50 years ago, I was inspired by all the tech on display to look both back toward Asimov's heyday and further into the future .

It's fascinating to note how some of Asimov's predictions from 1964 are dead-on, while others still seem like absolute fantasies we may not even see by 2064. One of the things I concluded after rereading Asimov's essay post-CES is that predictions tell us more about the time in which they were made than anything else.

As evidence, here's a quick rundown of 10 things Asimov envisioned for our lives today:

1. Windows and natural sunlight have been traded for walls and ceilings that glow in different colors, partly because we all live underground now to make room on the surface for huge farms, ranches, and parks.

2. Food preparation is largely (but not completely) automated and frozen meals are hugely popular.

3. We have robots, but they are not very common and not very good. Instead we watch 3D movies about amazing robots still to come in the future.

World's Fair Asimov
Asimov was inspired by futuristic displays at the 1964 World's Fair, where exhibits included this concept car by General Motors. (Click to enlarge.) Don O'Brien/Wikimedia Commons

4. We get most of our electricity from nuclear power plants, and even use nuclear-powered batteries in many of our appliances. We are also starting to experiment seriously with fusion power and operate large solar power stations in a few desert areas while thinking seriously about putting such a power station in space.

5. Hovercars traveling on a cushion of air a foot or two above ground or water are the best way to get around.

6. Self-driving "roboticized" vehicles are an up-and-coming technology.

7. In cities, moving sidewalks are big for moving people, while goods travel short distances by compressed-air tubes.

8. Satellites and laser beams make it possible for us to conduct video calls and conferences with people anywhere in the world -- or on the moon colonies. No one will call Mars because we are still working on our first manned mission there, though we've landed unmanned ships already.

9. We live on a planet of 6.5 billion people, with the area between Boston and Washington being the largest city in the world. The deserts and polar regions are becoming populated. Global inequality is just as bad as if not worse than in 1964, plus now we're all very freaked out about overpopulation.

10. Finally, the world is so dominated by robots that we are all taught programming in high school to prepare for an inevitable career as a "machine tender." Creative work is rare and boredom is a global psychological epidemic.

What's amazing here is that where Asimov is right, he's totally dead-on. Lousy consumer robots that sweep the floor and not much else ( drones not withstanding)? Check. Self-driving car hype? Check. Nuclear and solar power? A sometimes-controversial check. Skyping everywhere ? Check. Unmanned missions to Mars ? Check. Rapidly developing cities in the world's deserts for 6.5 billion of us? Well, it's actually more than 7 billion, and before the recession, developing desert megacities were definitely a check.

Some of this prognostication is simple math, and since Asimov was one of the most important thinkers ever when it comes to certain things like robotics, it makes sense that he'd make solid calls in that department.

And yet, while he absolutely nails our progress in getting to Mars, he completely misses with his prediction about colonies on the moon. And who really wants to live underground with glowing walls?

Vision from a different time
I think the key to why Asimov's predictions were so uneven is actually pretty simple, and it has to do with the world he was living in back in the early 1960s.

This was life in America in 1939. (Click to enlarge.) Dorothea Lange/Wikimedia Commons
Here's a shot from 1964. (Click to enlarge.) International Business Machines

In 1939, 25 years prior to his forward-looking column, the world was still largely agrarian and colonial, to say nothing of the economic devastation visited by the Great Depression in the 1930s, and an awful war that was kicking off.

But by 1964, we had split atoms, created apocalyptic weapons, sent men into space, built a modern highway system, entered the Digital Age, begun microwaving our dinners and using all manner of personal electric home appliances, started regularly jetting around the country on commercial airlines, switched from radio to television-dominated media, and moved to the suburbs to raise families in spacious, modern splendor unknown to the generations that came before.

When I look back 25 years from today, to 1989, I certainly see a revolution in how we communicate, access, use, and share information, but many other changes in daily life seem more iterative and incremental. Whereas the advances in the 25 years leading up to Asimov's 1964 predictions were nothing short of game-changing in a completely existential sense.

Five years after writing, Asimov would see the United States meet a goal of putting men on the moon. Given the pace of technological advance in 1964, why not extrapolate forward to a moon colony 50 years later?

Asimov also seems extremely concerned about overpopulation, which was a hot topic in the 1950s and 1960s (even "Star Trek" tackled the issue) and he clearly thought it would continue to drive the directions technology was being used to steer society -- underground, underwater, into the deserts and polar regions; so why not also onto the surface of the moon?

But as it turns out, there was no mass starvation of hundreds of millions of people in the 1970s, and technology actually helped to dramatically increase yields of food crops.

Fifty years later we're more concerned as a planet about the potential consequences of climate change, which are arguably linked to the planet's population, but probably not so easily solved by moving some people to the moon or underground.

In other words, Asimov's predictions make perfect sense if you're living in a country that has been having a major population boom while being utterly transformed at a breathtaking rate. At least that's the only way I can imagine that miles of moving sidewalks and sending stuff via those compressed-air tubes you'd see in the drive-up bank lane would make any sense to a person.

I definitely still want the hovercars Asimov describes though. Can we get a Kickstarter together for that, like, yesterday?

The future's so bright, we all LOL
Hovercars aside, I think Asimov also underestimated basic human resilience and creativity in his predictions, perhaps because he was such a robot nerd.

Why use our technology to build an underground society withdrawn from our natural environment, when we can design new ways to better reshape and blend in with that environment? We clearly prefer rooftop gardens to underground lairs.

And as for the idea that we would all become robot tenders suffering from epidemic cases of mass boredom? This clearly only makes sense in a mind not yet exposed to the ungraspable depths of serotonin-milking videos, apps, and status updates that is the Internet.

Really sorry you couldn't make it to see 2014, Dr. Asimov. It's only about half of what you hoped for, but I guarantee that you would have loved it here.

 

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