“For 99.9% of human existence, the future was static. Then something happened, and the future began to change, increasingly rapidly, until we get to the present day when things are moving so fast that it’s barely possible to anticipate trends from month to month.
As an eminent computer scientist once remarked, computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about building telescopes. The same can be said of my field of work, written science fiction. Scifi is seldom about science—and even more rarely about predicting the future. But sometimes we dabble in futurism, and lately it’s gotten very difficult.
How to predict the near future
When I write a near-future work of fiction, one set, say, a decade hence, there used to be a recipe that worked eerily well. Simply put, 90% of the next decade’s stuff is already here today. Buildings are designed to last many years. Automobiles have a design life of about a decade, so half the cars on the road will probably still be around in 2027. People … there will be new faces, aged ten and under, and some older people will have died, but most adults will still be around, albeit older and grayer. This is the 90% of the near future that’s already here.
After the already-here 90%, another 9% of the future a decade hence used to be easily predictable. You look at trends dictated by physical limits, such as Moore’s Law, and you look at Intel’s road map, and you use a bit of creative extrapolation, and you won’t go too far wrong. If I predict that in 2027 LTE cellular phones will be everywhere, 5G will be available for high bandwidth applications, and fallback to satellite data service will be available at a price, you won’t laugh at me. It’s not like I’m predicting that airliners will fly slower and Nazis will take over the United States, is it?
And therein lies the problem: it’s the 1% of unknown unknowns that throws off all calculations. As it happens, airliners today are slower than they were in the 1970s, and don’t get me started about Nazis. Nobody in 2007 was expecting a Nazi revival in 2017, right? (Only this time round Germans get to be the good guys.)
My recipe for fiction set ten years in the future used to be 90% already-here, 9% not-here-yet but predictable, and 1% who-ordered-that. But unfortunately the ratios have changed. I think we’re now down to maybe 80% already-here—climate change takes a huge toll on infrastructure—then 15% not-here-yet but predictable, and a whopping 5% of utterly unpredictable deep craziness.”
fangx to Los Dangus