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Why the future goes flooey

Chicago Review Press
Nick Sagan, Mark Frary and Andy
Walker size up high-tech visions in
"You Call This the Future?"

The future just isn't what it used to be: We were supposed to be driving flying cars in the 1950s and settling down on the moon by 2001, right? Some of those old standbys of science fiction seem to be as far out of reach as ever - while in other areas, real-world developments have outpaced science fiction by a long shot. Why do visions of the future so often miss the mark?

In a new book, science-fiction author Nick Sagan delves into how we've changed the future - and how the future could change us.

"You Call This the Future?" - co-written with Mark Frary and Andy Walker - deals with many of the futures-gone-awry assessed in other books, such as Daniel Wilson's "Where's My Jetpack?"

Think of "You Call This the Future?" as a pocket guide to the best (and the worst) ideas about future tech, with quick bites tracing the sci-fi roots of those ideas and gauging how close they've come to reality. Yes, there's the jetpack and the flying car, along with warp drives, time travel and marauding cyborgs. Even virtual sex, a la Woody Allen's "Sleeper," comes in for a reality check.

"It's definitely fun to see how far away we are from the orgasmatron," Sagan joked.

On a more serious note, Sagan has devoted a lot of thought to science fiction and fact - not only because of his sci-fi novels and his work on two of the "Star Trek" TV series, but also because he's the son of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who always had his eye focused on humanity's future.

At the age of 6, the younger Sagan was recorded speaking the words "Hello from the children of planet Earth" for the Golden Record included on the Voyager spacecraft, which is now speeding beyond the frontiers of our solar system. Thus, Nick Sagan could conceivably be the first earthling child heard by an extraterrestrial civilization.

Even today, at the age of 37, he remembers his dad as he reviews the sci-fi technologies of yesteryear.

"My pet favorite, I'd have to say, is the hypnopedia," he told me. "I'd love to be able to absorb knowledge while I sleep. I remember talking with my dad about how you could spend your entire life reading books. ... When it comes to the ability to get information into your head and, to a certain extent, into your soul - I'd be excited about any chance we'd have of doing that."

For what it's worth, the book concludes that "a good night's sleep followed by an hour's conscious learning is probably more effective" than having lessons piped into your ears overnight.

Why the future sometimes falls flat
That's just one illustration of why the future sometimes falls flat. When it comes to any futuristic technology, "it's a lot easier to imagine it than to make it," Sagan said.

To be fair, plenty of the technologies listed in "You Call This the Future" - ranging from eyephones to invisibility shields - are on their way to becoming real in one way or another. Even in those cases, however, the technologies tend to obey Hofstadter's Law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take Hofstadter's Law into account."

In other cases, what we imagine never gets made. Sometimes the technology seems just plain impossible to realize (for examples of that, check out this interview with physicist Michio Kaku). Sometimes it's possible, but not feasible or affordable (these seven flights of fancy serve as examples). And sometimes safety issues get in the way. (The Federal Aviation Administration probably wouldn't be too crazy about flying cars, though that hasn't stopped some people from trying.)

In the wake of the 2001 terror attacks, bright visions of the future have fallen even more out of favor. As this Salon essay points out, futurology has had its ups and downs, depending on how confident people felt about the future. We seem to be in a down cycle right now, Sagan observed, stuck in an age where technology is often more of a worry than a wonder.

"The jetpack is basically a portable missile," he noted. "In a weird way, 9/11 may have made jetpacks and flying cars less likely than ever."

The down cycle extends to the current catastrophism over climate change - and even over the Large Hadron Collider (a far-fetched doomsday scenario that's perfect for a sci-fi novel).

"The dystopias are always going to grab more immediate attention than the utopias," Sagan said.

How near will the singularity get?
The one area where science fact has definitely outpaced science fiction would be information technology. The 23rd-century communicators carried in the classic "Star Trek" series seem almost laughable compared with today's smartphones. And the cathode-ray tubes and transistors that make up HAL 9000 in "2001: A Space Odyssey" are so last century.

Could HAL-like artificial intelligence be far behind? That's the scenario that worries Sagan most. "To the extent that we let machines do our work for us, and do our thinking for us, that's an area of potential concern," he said.

For years, the well-known futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil has been saying that the pace of A.I. would result in machines capable of matching human intelligence by 2029, leading in turn to a point around 2045 when unenhanced humans wouldn't be able to keep up with technological progress. Kurzweil said that would mark a "singularity" beyond which it becomes difficult to make further forecasts.

Sagan agreed that the singularity could come nearer and nearer - if we let it.

"It comes down to ethics," he said. "It's a question of whether we decide to police ourselves. If we don't, things might spiral out of hand very quickly. ... I suspect that things are not as dire as that. I think most of us understand the dangers to some degree."

As a human being, Sagan may counsel a go-slow approach to at least some of the technologies on the horizon. But as a writer, he said, "I love the idea that the world we know might start changing even more rapidly."

That sounds like a job for science fiction as well as science fact.

"In a way, science fiction is a genre that's in search of itself," Sagan said. "It needs a little push from science - but hopefully not a catastrophic, world-ending push."

What do you think? Is it possible to police progress? Are we already locked onto a course heading for the singularity? Is there any kind of future in futurology? Feel free to leave your comments below.

For more futurology from Sagan, check out his observations in the "Fast Forward" section of our presentation on the "Olympics of Tomorrow," as well as his prognostications about the future of football.