Our clouded crystal ball (Some thoughts on futurism)

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Opinion Editor’s note: “We lose what we love, inevitably, and the only way to avoid loss is to love no one and nothing, a cure far worse than the disease.”

So, in November 2018, in an essay on these pages entitled “The gift of loss,” wrote Michael Nesset, a regular contributor here for decades. Remembering his painful childhood mourning for a beloved grandfather, Nesset added: “Grandparents give us, among many other gifts, an early experience of death and grief. Their loss prepares us for the inevitable losses of grown-up life, for the sympathy and the compensations that make these losses bearable, and, eventually, for the loss of our own lives.”

That inevitable loss came to Mike Nesset late last month. Today we salute his many gifts to Star Tribune readers by publishing one more, submitted some months ago. One suspects the author might appreciate the irony, on such an occasion, of its subject matter — humanity’s immortal inability to foresee the future.

Nesset was not your standard-issue opinion page polemicist. More interested in exploring the meaning of life than the meaning of “critical race theory” or “high crimes and misdemeanors,” he often had to be urged by his newspaper editors to include at least “a whiff of public affairs” in his memoirs of small town childhood, reflections on the pains and joys of parenthood and growing older, appreciations of literature and drama and recreational vehicle tourism, and much else he shared out of what his daughters say he confirmed as “a pretty good life.”

What made his essays special was the craftsmanship of the longtime English professor’s understated prose.

Whenever I hear some pundit predicting what the world will be like in the mid-21st century, I think of Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction classic, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Released two years before Apollo 11 landed human beings on the moon, this greatest of all science-fiction movies foresaw a space station run by Hilton Hotels and serviced by Pan Am shuttles; regular passenger flights to the moon with uniformed attendants; elaborate American and Soviet bases on the lunar surface; manned missions to Jupiter — all to be accomplished in the 30 years between the release of the movie and the end of the century.

To watch “2001” today is not only to be blown away by its visuals but also to be impressed by its many inaccurate predictions, to behold the vision of a future almost entirely misconceived.

There is no space hotel in orbit around the earth; the International Space Station is a hugely expensive, precarious scientific outpost manned by no more than a half-dozen highly trained men and women whose ascents and descents are anything but routine. The Space Shuttle was vastly more expensive, more dangerous and less reusable than anyone foresaw when it was being developed. There has been no human return to the moon, and is not likely to be for the next several years. There have not been human visits to planets or asteroids, nor are there likely to be any time soon.

The robotic explorations of the solar system — and indeed of the entire universe by means of the Hubble Space Telescope, that greatest of all scientific instruments, and of the Voyager probes, both of which have passed the Heliopause and are now in interstellar space — these are fruitful and beautiful and stirring endeavors initiated during the Apollo era. But back then they were entirely overshadowed by the race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to land men on the moon; unmanned exploration was a sideshow that has become the main event.

So how did so many of the pundits and futurists of the Apollo era come to be so mistaken about the future of space exploration? They did what all futurists do: they discerned present trends and then projected them into the future in a straight line: the Saturn V booster, vastly larger than its predecessor V-2 and Redstone rockets, must lead to the even-vaster Nova rocket, to an elaborate spinning space station, to permanent manned bases on the moon.

Unfortunately, trends usually do not proceed in straight lines: they are bent every which way by unforeseen events, and come to unforeseen conclusions in a future that none of us can foresee more than partially, even dimly.

I don’t remember anyone at the time of Apollo 11 saying that the space race was primarily a political competition with the Soviet Union and only secondarily a scientific endeavor. No one foresaw that, once the race was won, there would be no motive for further manned expeditions to the moon or to anywhere else in space, or that interest would only be revived when private companies began to see the possibility of profit in the mineral exploitation of the moon.

For that matter, no one at the time of the release of “2001” foresaw the bankruptcy of Pan Am, America’s premier airline at the time, or the collapse of the superpower Soviet Union.

History is full of cautionary tales about the hazards of futurism. Back in the 1950s, when the new jet engine technology was doubling the speed of airplanes every five years or so, futurists saw no limits to the future speed of airplanes. Jet airliners having cut coast-to-coast and trans-Atlantic flying time in half, the future would bring supersonic airliners that would cut subsonic times in half. According to some predictions, suborbital air/space liners would, by the turn of the century, travel from New York to Tokyo in under 90 minutes — as though jet lag weren’t enough of a problem already.

Then came revised upward estimates of development and operating costs, the sonic boom problem that led to a ban on overland flights of supersonic aircraft, cancellation of the American SST and the development of the heavily subsidized Concorde. Only a few Concordes were built; none was ever close to turning a profit; all were retired in 2003.

Contemporary airliners are refined versions of the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8: quieter, more economical, safer, carrying more passengers, but flying no faster.

The really revolutionary airliner after the 707 was not the Concorde but the subsonic Boeing 747, the first of the wide-bodied airliners that, with a capacity of up to 500 passengers, opened air travel to the masses. But who in the early years of the jet age foresaw the 747? And as for the suborbital airliner, I’ll book my flight right after I take delivery of my atomic-powered blender.

Speaking of atomic power, all through the 1950s, an atom-power future was taken for granted by those in the know. Cheap, clean, inexhaustible atomic power would drive our cars, our trains, even our household appliances — Isaac Asimov foresaw a future of atomic home appliances that would run virtually forever without ever having to be plugged in. Most of our electric power would be generated by “the atom” by the end of the 20th century.

Then came the discovery of the dangers of radiation, which required safety precautions that made nuclear power plants so expensive that today only 20% of this country’s electricity is generated by atomic power, while atomic locomotives and cars and kitchen appliances are impractical. And nobody foresaw the problem of the disposal of deadly nuclear waste, with its half-life of thousands of years.

Nuclear fusion reactors, which may be safer than fission reactors, are a distant prospect.

In 1967, Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener, two of the leading members of the Hudson Institute, a futurist think tank, published “The Year 2000.” In this widely read book, which established Kahn as the leading futurist of his day, the authors listed 100 technological advances that would be accomplished by the end of the 20th century. Some of Kahn and Wiener’s predictions were accurate: the widespread use of computers in business, extensive organ transplants, inexpensive and widespread home video recording. Others were way off the mark: practical large-scale desalinization of ocean water, inexpensive road-free transportation (air cars?), artificial moons and other methods for lighting large areas at night, widespread use of nuclear power.

In an article on the evaluation of technology predictions, Richard E. Albright determined that Kahn and Wiener were accurate in less than 50% of their predictions, though Kahn and Wiener declared at the publication of “The Year 2000” that they were confident that 95% of their forecasts would be realized by the end of the 20th century.

Any knowledge of the hits and misses of past futurist prognostications should lead us to a well-informed, intelligent, even sensible skepticism about the futurist predictions of the present day. For example, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, wants to establish a permanent human colony on Mars, making the human race an “interplanetary species.” He believes that the future survival of the race depends upon the establishment of a self-sustaining, permanent colony on Mars, giving us another home in case asteroid or pandemic or climate catastrophe render the earth uninhabitable.

Musk’s optimism about the Mars colonization project seems to be based partly on his company’s success in resupplying the ISS with the reusable Falcon 9 booster and the Dragon spacecraft; these admirable accomplishments must lead in a straight line to the establishment and resupply of a colony on Mars, right?

Yet Mars is 40 million miles from the earth at its closest approach, 160,000 times further away than the ISS. Any journey to Mars would be conducted through an environment totally hostile to life and ending on a nearly airless planet almost as inhospitable as outer space itself, rather far from any help if anything goes wrong — as anything is bound to do.

Not many straight lines in this scenario.

What’s still more, the colonization of Mars would require the development of giant spacecraft that would be a major diversion of money and effort from what may be the most important innovation of SpaceX, the amazing reusability of its rocket boosters, which promises to make the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy the DC-3 and 747, respectively, of the Space Age — another sideshow that may become the main event.

And it’s hard to see any financial profit in a Mars colony that promises to be a huge money pit, while mining the moon could actually be a big moneymaker. And might this “interplanetary species” effort be a major diversion from the more realistic and sensible goal of making our present home planet a more sustainable and comfortable and equitable environment for all its people?

Speaking of sustainable environments, most of the predicted reversals of human-induced global warming, a well-substantiated condition, involve cutting back and eventually eliminating the use of fossil fuels. Well and good; yet should we Westerners, with our high standard of living, ask people in emerging countries to cut back on fossil-fueled enterprises that are raising their standard of living beyond a bare subsistence level after millennia of poverty? Might it not be better to subsidize development of really efficient and inexpensive batteries?

Going out on a futurist limb here, a really efficient battery would change everything: electric vehicles that could travel 500 miles between charges and be recharged in minutes; solar and wind power that would be primary rather than supplemental sources of electricity. Our super-battery’s capacity to store electricity for when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow could make fossil-fueled “baseline” capacity unnecessary. Fossil fuel use would wither away, both here in the West and in the emerging world, as the State was supposed to do in the future envisioned by Karl Marx.

Hey, futurism is kind of fun. I can see why Kahn and Wiener were so fond of predicting the future, and why so many people were eager to read their predictions. My crystal ball is as clear as my hindsight, at the moment anyway, and like Kahn and Wiener — and Marx himself — I won’t be around in the unlikely event that my prognostications prove to be as inaccurate as theirs.

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