Saturday, December 6, 2014

Seeing the Future

In 1932, Winston Churchill was not yet the iconic figure of defiance and leadership he would become by shepherding his people through World War II. So when Popular Mechanics ran his essay about what the world might be like in fifty years, he just got tagged as a "former British Chancellor of the Exchequer."

But he already showed the breadth of vision that would identify first Adolf Hitler and then Soviet Communism as threats to freedom, as demonstrated by both how solid some of his predictions are and by his understanding of how great a change modern civilization wrought upon on the world.

And by solid, we should note that means he guessed some things that came to pass, even if they didn't necessarily happen in his predicted year of 1982. He said that wireless telephones and television would enable communication unlimited by physical connecting lines, and everyone who's ever watched Netflix stream on their iPads can agree that Winnie got that right, even if that technology became widespread more like 70 or 80 years after he wrote, rather than 50.

On some other ideas, he was in the ballpark but didn't get the process right -- he saw specialized food production as a product of manipulation of microbes rather than genetic engineering, but DNA was barely known when he wrote, let alone understood. And some of his predictions have yet to materialize -- he foresaw that same microbe-based manipulation being used to create classes of people suited for manual labor but without the intellect necessary to protest poor working conditions or desire higher pay.

But as yet we have not been bold enough to tinker with our own genome, and one might hope, as Churchill seemed to, that if that is ever done it is for the benefit of humanity rather than its convenience.

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