Isaac Asimov’s 1984 predictions for 2019

In 1984, 35 years after George Orwell’s grim novel was published, The Star asked Isaac Asimov to write about what he thought things might be like in 2019.

Asimov said that “three considerations must dominate our thoughts” – 1. Nuclear war. 2. Computerization. 3. Space utilization

This has been republished – 35 years ago, Isaac Asimov was asked by the Star to predict the world of 2019. Here is what he wrote

If the United States and the Soviet Union flail away at each other at any time between now and 2019, there is absolutely no use to discussing what life will be like in that year. Too few of us, or of our children and grand· children, will be alive then for there to be any point in describing the precise condition of global misery at that time.

So far there has been no nuclear war so we have survived that threat, for now. But going into 2019 the risk is still there.

Let us, therefore, assume there will be no nuclear war — not necessarily a safe assumption — and carry on from there.

Computerization will undoubtedly continue onward inevitably. Computers have already made themselves essential to the governments of the industrial nations, and to world industry: and it is now beginning to make itself comfortable in the home.

1984 was early in the adoption of computers in homes. I was selling them then, and it was a small market, but it gradually grew from there.

An essential side product, the mobile computerized object, or robot, is already flooding into industry and will, in the course of the next generation, penetrate the home.

Various types of robots are very common in some industries, like manufacturing, but apart from toys they have been slow to take on in homes. Is there anything much other than robot vacuum cleaners available? They don’t seen to have caught on much. I think you can get robot grass mowers, but they have hardly taken over our gardens.

Automated functions in cars have become common, but they still only assist driving. Robot cars still seem to be unproven technology and could be years away.

The growing complexity of society will make it impossible to do without them, except by courting chaos; and those parts of the world that fall behind in this respect will suffer so obviously as a result that their ruling bodies will clamour for computerization as they now clamour for weapons.

The growing complexity of society is a real issue, or could be if humans become too dependant on computerised devices.

The immediate effect of intensifying computerization will be, of course, to change utterly our work habits. This has happened before.

It is changing things, but not really a large amount.

I have worked in computing jobs over the last 35 years. I still go to an office and help people use computers. There have been some changes – site visits are less necessary, a lot can be done via remote connections, and we can and do support customers around the world – but I wouldn’t say that my work has changed dramatically over that time.

Destroying our minds

The jobs that will disappear will tend to be just those routine clerical and assembly-line jobs that are simple enough, repetitive enough, and stultifying enough to destroy the finely balanced minds of those human beings unfortunate enough to have been forced to spend years doing them in order to earn a living, and yet complicated enough to rest above the capacity of any machine that is neither a computer nor computerized.

Certainly clerical and manufacturing jobs have been lost, but there are still many jobs, more jobs, in other industries like hospitality and tourism.

…a vast change in the nature of education must take place, and entire populations must be made “computer-literate” and must be taught to deal with a “high-tech” world.

Many more people are “computer-literate” as users of devices, but our education systems aren’t a lot different to what they were like in 1984.

The change, however, is much faster this time and society must work much faster; perhaps faster than they can. It means that the next generation will be one of difficult transition as untrained millions find themselves helpless to do the jobs that most need doing.

By the year 2019, however, we should find that the transition is about over. Those who can he retrained and re-educated will have been: those who can’t be will have been put to work at something useful, or where ruling groups are less wise, will have been supported by some sort of grudging welfare arrangement.

I don’t think that the changes to education have really happened much yet, and the ‘transition’ is far from over, in fact it may never be over. We now live in a relatively rapidly changing world.

First: Population will be continuing to increase for some years after the present and this will make the pangs of transition even more painful. Governments will be unable to hide from themselves the fact that no problem can possibly be solved as long as those problems continue to be intensified by the addition of greater numbers more rapidly than they can be dealt with.

Food production for an expanding population has been an opportunity for New Zealand, an agricultural country. But there are problems here, for example with housing being unable to keep up with a growing population.

Efforts to prevent this from happening by encouraging a lower birthrate will become steadily more strenuous and it is to be hoped that by 2019, the world as a whole will be striving toward a population plateau.

A transition to low birth rates in developed countries seemed to largely happen without encouragement being needed. The easy availability and social acceptance of contraceptives and abortions seems to have worked this one out. Improving living standards in high birth rate countries seems to be the best approach to deal with the population explosion.

It is more likely that in the future people will need to be encouraged to have babies to prevent the population declining too much.

Second: The consequences of human irresponsibility in terms of waste and pollution will become more apparent and unbearable with time and again, attempts to deal with this will become more strenuous. It is to be hoped that by 2019, advances in technology will place tools in our hands that will help accelerate the process whereby the deterioration of the environment will be reversed.

There are plenty of wills to achieve this now, driven by the threat of climate change, but limited ways still.

Asimov did not mention climate in his look into the future.

That is the driver for radical change, but the technological solutions have been slow to materialise.

Third: The world effort that must be invested in this and in generally easing the pains of the transition may, assuming the presence of a minimum level of sanity among the peoples of the world, again not a safe assumption, weaken in comparison the causes that have fed the time-honoured quarrels between and within nations over petty hatred and suspicions.

In short, there will be increasing co-operation among nations and among groups within nations, not out of any sudden growth of idealism or decency but out of a cold-blooded realization that anything less than that will mean destruction for all.

There may have been increased talk between nations on some things, but action  is lacking. And so is cooperation – the country with biggest economy in the world, the US, has chosen not to cooperate for now.

By 2019, then, it may well be that the nations will be getting along well enough to allow the planet to live under the faint semblance of a world government by co-operation, even though no one may admit its existence.

With the increased self interest of the US under Donald Trump, and the UK trying to exit from the European Union, the opposite seems to be happening.

Education, which must be revolutionized in the new world, will be revolutionized by the very agency that requires the revolution — the computer.

Schools will undoubtedly still exist, but a good schoolteacher can do no better than to inspire curiosity which an interested student can then satisfy at home at the console of his computer outlet.

There will be an opportunity finally for every youngster, and indeed, every person, to learn what he or she wants to learn. in his or her own time, at his or her own speed, in his or her own way.

Education will become fun because it will bubble up from within and not be forced in from without.

This may be happening to an extent, but I’m not sure about how much-  I see kids more interested in using devices to play games rather than to educate, but I see some learning as well. I have a seven year old granddaughter with a wide knowledge of insects and fish in particular.

While computers and robots are doing the scut-work of society so that the world, in 2019, will seem more and more to be “running itself,” more and more human beings will find themselves living a life rich in leisure.

This does not mean leisure to do nothing, but leisure to do something one wants to do; to be free to engage in scientific research. in literature and the arts, to pursue out-of-the-way interests and fascinating hobbies of all kinds.

Like blogging? Technology makes it possible, but I don’t know that it makes much difference to the world of politics.

Add my third phrase: space utilization.

It is not likely that we will abandon space, having come this far. And if militarism fades, we will do more with it than make it another arena for war. Nor will we simply make trips through it.

We will enter space to stay.

With the shuttle rocket as the vehicle, we will build a space station and lay the foundation for making space a permanent home for increasing numbers of human beings.

We are a long way from this happening.

By 2019, we will be back on the moon in force. There will be on it not Americans only, but an international force of some size; and not to collect moon rocks only, but to establish a mining station that will process moon soil and take it to places in space where it can be smelted into metals, ceramics. glass and concrete — construction materials for the large structures that will be put in orbit about the Earth.

One such structure which very conceivably, might be completed by 2019 would be the prototype of a solar power station, outfitted to collect solar energy, convert it to microwaves and beam it to Earth.

And humanity, not its structures only. will eventually be in space. By 2019, the first space settlement should be on the drawing boards; and may perhaps be under actual construction.

It would be the first of many in which human beings could live by the tens of thousands, and in which they could build small societies of all kinds, lending humanity a further twist of variety.

This looks to be a long way from happening.

There has been significant changes with computing and technology, but institutional education and ‘space utilisation’ haven’t really changed advanced a lot in the last 35 years.

But it’s not 2019 yet. The revolution may still happen, but time is running out.


Doomed to amuse ourselves to death in our post-1984 brave new world

Danyl Mclauchlan writes at The Spinoff about Seeking shelter from the information monsoon.

The whole article is worth reading but ironically: My brain is like a tiny teacup with a firehose gushing into it. The torrent displaces itself. I’ve read everything yet remembered nothing. Still it keeps coming.

But he remembers something written back in 1984.

Apparently George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four has become a bestseller for people struggling to make sense of our times. It’s a great book. But all the way back in 1984 the media theorist Neil Postman gave a series of lectures titled Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he argued that Orwell’s book was not the dystopian novel that currently described our society: instead he urged us to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

This feels increasingly true to me.

Huxley’s version sounds far more accurate to me too.

One of the few books I have managed to read recently is The Attention Merchants, by Timothy Wu: it talks about where the sea of information comes from, and why it keeps rising and rising. It’s a history of media and advertising.

Another quote from Amusing Ourselves to Death:

The television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment.

Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was taken to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, the surely rationality was the driver.

The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational marketplace, then he loses out.

The problem with any social or commercial theory is that in practice things turn out to be non-ideal, and as practices and behaviours evolve they can move further from the theoretical ideal.

So we come to “both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest”.

Commercialism has become corrupted. The sellers have become obsessed with duping people into buying things they don’t need, and in fact may be unhealthy, especially when consumed to excess as the sellers want.

And a significant proportion of buyers seem happy to be duped. It is easier than thinking for themselves.

There are some who see this and campaign against the corruption of commercialism, but their proposed solutions tend to be too extreme and easily dismissed as the naying of nutters.

The allergy industry is an interesting beast. Foods foisted on the population by product pushers has introduced an explosion of genuine allergy problems, but commercial interests have not only catered for this, they are creating business by promoting fear of falling to foul products.

Promoting balance in advertising, balance in diet, balance in technological acquisitions and balance in stuff you don’t really need doesn’t get much attention because the media needs advertisers to survive so are loathe to bite the hands that feed them.

Maybe what we need are the right algorithms for Google and Facebook to manipulate the masses towards healthy lifestyles. But social media giants live off advertising too.

So are we doomed to amuse ourselves to death in our post-1984 brave new world?