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Can society learn from the mistakes of futurism?


Steven Novella Controllers Popular Podcasts The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe with brothers Jay and Bob. As the kids grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, the two brothers became obsessed with science fiction and futurism.

“Our young people certainly imagined that now it would be like 2001: A Space Odyssey“Novella said in Episode 526 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy audio file. “There will be permanent space stations in space, there will be an infrastructure between here and the moon, a lunar base. All that stuff, we take it for granted.”

The next few decades show that futurism is harder than it seems. Technological changes seem inevitable, but they are often left to the discretion of one person. If Henry Ford decided to make cars that run on electricity instead of on gas, it will change the course of our entire civilization. “Things could certainly turn out very differently,” says Novella. “If someone in Pennsylvania didn’t discover crude oil in 20 years, how completely different would our world be today? There is nothing inevitable about our present, and therefore nothing inevitable about the future. “

In their new book The Skeptic’s Guide to the Future, the brothers try to improve on the futurism of the past years by identifying 10 “futurist fallacies” that have confounded previous predictions. One of the biggest mistakes is imagining that the future society will be like today’s society, only with more conveniences. “You can’t just project one technology forward, but you have to think about it in the context of all the other technologies that have progressed at the same time,” says Novella. “Therefore we won’t be traveling in space for another 500 years, our genetically modified robot descendants will be traveling in space in 500 years. And you have to include that as part of your calculation.”

Despite the history of futurism, Novella considers it an important pursuit that deserves more attention. “If you are living your life in this short period of time, without any sense of your place in history, you may lose what is important, you may lose your ability to adapt quickly to changes in technology, to changes in culture, to make decisions about the future,” he said. “So I think futurism is a discipline that has a lot of benefits, we just need to be realistic about it.”

Listen to the full interview with Steven Novella in Episode 526 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Steven Novella on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Future:

We have studied this book all our lives. We’re not starting from scratch, which is part of why it’s fun and easy to write, in that regard. We know about things like room temperature superconductor. We don’t need to do research to know that it needs to be a chapter in the book, what its potential is. But we need to update ourselves and delve much deeper. We’ve been podcasting for 18 years, so we’ve got a huge base of science news items and interviews with people on these topics, but even then you sit down and continue continued, “Okay, I need to definitively write the chapter on reactive rockets and their role in the future,” you still discover surprising things.

Steven Novella on space travel:

If you have a space infrastructure where you regularly travel to different destinations in space, you will be in a ship that is optimal for each stage of your journey. You’ll put something in low Earth orbit, to a space station, and from there you’ll take your cislunar shuttle to the moon or you’ll get a space shuttle that’ll hit an abyss space shuttle will go to Mars. And then you’ll board a Mars-optimized or Moon-optimized lander, or whatever your destination is. Because those are very different things, and making a ship that can do everything is just impractical, and the waste would be enormous. And so I think we’re going to have plenty of legs to go anywhere, which isn’t something you really see in a lot of science fiction.

Steven Novella on Futurism:

When you look at futurists of the past, the big mistake they made was not anticipating game changers. Anyone can predict incremental advances, but what really drives futurists up is when they think something is going to be a breakthrough and it isn’t. or they completely miss the real breakout. One of the big problems is the conversion from analog to digital. No one chooses about that. Asimov completely missed it. No one saw how digital technology would transform our society and our world. Of course now, once it has, it seems obvious. But it was a game changer that no one saw coming. So now we’re trying to predict, “What will the game changers of the future look like?”

Steven Novella on science fiction:

Science fiction is just a big thought experiment. It’s really a thousand thought experiments, but it’s all about this synthetic thought experiment of, “What will the future look like? What will technology be like? What will people be like in the future? “That’s part of my fascination with it, just imagining something completely different, and seeing things in different ways, changing variables that you didn’t know were variables — you didn’t even know it was something else. We are all the same thing in our view of life and the universe, and science fiction forces you to hold your head high and step back. It forces you to take a bigger look, looking at civilization and humanity as well as giant arcs of time, and things that go beyond the experience of our daily lives.


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