Kim Stanley Robinson on Isaac Asimov's 1964 predictions - SciFiNow

Kim Stanley Robinson on Isaac Asimov’s 1964 predictions

Isaac Asimov’s 1964 World’s Fair predictions reveal a lot about him, writes Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson

In August 1964, Isaac Asimov wrote a piece for The New York Times about what the World’s Fair of 2014 would look like. Kim Stanley Robinson tells SciFiNow what Asimov got right, and why the essay reveals more about the author than you might think.

Isaac Asimov’s 1964 article predicting the world of 2014 is a great piece of foresight, no surprise coming from one of the smartest science fiction minds ever. It’s well worth looking at now in its target year, not just for what the good doctor got right or wrong, but to help us to contemplate what we can get right or wrong when thinking about the future.

Recall that James Cook, one of the most capable and intelligent men of the eighteenth century, predicted that humans would never reach Antarctica. He did not foresee metal-hulled ships, nor food preserved in cans. Thomas Huxley, one of the most important evolutionary scientists of the nineteenth century, predicted that humans would never be able to deplete the oceans of their fish. He did not foresee the mechanization of fishing, nor the sheer number of humans that would soon inhabit this planet.

What did Asimov fail to see in the future? Many things, inevitably; but he did not miss the biggest problem that would be facing us in 2014, which is building a sustainable civilization. That is his article’s greatest achievement.

Asimov prefaces his remarks by reminding us that he cannot know the future, but can only guess. This modesty is important, given that there are always people claiming they can tell for sure what will happen, usually for a hefty fee. That kind of futurology reeks of hubris and scam. Science fiction, like Asimov himself, is always more playful and honest.

I love it that Asimov’s first three predictions express his agoraphobia. It has become a well-known aspect of his biography that he did not like open spaces, and in later years spent most of his time in his apartment, and would not go out on his balcony overlooking Central Park. This aversion gave extra power to his best novel, The Naked Sun, in which going outside was a terrifying act.

So, in the future, “men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better,” in rooms without windows, or maybe underground, or even under the sea:  how convenient! How comforting! It’s a very human touch, and a good thing to remember: when people predict the future, they very often reveal desires they don’t even know they have.

There is so much Asimov gets right in this article that it gives the impression he got almost everything right, but not so. Let’s take a closer look:

Right:  more kitchen gadgets; prepared meals; robots but not very good ones; computers, including computer translators; three-d movies; crowds seemingly just for the sake of crowding; solar power stations; many highways that include some mass transport; computer-driven cars; Skypelike communications devices; global satellite communications; optical cable; wall screen TVs; unmanned missions to Mars. Also, in his long section on population issues, he predicts 2014 world and US populations quite closely, and predicts artificial organs and other medical advances; rising inequality; pressure on natural resources; emphasis on birth control; and problems with automation leading to mass unemployment.

Very impressive!  Twenty things right, many of them secondary effects, which is the kind of thing science fiction thinking makes you better at.

Wrong:  lack of windows; underground homes; under-ocean cities (these could all be termed agoraphobic failures); robotic maids, or robotic persons in general (including gardeners); nuclear batteries; fusion power; air-lifted vehicles; compressed air tranport; moving sidewalks; moon colonies; vat-grown yeast and algal foods; all high school students being taught computer programming.

That’s about twelve things wrong (although some are sort of wrong, sort of right). So, his percent of success is thus about 62%. As random chance might be imagined to hit about 50-50, it seems less impressive, although the matter is complicated by the fact you have to think these things up in first place, so it isn’t really random chance in such a case.  Anyway:

Not bad.

Many things Asimov got wrong were commonplaces of American science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, which he seems to have accepted as coming without noticing they were either harder to do than described, or more expensive than the desire for them would justify: this is best illustrated by the moving sidewalks, compressed air devices, and underwater cities.

In general, he seems to have overestimated the flexibility of robotics. When he speaks of robot gardeners, for instance, it could be argued he was correctly describing modern industrial agriculture, in which vast tracts of land are farmed using gigantic machines that have a minimal need for human supervision. That’s robot agriculture, in a sense, but when it comes to the detail work of gardening as we usually understand that term, it turns out to be too various and fine for robots to accomplish, and is likely to stay that way. Even in industrial ag, we still use humans to harvest many delicate crops, and to plant them too, and to weed; what it comes down to is that humans are so versatile and capable at delicate repetitive work, and their time is so cheap, as so many are so desperate for work, that they turn out to be the most economical alternative.  The work may be robotic in certain senses, but in fact humans remain both the best and the cheapest robots available. This is not necessarily a good thing. People suffer in these systems.

IsaacThat thought brings us to the most impressive part of Asimov’s article, which is the way he shifts the discussion to the population problem and its impact on the Earth’s resources.  “One can go on indefinitely in this happy extrapolation,” he writes about his technical predictions, “but all is not rosy.”  And then he dives into the heart of the problem, using the conceptual tools available to him in 1964.

First, he predicts the current American and global population with startling accuracy; this is either a reflection of the accuracy of demographics in his time, or a personal calculation of considerable extrapolative and mathematical skill.  Then he describes the Malthusian scenario of unchecked population growth resulting in a super-crowded “World Manhattan,” but he notes immediately that this scenario (which in his Foundation series was the city-planet Trantor) is ecologically impossible:  any civilization would crash long before the population grew that large, for lack of resources to support it.  (Trantor was supported by a large sector of the galaxy.)

Because this is obvious, he writes, “there will, therefore, be a worldwide propaganda drive in favor of birth control by rational and humane methods,” and he predicts that by 2014 we will have “lowered the birth rate.”

To an extent these things have happened, and yet this is one of the great unsolved issues of our time.  The human population is still rising at a rate of about 75 million people every year, and this is adding to the immense pressure we are putting on the Earth’s biosphere, our irreplaceable support system. So as Asimov pointed out, all is not rosy.

Now we know better than in 1964 that population in and of itself is not the only factor that matters.  Resource use varies widely among people, such that the most prosperous among us use more than thirty times more natural resources than the least prosperous.  Paul Ehrlich’s I-PAT formula (Impact equals the result of Population times Appetite times Technology) was first introduced in the 1970s, and while it is a formula I’m sure Asimov would have loved to discuss (and maybe he did in later writings), it was not available to him in 1964.   Even population alone was not commonly discussed then; Asimov was alerting his readers to a problem that was only beginning to be discussed.

So when he predicts, or calls for, a “rational and humane” method of birth control, what does he mean?  Obviously not the Chinese one-child policy, or any other top-down command from above; that’s why he added the word humane.   I think his description suggests he is predicting, or calling for, a social phenomenon or movement he doesn’t have a name for.  Only in the years since have we learned that the method or movement he is attempting to describe is women’s rights and women’s prosperity.

I say this because the legal empowerment of women has been the “rational and humane method” that has reduced population growth the most since 1964. Wherever women’s rights are solid and secure, the birth rate hovers right at or below the replacement rate (2.2 children per woman), and in countries where women’s rights were rapidly expanded, as in Thailand and Indonesia, the birth rate dropped dramatically in a single generation.  It’s now a demographic fact: women’s rights lower the birth rate.   This, then, was what Asimov was calling for, without having a name or precise method he could describe in detail.  History, science, and justice had to fill those in for him.

Isaac Asimov, feminist?  There’s no reason to be surprised. His character Dr. Susan Calvin, the chief roboticist in I, Robot, was the first scientist hero in American science fiction, a great role model for both girls and boys.   This was not an accident or a coincidence; Asimov was in the liberal wing of American science fiction, a stalwart progressive who often clashed with the Heinlein conservative wing, engaging in many political issues, including public battles over Vietnam and Star Wars. In this 1964 article, it’s characteristic of him to end with the problems of rising inequality and income disparity, and he is prescient in foreseeing that automation combined with higher populations would lead to widespread unemployment. He speaks of boredom as a result of this unemployment, because he is assuming that the postwar social security system will continue to give unemployed people economic support. He fails to imagine the breakdown of the postwar social contract, and a global economy where unemployment leads not just to boredom but to desperation and misery.  He fails to imagine a society as brutal as we have become.

But now we are there, and so Asimov’s final point about the value of work is a great end to this excellent essay.  People need work not just to stay solvent, he says, but sane. Our current system uses fear of unemployment to create the cheap labor that makes profit and shareholder value; remove the fear, guarantee employment to everyone, and the entire global precariate (meaning you and me, and everyone else but the very rich) would rise into the potential for a creative life that all deserve.

Maybe that’s my prediction for the World’s Fair (“the world is fair”) of 2064.  We’ll have different machines, we’ll have medical advances, a warmer and wilder climate, immense environmental stresses, more people (about 9.5 billion).  Will we have universal women’s rights?  Will we have full employment?  We’d better!  It’ll be that or catastophe.

Kim Stanley Robinson is the best-selling author of the Mars Trilogy, 2312 and Shaman. You can buy Shaman for £12.72 at Amazon.co.uk.