Thursday, February 10, 2022

let's see how it's been done

You could go down the rabbit hole with this one, because there are lots of links to other articles of past predictions of what the now-present future would be like, but I'm going to focus on this one, because it was the one brought to my attention, because of the date (1922 predicting 2022), and because of the impressive thoughtfulness of many of the predictions. The article is a summary of what the original said, and there's also a link to a (highly imperfect, unfortunately) automated transcript of the original article.

I am convinced that in 2022 the advancement of science will be amazing, but it will be nothing like so amazing as is the present day in relation to a hundred years ago.
I was particularly impressed by this observation because it matches with something I've thought myself. Referring not to pure scientific knowledge but to its application to civilization and to technological advances therein, the changes of the last century have marked vast improvements on fundamentally new ideas of the previous century. It was the 1822-1922 period that brought us mechanical transport (initially in the form of steamships and railroads), mechanical lighting, mechanical weapons (alas!), effectively instantaneous long-distance communication (initially in the form of the telegraph), reliable medicine (by 1900 a physician was more likely to cure you than kill you; 50 years earlier that wasn't the case), and the automated recording of both light and sound. What we've seen in the last century is improvements on all of these on a scale that could hardly have been imagined, but I fancy that we have seen fewer fundamentally new kinds of things than in the previous century. Wireless broadcasting and electric home appliances, which were just being developed around 1922, were among the biggest.
For an example of the improvements, take sound recording. Still experimental in 1900, it had become commonplace by 1922, and was about to undergo the two biggest technological improvements of its history: the introduction of the electric microphone in 1925, and something that greatly interests the author of this article:

The movies will be more attractive, as long before 2022 they will have been replaced by the kinephone, which now exists only in the laboratory. That is the figures on the screen will not only move, but they will have their natural colors and speak with ordinary voices.
Totally right in outcome - the improvement in both technology and artistry of motion pictures over the last century has been utterly breathtaking - but wrong in method. The kinephone was a toy for automating flip-book photos by playing them on your phonograph turntable, but phonograph records were a dead end for attaching sound to film. The actual solution was well under development in 1922 and would reach commercial use just a few years later.

A sight of the world today would surprise President Jefferson much more, I suspect, than the world of 2022 would surprise the little girl who sells candies at Grand Central Station.
So what would amaze a person from 1922 who walked through a major transport terminal today? I suspect mostly two things: the mobile phones, and the clothing that people are wearing. The informality of the clothing of the last 50 years compared with that of any previous modern civilization would shock the heck out of any time-traveler from then to now, a point I've rarely seen addressed in time-travel fiction, either because we are now so used to it that we don't notice, or because the time-traveler's alarm would stop the story dead.
Give us another few years, and another thing that would surprise the person from a century ago: the electric and driverless vehicles.

I suspect that commercial flying will have become entirely commonplace. The passenger steamer will survive on the coasts. but it will have disappeared on the main routes, and will have been replaced by flying convoys, which should cover the distance between London and New York in about twelve hours.
The first sentence here is entirely correct. The survival of the passenger steamer, though, is entirely delusional except where unbridgeable waterspans like most of Puget Sound are involved - actually, I thought they'd been displaced by railroads before 1900. He's off on the flight time between London and New York, which is 7-9 hours, but add airport security, baggage claim, and other fussing around at either end and it might as well be 12. And convoys? Oh no, he's thinking of wartime shipping. Still, later on he does estimate an 8-hour flight.

The same cause will affect the railroads, which at that time will probably have ceased to carry passengers except for suburban traffic.
Oh ho, that's a good one, and closer to reality than rail fans would like. The anomalous survival of commuter rail lines is an especially good touch. He goes on to predict that freight, too, will be carried more by road than by rail.

Wireless telegraphy and wireless telephones will have crushed the cable system long before the century is done.
We're getting there, far more than 20 years ago, but not quite yet. In any case the overhead phone cables started disappearing long ago because we began burying them.

Coal will not be exhausted, but our reserves will be seriously depleted, and so will those of oil.
Very astute; even if oil is far from exhausted, we are having to start to squeeze the pips. But the speculation on new power sources is still a little advanced: solar, atomic (sigh), and ... tidal? Uh, no, to get power from the kinetics of water we built dams.

The predictions are a lot less reliable when they turn domestic. I'll leave the discussion of household servants aside, except to note that, contrary to some impressions, we still have them - nannies, cleaning services - and give a point to the author's observation that less coal = less soot = easier cleaning, while taking a point away for not noting the labor-saving qualities of electric home appliances like washing machines and refrigerators, which were already in development in 1922 though not yet widely commercially available: they would be soon.

This is then followed by predictions of meals by pills - you can get nutrition that way, but not a meal, and a prediction of pre-prepared meals, which others predicted, would have been more on the mark. The author predicts the massive use of large apartment buildings, but imagines group communal living among them. Some sort of Aldous Huxley-like vision of child-rearing then follows, interrupted only by a prediction that "birth control ... will be legal all over the world." But then he has this:

Most fit women will then be following an individual career. Many positions will he open to them and a great many women will have risen high, the year 2022 will probably see a large number of women in Congress, a great many on the judicial bench, many in civil service posts and perhaps some in the President's Cabinet.
Oh yes, exactly so. To have a woman Speaker of the House, a Vice President and 5 cabinet members, and 3 out of 9 Supreme Court justices is utopian by 1922 standards. But the author goes on:

But it is unlikely that women will have an achieved equality with men. Cautious feminists such as myself realize that things go slowly and that a brief hundred years will not wipe out the effects on women of 30,000 years of slavery.
And that's true also. But the reference to women as slaves is a glaring reminder that the article says nothing about race relations whatever.

The section on politics is too obsessed with kingdoms vs. republics. Even in 1922 it didn't really make any difference in an advanced parliamentary system. It claims that politics will be unchanged; I think not. But it does predict nationalization, which if it hasn't taken place regulation has. It also predicts that war, even unimaginable war, will continue, a sadly wise prophecy, especially before 1939.

As regards the United States in particular, it is likely that the country will have come to a complete settlement, with a population of about 240,000,000.
Underestimate. We passed that in 1990. US population in 2020 was about 330 million. But the idea that we'll be completely settled and can stop working so hard is one of those utopian perennials that never came to pass and likely never will. There's still plenty of room for entrepreneurship, remembering that 3 of the biggest 10 companies in the US right now are Amazon, Apple, and Google, all in businesses that didn't exist a century ago, and that 5 of the rest are in services, not a top field then either.

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