A Boring Future

I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring.” J.G. Ballard; Interview (30 October 1982) in Re/Search no. 8/9 

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In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke postulated what became one of his “three laws” about predicting the future. In an essay titled “”Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” he wrote: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”1

I was recently reminded of Clarke’s admonition when The New York Times ran a piece called “A Scientist Predicts the Future.” It was written by Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist based at the City College of New York. Born in California in 1947, Kaku’s 1972 degree was from Berkeley and his early publications dealt with quantum and string theory (his personal website says he’s a co-founder of “string field theory”); the SAO/NASA database lists some 70 articles to his name. But it’s as a popularizer of science that Kaku can claim the most fame.

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Captain Kaku

Besides regular appearances on the Discovery Channel, et al. Kaku has written several bestselling books on physics, especially on fantastical topics such as time travel, wormholes, and the like. A strong interest in the future and futurism runs through his work, most notably in his 2011 book Physics of the Future.

Screen shot 2013-12-10 at 10.33.31 AMKaku’s NYT piece was essentially a reprise of his 2011 book and gave “a glimpse of what to expect in the coming decades.” So far a predictions go, it’s a pretty banal list: ubiquitous computing, virtual reality, brain-electronic interfaces, robots, and genetic engineering. It’s the sort of list that wouldn’t have been out of place back in the heyday of Omni magazine. This wasn’t unexpected; a review of Kaku’s book by physicist Neil Gershenfeld in Physics Today said the book described “a kind of future by committee” populated by “science-fiction staples”.

Kaku’s list got some attention via social media…my favorite response to his predictions came from English sci-fi writer Tim Maughan who tweeted: “If you want to know about the future the last person to ask is a scientist. Especially a fucking physicist. Ask a banker.”

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There are three things worth noting about Kaku’s NYT piece. First – his prognostications seem to conform to Clarke’s first law. If you want to know about the future, maybe asking a sixty-something physicist isn’t the way to go. Especially one engaged in a little “propheteering” that might help sell some books.

Second, Maughan’s barb hits a vital spot. Interspersed among Kaku’s imagined futures was his prediction that “capitalism will be perfected.” This paean to the power of the free-market claimed that “the laws of supply and demand become exact, because everyone knows everything about a product, service or customer. We will know precisely where the supply curve meets the demand curve, which will make the marketplace vastly more efficient.” I think this year’s contradictory Nobel prizes in economics suggest otherwise. Kaku’s prediction that “intellectual capitalism will replace commodity capitalism” might carry some weight in Silicon Valley but not for the 100,000s of workers actually building the stuff that makes cloud computing, etc. real and tangible.

Third, when Kaku’s 2011 book – the basis for his NYT essay – came out, it was likened to the future-musings of another physicist. The Telegraph compared it to Gerard O’Neill’s “deliriously technocratic vision of space exploration.” Now I wouldn’t go so far as to call O’Neill’s future-thinking technocratic but it certainly had a fair amount of the “technological fix.” But the key difference between Kaku and O’Neill lies not in their respective visions for the future but in the amount of work they put into making those futures happen.

To the first order, Kaku appears as the classic arm-waving futurist of the “we’re going to have flying cars and robots and virtual sex and…and…and…” sort. O’Neill, on the other hand, actually put some labor into trying to advance his vision – and it was a very personal one at that. He got some grants to build a mass driver, he attracted students and other like-minded followers, he helped build a small community of devotees, et al..

Where other future-tellers just offer descriptive speculations, O’Neill and other visioneers deployed physical models, detailed designs, and actual calculations to develop a more rigorous foundation for imagining the future. This is why O’Neill’s vision for the future – even though it didn’t happen as imagined – is far more compelling and credible than Kaku’s desiccated description of tomorrow.

  1. from the book Profiles of the Future, 1962, revised 1973, Harper & Row []

5 thoughts on “A Boring Future

  1. So you don’t like KAKU. Well, I do. Nobody can predict the future. It’s just his enthusiastic way of telling about the future that he can reach such a broad audience. Some things may become true, others may remain a dream.
    And of course bankers can also predict the future. But only within the next 5 years.
    Physicists can look beyond that time span and tell us about things that may become true one day like real nuclear fusion or building a Warp Drive…

  2. Being compelling doesn’t make a vision credible. If I were to tell you a vision of your personal future steeped in riches, luxuries and idle pleasures that might be compelling – but it wouldn’t make it credible. Is there any reason to suppose you will have such a future? Like O’Neill you might be working on it – but what guarantee is that? If it doesn’t work or didn’t work or is based upon some foundational error then despite forming a sort of cult around a compelling vision it isn’t credible.
    More credible is to build predictions upon current trends – which seems to me what Kaku does – though he admittedly plays it a little safe and doesn’t look to many ‘black swan’ events. I think perhaps a problem with futurology is it’s the boring, step-by-step advances which go to building the future – but we want a vision which is perfect at-a-glance, allowing for some flurry of transformation in one epoch – not something cobbled together by the efforts of millions over decades and centuries. The internet seems a good example, we see it as an ‘information superhighway’, something almost ethereal – forgetting all the cables and boxes linking everything up and all the boring, incremental advancements which led from telegraphs, via copper phone lines and broadband, to fibre-optics.

  3. JC-
    My post wasn’t about Kaku the physicist. It was about a series of predictions he made about the future in his NYT article. I found the predictions – as did others – stale and predictable. I also found them lacking in credibility compared to others (O’Neill, for example) who put their money and time where their mouth is.
    Patrick

  4. Tom-
    Thanks for the thoughtful response to my post. I agree that compelling and credible might be at two ends of the spectrum. I was trying to highlight Kaku’s armchair speculations with the actual building (of hardware and community) and community that someone like O’Neill had done. To their credit, both Kaku and O’Neill limit themselves to future tech that obeys the laws of physics and chemistry…whether these are socially, economically, or politically possible futures is another matter.
    Patrick

  5. The scientific future is boring and predictable because the consumerist present is homogeneous and mindless. “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” but that’s exactly what civilization has become.
    I think we need to shoot for boring as a rule (socialized medicine, stable and generous environmentalism, secular government, localized economics) and the excitement of random discoveries will be more significant and better understood with more time between events to utilize ideas efficiently.

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