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The future’s so passé

Arthur C. Clarke is possibly the greatest of all futurologists. Lately I’ve been re-reading his Profiles of the Future, first published in 1962 — just five years after Sputnik II carried Laika the dog into orbit.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2010 21:11 IST

Arthur C. Clarke is possibly the greatest of all futurologists. Lately I’ve been re-reading his Profiles of the Future, first published in 1962 — just five years after Sputnik II carried Laika the dog into orbit. The sky really did seem the limit back then. Within a dozen years humans were playing golf on the moon, nonchalantly asserting our mastery over the universe.

So vertiginous was the ascent from earth to the heavens that everyone assumed the road of scientific progress would continue ever upwards. Except it never happened. No galactic cruises, humanoid robots or self-aware artificial intelligence. No immortality, nuclear-powered vehicles or close encounters with alien life-forms. The future, alas — it’s just not what it used to be.

We’re so much more cynical now; we’re indifferent towards space exploration and blasé about scientific wonders. Even Clarke’s famous Third Law, about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, is declared obsolete. From that perspective, it’s remarkable how ridiculous large portions of Clarke’s Profiles of the Future now seem. Soon, he predicted, we would be mining the moon.

By the 1980s we would be travelling to the other planets. Cyborgs would clunk into our lives in the 90s, briskly followed by matter transference (including people: “The time will come when we can move from Pole to Pole within a single heartbeat.”) We should also look forward to gravity control and colonisation of the solar system (adding with retroactive poignancy that “It would be theoretically possible... to ship back lunar products aboard robot freighters… (for) only a few pence of chemical fuel.”) And, about two decades from now, get set for contact with extra-terrestrials. He writes in the introduction, “The one fact about the future of which we can be certain is that it will be utterly fantastic.” So why doesn’t it seem that way?

Futurologists are often so maddeningly sure of themselves, and this inexact notion of ‘progress’, and our species’ inexorable march forwards and upwards and onwards… it’s hard to resist pointing out where they get it spectacularly wrong.

Ultimately, there is only one certainty: in the timeless words of William Goldman, nobody knows anything. To that, let me add an addendum for our times: when in doubt, assume the most prosaic outcome possible. Think small. Think safe. Be sensible.