If I were asked to guess what people are generally most insecure about, I would say it is the content of the future. We all worry about it constantly. "Who knows what the morrow will bring?" we say. We guard ourselves against the unexpected, lest God take revenge upon us for being too arrogantly sure of ourselves. "Ill see you next month," we declare, "barring acts of God." Or if we hesitate to blame God lest that itself bring down vengeance upon us, we say, even more cautiously, "Ill see you next month, if all goes well."
When the great Athenian law-giver, Solon, visited the wealthy King Croesus of Lydia, Croesus displayed his luxury and power and smilingly asked Solon who he thought the happiest of mortals might be.
Solon was right. Croesus was defeated in battle soon after, losing his kingdom and his wealth. No matter how fortunate a human being may seem, one cannot tell what will happen the next year or even the next day.
It is not surprising that ever since human beings evolved sufficient intelligence to understand the uncertainty of the future, they have gone to great lengths to guess it. There must be some key, they clamoured. Surely nothing happens for no reason! They believed it was possible to discover hints as to what was about to happen-signs, perhaps, sent by the gods who felt some concern for the lives of those devoted to them, those who treated the gods well by offering them appropriate sacrifices and praise. Or perhaps the key in the flight of a bird, or in the shape of the liver of a sacrificed animal-or almost anything. Naturally, there were those who specialised in observing such signs, determining from them the shape of the future.
The most sophisticated manner of foretelling the future was developed after star-gazers first charted the course of certain heavenly objects against the general starry background (objects now known to us as the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). The motions were complex, but there was a perceived regularity to them. It seemed probable that they contained a code, difficult but not impossible to solve, that offered a guide to the future. So began "astrology," from the Greek, meaning "study of the stars."
Astrology has its grip on humanity to this day. And so does fortune-telling of all kinds. Many people are still convinced that they can uncover their futures by observing the chance fall of cards, or the intersecting curves of the creases of their palms, or the clumping of tea leaves.
All fortune-telling devices, from astrology to tea leaves, are, of course, useless. But there are forecasts that can be made with confidence. It is possible to predict the exact time of sunrise two months from now, or the day on which the Moon will next be full, or the exact moment at which a particular planet will move in front of a particular star. These are the results of the perfectly regular movements of astronomical objects which can be accurately calculated in advance.
The desire to know our individual destinies has been linked, through the centuries, with our desire to foretell what will happen to humanity as a whole, to comprehend in all its complexity the grand sweep of history. Religious writings, in particular, have offered us interpretations of the history of the Universe, and have been explored for obscure prophecies. Highly imaginative accounts of the beginning of the Universe, of the Earth, and of human beings are often matched by equally imaginative accounts of the final days. We, of the western tradition, are most familiar with the biblical writings in this connection. Some of the prophetic books of the Bible present the future in idealistically happy fashion. Thus, the prophet Isaiah foresees a time when war will end, when there will be no more disputes among nations, when all the world will agree on a single true religion (Isaiahs, of course), and when predatory animals will no longer devour other animals but will eat only vegetation.
Other prophets, in more ferocious mood, concentrated on the fearsome aspects of the final days of the world. It was to be a time when God would judge all human souls, when He would cast the many wicked into Hell, and would transport only the few whom the prophet approved of into eternal bliss. The Day of Judgement was pictured in frightening terms and prophets spared no pains to emphasise its terrors. The prophet Joel called it "a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness." On the basis, perhaps, that a stick is more effective than a carrot in keeping worshippers in line, "hell-fire preachers" have ever since followed Joels example and specialised in scaring the pants off their followers.
The most famous biblical book of prophecy is the last book of the New Testament. It is called Revelations (because it reveals the future) or, sometimes, The Apocalypse (from the Greek term meaning "to reveal"). There, in gruesome, difficult, and interminable detail, the end of the world is forecast as a series of horrible disasters. A universal war between good and evil is followed by a physical collapse of the Earth and the sky, and the final rescue of a handful of people; then, on the ruins, a new Heaven and Earth are built.
One non-Christian mythology, that of the early Scandinavians, also describes the end of the world in gruesome detail, postulates a final battle between good and evil in which almost everyone comes to a horrid end, and depicts the building of a new Heaven and Earth on the ruins. Indeed, it is possible that this Scandinavian tale of Ragnarok (often translated as "the twilight of the gods") was inspired by Revelations.
The biblical prophets seem (if we accept their plain words as having plain meaning) to have believed that the end of the world was coming very soon. Some of the early Christians, in fact, ordered their lives on this belief. When the end did not come within a generation, or a century, or a number of centuries, such was the force of the belief that this was not taken as evidence that the prophecies were wrong but only that they had been misinterpreted.
As the centuries passed, the prophecies (particularly those of Revelations) were read and re-read, and increasingly tortured calculations made to indicate new dates on which the world would come to an end. Even first-class mathematicians such as John Napier (inventor of logarithms) and Isaac Newton (undoubtedly the greatest scientist who ever lived) spent a lot of time trying to make sense of Revelations. They failed, of course.
Such accounts of the end of the world, like the accounts of the beginning of the world, are based on no evidence other than the unsupported statements in these biblical writings, and it is hard to believe that anyone not taught from childhood to accept them on faith would take them seriously. Of course, those who do accept the writings as a valid portrayal of the future assume that they were inspired by an omniscient God.
Still, the end many come soon, for if there is a nuclear war it is possible that humanity and much of life will be destroyed. Some members of the American government seem to think so. James Watt, once a rather peculiar Secretary of the Interior, failed to see the urgency of conservation since, as he said, the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the world were at hand. (Presumably Jesus, when He returned, would be seriously annoyed if He found one patch of forest undestroyed and one bit of surface unpolluted.) Ronald Reagan himself has speculated out loud on the imminence of Armageddon (the final battle between good and evil mentioned in Revelations). Presumably this makes less urgent, in his thinking, any effort to halt the spread of nuclear arms or to diminish the danger of nuclear war-especially if nuclear war is what is meant by Armageddon.
Suppose we dismiss fortune-telling. Suppose we also dismiss divinely inspired apocalyptic forecasts. What, then, is left? What is "futurism" as we understand it?
Before we can have futurism, we must first recognise the existence of a future in a state that is significantly different from the present and the past. It may seem to us that the potential existence of such a future is self-evident, but that was most definitely not so until comparatively recent times. To be sure, there has always been change in human history, but the most noticeable changes (until recently) have been erratic and trivial. Some people die, some people are born, a new monarch succeeds, there are wars in which your side sometimes wins and the other side sometimes wins. An empire is set up and decays. An epidemic strikes and dies out. All this is terribly important to individuals but nothing much changes permanently, and to the philosopher viewing the past it might seem that all is much ado about nothing. Such is the theme of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. It starts by proclaiming that "All is vanity," that all is empty of significance, and goes on to declare flatly, that "there is no new thing under the sun."
Yet, are there no changes in the Universe that are progressive? that move steadily in one direction only? that mount up with the years to produce an enormous and permanent change after a time? There are indeed. The trouble is that the rate of such change is usually so slow as to make it indistinguishable from changelessness. For instance, the Sun is aging and changing its properties to such a degree that the time will come when those changes will destroy life on Earth. But the change is so slow that it was for long undetectable, and until the beginning of modern times scholars were quite firm in their belief that the heavens were changeless. Then again, life is changing on Earth over millions and billions of years. Human beings, as we know them, have only existed for fifty thousand years or so. Our ancestral hominids, who were distinctly different from us but were more nearly human than they were ape-like, have only existed for about four million years. Undoubtedly, in the future, we will evolve further. Such evolutionary changes, however, while more rapid than astronomical changes, are still so slow that they remained unrecognised until about a century and a half ago, and even now the notion of evolution is strongly resisted.
And what about changes in social structure? What about the discovery of fire? What about the coming of agriculture? What about the development of herding? What about the finding of a method of extracting iron from its ores? What about the invention of ships?
All such new things under the Sun greatly altered the world and, whats more, did so permanently. Once these discoveries were made, they were never forgotten, and they spread inexorably over the Earths surface. Such changes are one-way and, therefore, progressive. They are all advances in technology-improvements in the way human beings handle and manipulate the materials and environment about them in order to increase their comfort and security.
Technological evolution is faster than either astronomical or biological evolution, but nevertheless, through most of history, it has been sufficiently slow that until this century nothing significant seemed to change in the lifetime of a human being, or even over several lifetimes. In one important way, however, changes at the level of technology differ from astronomical and biological change. The rate of change of technology increases steadily. Such change is cumulative. The more technology advances, the greater the population growth and the greater the number of people who will have still newer ideas. The higher the level of technology, the more diverse and versatile do tools become, and with them new discoveries can be made. By 1500, printing was in full swing, and new knowledge could be more easily disseminated; by 1600, modern science had arrived and that, too, vastly increased the rate of technological change.
The rate has continued to increase rapidly into and through the twentieth century. In my lifetime I have seen the development of airplanes to the point where transcontinental and transoceanic travel have become as easy as taking a subway. I have seen radio advance to television, and silent movies to talkies, completely altering the manner in which the world amuses itself. I have seen the coming of nuclear weapons threaten the existence of humanity, and the coming of rockets promise to spread humanity throughout the solar system. I have seen computers and robots giving us non-human friends and allies-or possibly competitors-for the first time.
In fact, it is possible to argue that not only is technological change progressive, but that any change that is progressive involves technology even when it doesnt seem to. For instance, the emergence of Christianity changed the world permanently-but would Christianity have survived, and spread, if the Roman roads (a great advance in technology) had not knit the Mediterranean world together? Along those roads, Roman armies marched to repel the turbulent tribes beyond their borders and keep the internal peace. Profiting from the peace that existed, Christian missionaries travelled along those same roads to spread the faith. The Crusades permanently altered European history, but would they have taken place if the horseshoe, the horse collar, and the moldboard plow had not increased agricultural production in the eleventh century? As a result, the population of France and Germany grew to the point where landless members of the freely breeding nobility became a turbulent menace to society and it was politically expedient to ship them off to the Holy Land where they could expend their energies on the Moslems.
The Protestant Reformation was another huge change, but Martin Luther was only one of many reformers who had attempted to alter the Church in one way or another. What Luther had, that his predecessors had not, was the printing press and the ability to use it. His writings spread across western Europe faster than the authorities could suppress them.
And so the history of humanity is the history of a progressive and ever-hastening series of technological changes. And there was bound to come a time when technological change would become so rapid as to force itself on the consciousness of human beings-when it produced changes that were visible in the space of a single lifetime. Such a time came with the Industrial Revolution. In 1769, James Watt constructed the first practical steam engine and within a generation it had begun an ever-accelerating revolution of the social structure of Great Britain. This revolution spread to Belgium, then to Germany and the new nation of the United States, then to the rest of Europe and to Russia, and finally to all the world.
By 1800, in those portions of the world already affected, it was clear to thinking people that the world was changing and would continue to change. The steam engine powered new machinery in textile mills, so that the spinning wheel disappeared and cottage industries were affected. A vast movement from the farms into the mills began. Further applications of the steam engine revolutionised transportation when the steam locomotive came in. People witnessed these vast changes in the course of their lifetimes. They could look back a few decades to a time when the new devices had not existed, and they could look forward to a time when they would grow still more important, and when yet newer devices would appear.
A new kind of human curiosity developed, perhaps the first really new kind in recorded history. It was possible for a man to ask "What will the future be like?" and expect a rational answer. Prior to 1800 the answer would have been "Who knows?" if he were talking about what would happen to him as an individual, or perhaps "More of the same," if he were talking about society in general. Only after 1800 could one visualise steamships going faster and more steadily than sailing vessels so that people could cross the Atlantic safely and comfortably. Only after 1800 could one visualise train tracks crisscrossing a nation and land travel finally made speedy.
Naturally, you cant expect a new curiosity to arise without some effort being made to satisfy it (especially if it is possible to make a living from doing so). There were some writers whose imaginations were sparked by the new technologies. The first successful such piece of fiction was Mary Shelleys Frankenstein, which tells of the creation of life by a daring experimenter. It was very melodramatic and rather poorly written (Shelley was only 21 years old when she wrote it in 1818) but it can be considered the first example of modern "science fiction"-a term that was not coined until 1929. Among others who subsequently tried their hands at this new kind of writing were Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthrone; but science fiction did not really come of age until the Frenchman Jules Verne began to write his novels.
In 1863, Jules Verne (35 years old and, until then, a failure at everything he had tried) wrote Five Weeks in a Balloon. It sold magnificently and the astonished Verne decided to write other "extraordinary voyages" (as his publisher called them).
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