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What Some of the Greatest Science Fiction Writers Thought 2012 Would Be Like

25 years ago, a group of writers and scientists offered their visions of today's world. What did they get right? And what did they miss?

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And apart from AIDS, it seemed like a safe prediction then (and still is now) that the next quarter-century would see some kind of Spanish flu-like global pandemic that would cut the world's human population by a billion or more. Wolfe further predicted that fear of increasingly virulent sexually transmitted infections would bring about an age of strict marital fidelity enforced by draconian penalties. We are delighted to report that he could not have possibly been more wrong.

The fact that the global pandemics so many of the entrants worried about didn't happen is, not to overstate the case, a miracle. Yet they probably weren't wrong to put this on their list back then -- and, given that the odds that we'll produce a world-killer supervirus are even higher now than they were then, we're still right to worry about it today.

Energy and the Environment

In 1987, peak oil and climate change weren't widely popular concepts -- but they were already well-understood by people whose business it was to pay attention.  Benford accurately predicted our increasing dependence on shale oil -- and also the looming water crisis, which has the potential to be a far bigger global nightmare than our energy problem, even though it still isn't on enough people's radar even now.

Rogue Moon author Algys Budrys, in what's easily the most presciently spot-on entry of the entire pack, described a future in which the central driver is the overwhelming need to stop using so much energy, while having no real options to fall back on yet:

Because we will be in a trough between 20th-century resources and 21st-century needs, in 2012 all storable forms of energy will be expensive. Machines will be designed to use only minimal amounts of it. At the same time, there will be a general expectation that a practical cheap-energy delivery system is just around the corner. Individuals basing their career plans on any aspect of technology will concentrate on that future, leaving contemporary machine applications to the less ambitious or to those who foresee a different future....It should be noted that most minimal-energy devices process information and microscopic materials, not consumer goods. The function of "our" society may depend on processing information and biotechnology to subjugate goods-producing societies. These societies may be geographically external, or may be yet another social stratum within central North America. In either case, crowd-management technologies will have to turn away from forms that might in any way impair capital goods production. Social regimentation will then have become so deft that most people will regard any other social milieu as pitiable.

When they got it wrong, they got it really wrong. But when they got it right...

Education and Culture

Older generations have decried the ignorance of the youth going back to the days of Plato. So it was completely predictable that a bunch of famous middle-aged scientists and authors in 1987 darkly dreaded a new millennium full of illiterate twits who would "think in images rather than symbols," with literacy confined to a small counterculture, or notable only as the hallmark of membership in the great global oligarchy. Wolfe decried schools that "exist only to train their students for employment—how to report to computers and follow instructions...Fifty million adult Americans are less than fluent in English."  He elaborated:

A literate stratum supplies leadership in government and most (though not all) other fields. Its members are experimenting with sociological simulations that take into account the individual characters and preferences of most of the population. Its aim is to increase the power of the literate class and further limit literacy, without provoking war with the U.S.S.R. or alienating the rising powers—China and the Latin American block. A literate counterculture also exists.

 
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