A look back at works of genius (plus a cartoon) that forecast today’s technological, economic, and social innovations…
How well can people predict innovation? Here’s one way to tell: Pop open a beer, go to YouTube, and stream original episodes of The Jetsons.
The primetime Hanna-Barbera cartoon debuted in 1962 and was set in the “distant future” of 2062.
We’re more than halfway there. It’s 2017. My family should be starting to get the innovations the Jetson family took for granted…
They had flying cars. We have Fast and Furious movies on Netflix.
They had a robot maid who was practically part of the family. We have a Roomba that the dog chased, caught, and chewed to bits.
Their son had routine Boy Scout field trips to the moon. My son has routine Boy Scouts field trips to… the field. Where the Scouts camp out, get drenched by a thunderstorm, and their tents collapse.
And George Jetson had a full-time job working one hour a day, two days a week, turning his computer on and off. I turned my computer on at 8 this morning. It’s now past 6 p.m., and I still have 55 unopened work e-mails.
Of course, a Hanna-Barbera cartoon is not a work of genius. Let’s look at real works of genius that tried to predict the future… attempted to forecast coming technological, economic, and social innovations.
Nobody would care to sit through an animated version of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1723-1790). But it was more accurate than The Jetsons.
Smith predicted the abandonment of precious metal coinage in favor of paper money, to replace “a very expensive instrument of commerce with one much less costly.”
Smith foretold modern central-banking policy and the attitudes of the political and financial elites who shape that policy. Smith said, “The banks, they seem to have thought were in honour bound to supply the deficiency, and to provide them with all the capital which they wanted to trade with.”
Smith also gave us a warning of what would happen to “the Daedalian wings of paper money” if it became fiat currency untethered to any measure of value. In Greek myth, Daedalus makes a pair of wax and feather wings for his son Icarus. Icarus flies too high. The sun melts the wax. And Icarus takes a plunge like the Venezuelan bolivar.
Smith is sometimes faulted for not predicting the innovations of the Industrial Revolution. He didn’t predict them because he knew they were already happening. “The productive powers of labourers,” Smith said, “cannot be increased, but in consequence either of some addition and improvement to those machines and instruments which facilitate and abridge labour.” Smith was friends with the inventor of the steam engine, James Watt.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a genius, too. An evil genius, perhaps, but a genius nonetheless. And he made a number of very accurate predictions about socioeconomic innovations.
He was wrong about the triumph of communism, obviously. But communism was just some harebrained scheme. Marx’s prophesies are another matter. They’re almost eerie. In The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, Marx made the right call on:
• Disappearance of the middle class. Read all about it in every news outlet.
• Confiscation of bourgeois property. The Environmental Protection Agency called.
• Heavy taxation. So did the IRS.
• Liberation of women. Done.
• Dissolution of the nuclear family. Check.
• Working without material incentive. “The sharing economy.”
• Free public education. And worth it.
• Centralization of banking and credit in the hands of the state. Were you invited to the last Fed meeting?
• Combination of agriculture with manufacturing. Chicken fingers.
• The proletariat becomes the ruling class. Well, President Trump is not exactly a proletarian, but he’s not exactly “high class” either.
When we go from economic and philosophical geniuses to literary geniuses, the predictive powers seem to gradually become more muddled.
Jules Verne (1828-1905), the celebrated French novelist, poet, and playwright, invented the science fiction genre with works like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days. Many of the practical innovations he foresaw, like submarines and air travel, were, indeed, invented.
Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon in 1865 and Around the Moon in 1870. He was slightly off about the technical mechanisms of space travel. Shooting Apollo 11 out of a cannon was not an idea that would have worked… But he was right about a Florida blastoff and a Pacific Ocean splashdown.
And judging by what’s happened since the end of the Apollo program, Verne was absolutely right about the political elite’s attitude toward lunar-travel innovations. He had his own elite moon-voyaging protagonists express the view that it costs too much, there’s nothing up there, so why bother to go again?
The American author and political progressive Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) published his utopian novel, Looking Backward, in 1888. By 1900, more copies of Looking Backward had been sold in America than any novel except Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Bellamy’s protagonist arrives somehow in the year 2000 and is then filled in on the many innovations in the U.S. since Grover Cleveland was president. Bellamy doesn’t get things exactly right, but he comes close.
By 2000 all industries have been what Bellamy calls “nationalized.” Bellamy popularized the word – he was looking for a way to avoid calling socialism “socialism.” Progressives have been at it ever since, calling socialism “The Federal Reserve Bank,” “FCC,” “DOT,” “FDI,” “DOE,” “USDA,” etc.
Delivery of commercial goods is almost instantaneous in Bellamy’s novel, in case you thought Amazon was something new under the sun.
Working hours have been drastically reduced. Bellamy isn’t specific about how this was done. But these days, Facebook, Twitter, and computer solitaire in office cubicles have, in effect, reduced hours of actual working to a George Jetson level.
Everyone is able to retire at 45. Bellamy made an error here. A glance at Social Security and Medicare balance sheets indicates that almost nobody will be able to retire, ever.
But Bellamy was closer to reality when he describes crime as having been turned into a strictly medical problem. Isn’t that what all good liberals say? “Criminals aren’t evil. They’re sick. They need to be treated, not punished.”
That’s why, after my dog ate the Roomba, I didn’t whack him with a rolled-up newspaper. Instead, I sent him to the dog psychiatrist for weekly sessions of “bark therapy.”
Bellamy credits all the amazing innovations in Looking Backward to America having become, by 2000, a socialist utopia. That, thank God, has not happened. But not for lack of trying by President Obama, et al.
The Englishman H. G. Wells (1866-1946) was Jules Verne’s successor as the master of science fiction and is perhaps best remembered for his
Martian invasion book, The War of the Worlds.
Wells was a prolific describer of the future. His 1895 novel, The Time Machine, takes the reader all the way to A.D. 802,701, by which time the main innovation has been Darwinian.
The working class and the elites have
evolved into different species, the Morlocks and the Eloi.
The Eloi are skinny, vague, naive, entitled, feckless, and childlike. They consider themselves beautiful, do nothing for a living, and eat only fruit. The Eloi are Feel-the-Bern Democrats!
The Morlocks are brutish ape-men troglodytes who know how to make and repair everything and do all the work. They eat Eloi alive. The Morlocks are Middle-American Republicans!
We didn’t have to wait 800,000 years for that prediction to come true.
Later in life, Wells became more specific about future innovations. In his 1923 novel Men Like Gods, 3,000 years of progress has led to peaceful withering of the state.
Like we don’t have withering of the state already, minus the peaceful part.
A supposedly more advanced human race practices telepathy – as if the Internet weren’t enough of a sewer dive into the minds of others.
And in A.D. 923, there’s no money. What with credit and debit cards and the Adam Smith “Daedalian wings” of the Federal Reserve, there’s hardly any money now.
In 1933, Wells wrote The Shape of Things to Come, a suppositional history of the world from then until 2106.
It is a creepy book. The biggest innovation is world government.
Think of the slaughter, misery, and oppression caused by little national governments. And a futurist hopes to expand that to planetary size?
Fortunately, we’ve got the United Nations, giving us all a good laugh about the very idea of world government.
In The Shape of Things to Come, world government gets rid of religion, imposes an oligarchy of intellectuals, dictates the rule of “science,” and does many other things that Wells seems to think are good.
If Wells had been predicting the future American university campus instead of the whole future, he would have been a darned good prognosticator.
That brings us to futurism’s two most famous 20th century works of genius – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and 1984 by George Orwell (1903-1950). Both books are still taught on those American university campuses, with great emphasis on their “relevance.”
Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931. The action takes place in the 26th century. There’s a world government again (though at least Huxley has the sense to know this is not a good thing). Re-reading the book, it seems old-fashioned… more a prediction of the near present than of the distant future.
Two major innovations are artificial fertilization and fetal genetic manipulation. But rather than seeing these as progress, making for happy new parents and children free of birth defects, they scare Huxley.
Children in Brave New World are bred and conditioned to occupy one of five “castes” – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. Or as today’s costal elites would call them, A-list celebrities, New York Times op-ed page columnists, 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, people found on Angie’s List to fix the toilet, and members of the NRA.
People in the year 2540 stay youthful until age 60. Hah! We’ve got octogenarians doing Iron Man triathlons.
Education is conducted by a “hypnopaedic” process. Hasn’t school always put kids to sleep?
High art, deep culture, and serious literature no longer exist. Ho-hum. Entertainment deals only with shallow emotions. Same old, same old. People take a drug to make them happy. Big whoop.
In remote geographic areas, “savages” are left to their own devices. Presumably they will vote for the 26th century Trump in the next World Government presidential election.
And George Orwell’s 1984 is even more antiquated and moss-grown.
First, Orwell missed the mark by three decades plus. The real 1984 was a great year. Inflation had been curbed. Unemployment was falling. GDP growth was 7.3% (almost three times its present rate). Apple introduced its Macintosh personal computer. McDonald’s sold its 50 billionth hamburger. And – “Where’s the beef?” – Ronald Reagan was re-elected, carrying 49 states.
In 1984 the U.S., thanks to a U.S.S.R. boycott, won 174 medals at the Summer Olympics. My Detroit Tigers beat the left-coast loseroid San Diego Padres 4-1 in the World Series. Hulk Hogan defeated Iron Sheik to become WWF champion.
In related news, Iran and Iraq were at war with each other instead of with everybody else in the Middle East. TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes debuted on NBC. And Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire.
But since then, we’ve caught up with George Orwell… even surpassed him with our innovations, the liberals among us especially. Listen to them telling us…
WAR IS PEACEKEEPING.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY REPARATIONS.
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH IN PUBLIC EDUCATION.
1984 has three international “superstates” in perpetual conflict and shifting alliances. We’ve got four, counting jihadists.
“Two Minutes Hate”? Watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Episodes last forty-two minutes.
And the “telescreen” that watches us while we watch it is where you’re reading this right now.
Our students, teachers, intellectuals, public figures, and even ordinary citizens posting anonymous social-media shaming don’t need the “Thought Police.” Policing thoughts has become a mass DIY project.
Examine any history textbook assigned in schools to see a “memory hole” at work on a scale undreamed of by 1984’s protagonist Winston Smith as he did his job at the Ministry of Truth turning former luminaries into “unpersons.” For example, Sally Hemings is now more revered than Thomas Jefferson.
Orwell’s “Inner Party” comprised 2% of the population. This is double the inclusivity of the Occupy This-n-That’s supposed 1%.
The “Ministry of Peace” is what our Defense Department has been reduced to, if even.
The “Ministry of Plenty” is, with our entitlement programs, almost our entire government.
The “Ministry of Love” is our whole political class. Just ask them if they love you when they’re running for office.
And the “Ministry of Truth,” like the Thought Police, is no longer needed. Its functions have been outsourced to the aforementioned American universities and the New York Times.
But there’s one thing in 1984 that will never become a wide-spread innovation in American life… I hope.
That’s the ending, when Winston Smith has given up. He’s drunk, defeated, and staring at a “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” poster with tears of love for the political leadership streaming down his face.
We don’t have to be geniuses to know we don’t want to see that in the future.
Photos sourced from Wikimedia Commons.