Seven Deadly Sins of Speculative Fiction Writers: [and Other Prognosticators]

Yesterday I was reading a Foreign Policy (FP) magazine Special Issue on the Future, and I have been reading and writing a bit of science fiction lately. This made me think about where prognosticators fall down in making predictions about the world of the future.

The FP Future Issue consists of nine articles that make predictions about various aspects of the world in the decades to come. Wisely, the magazine also includes a separate article that points out a number of anticipated “megatrends” that failed to materialize.

The common errors that I think are made in prognosticating are described below.

1.) Underestimation of Social Inertia: or, alternatively, Overestimation of the Power of Logic:

One can think of many examples of cases in which social inertia has trumped logic. We know that the QWERTY keyboard was optimized to slowing down typing in the era of swing arm typewriters rather than maximizing speed in the era of word-processors. However, I, for one, don’t want to have to completely relearn typing, which I mastered under the harsh tutelage of a crotchety old coach at no minor cost in pain and suffering.

The US had a chance to adopt the metric system, a vastly preferable system both for reasons of logical consistency and uniformity. However, that would require getting used to the high for the year being only almost 40 degrees (Celsius), which just seems too cold.

After World War II, Japan considered replacing its 3 (yes, I said THREE) systems of writing with a uniform Romanized alphabet, an infinitely logical move that failed utterly.

The challenge in all these cases is that there is a cost that is immediate and a pay off that is long-term. However, people tend to severely discount future benefits and inflate present costs.

The Question to Ask: What is the cost of making this change, and is the benefit restricted to the long-run? (in which, according to Keynes, we’re all dead)

2.) Failure to Differentiate Revolutionary from Evolutionarily Changing Features of Society:

There are certain features of humanity that are evolutionarily hardwired and will not just change at the drop of a hat.

For example, humans are inequity averse. That is, people are concerned about the gains of others relative to themselves. Consider Warren Buffett’s recent op-ed in which he says the government should collect more taxes from high income people such as himself. Mr. Buffett knows that there is a mechanism by which he can write a check to the US Treasury for any amount he feels it would be fair for him to pay. He could even pay more than 100% of his annual income if he wished, but I suspect he won’t. He won’t because, despite his ideals, it is too painful for him to suffer a loss that others do not.

This inequity aversion, and affiliated hardwired traits, even drive actors into war. Utopian tales that cast this aside willy-nilly without a great deal of social turbulence are suspect.

The Question to Ask: Am I suggesting a revolutionary change in factors driven by evolutionary biology?

3.) Failure to Follow the Incentives:

In Star Trek they have done away with money and there is a sort of de facto egalitarian regime. The question, of course, is why would people go to work? Yes, if you are Captain Kirk you have all sorts of non-monetary benefits (power, prestige, and kinky green chicks), but Ensign Noname who spends his days scrapping Tribble-shit and being the human shield of the away team… not so much.

People work because there is some sort of reward (granted it may not be a financial reward, as when I write herein for the occasional ego scratch or to revel in my own imagined brilliance), and they work harder for a higher reward. Why would anyone choose to become a proctologist – an essential human endeavor mind you – if they didn’t get a reward a hell of a lot higher than the average schlub?

You may be saying, “but why would any fiction writer get into the painfully boring minutiae of economics?” Yet, I think paying attention to incentives raises interesting sci-fi themes. We can imagine a world in which most people don’t work, but rather own robots that are productive and are the basis of wealth-creation. Such people would spend their days in whatever pursuits they desired, and, perhaps, self-development would become valued beyond material wealth creation.

We might start from a situation in which the very poorest have no machines and must find work for themselves. We can imagine these individuals forming an enraged class of Luddites. Middle class people might partially own a robot (say one shift out of three) or just own one robot. The wealthiest might have several robots working for them. Setting aside the fact that, presuming these are robots of sufficient [artificial] intelligence to replace humans, this could be considered slavery, there remain interesting questions. What happens as the wealthy buy up robots, leaving the middle and lower class entirely with no productive capacity? How do people survive?

I’ve been reading Heinlein’s For Us, The Living in which people just get monetary disbursements from the government without doing anything in exchange. I haven’t gotten to any part in which it is explained how wealth can appear out of thin air without any productive capacity, and suspect it isn’t in there because it wasn’t thought through. [It should be noted that this novel was published posthumously, so Heinlein might not have been terribly impressed with his own first effort.]

The Question to Ask: Does the actor have any reason to do what they are doing, or are there spontaneously-erupting free lunches?

4.) Extending Trends Indefinitely: or, Failure to Account for Great Leaps and Feedback Effects:

The aforementioned FP article mentions two examples of this failure. The first was the notion that the Dow would hit 36,000 by now, and related failures to imagine the bottom falling out of the economy. The second involves the inevitability of Malthusian-check induced famines. That is, the idea that the population continuing to grow at an exponential rate while food resources grow only at a linear rate will lead to inevitable catastrophe.

This problem arises from failure to recognize the thin sliver of humanities’ existence to which one has been exposed. Before forecasting 500 years in the future, consider what the world was like 500 years ago in 1511. What aspects of humanity have been somewhat stable (e.g. wearing clothing, living in houses, having wars, etc.), and what aspects have seen vast changes over short periods (e.g. transportation, communications, and the nature of labor)?

When we look at the changes in the human sphere over the course of our lifetime, with our lifetime as the scale, they don’t seem rapid. When one thinks about the changes experienced by humanity in one’s lifetime using humanities’ existence as the timeline, a much different picture emerges. Those reading this have been alive during a burst of economic and technological growth. Will there be dark ages ahead before we make our next big lurch forward? I suspect we will have to make advances in the area of energy before we make another great leap.

I mentioned “feedback effects” in the heading, and it is worth expounding on this idea. While extending a trend forward may be the best we can do in the absence of additional information, we must be ready for effects that run contrary to our estimation. Take Malthus’s ideas, besides a great agricultural leap forward, there was also a change that lead to decreased population growth rates (at least in the developed world) as urbanized families benefited less from children.

For another example, we wouldn’t expect a commodity’s price to rise indefinitely because substitutes will be developed that will decrease demand.

The Question to Ask: Where could one see great leaps forward, and what effects will contravene the present trends?

5.) Trend-bucking for Effect: or, the Phallic Fallacy:

In the future, all technologies get smaller, EXCEPT GUNS. Granted this is more about movies than written works, but I mention it still.

While it may look like military small arms have gotten larger owing to mounted grenade-launchers and the like, I can assure you that weapons have gotten smaller and lighter per firepower-deliverable over time. If you don’t believe it, hook an M1 Garand over your shoulder and take a 20 mile hike.

Large guns are not the only way in which Hollywood bucks trends. Take the example of clothing. As I travel about the world, I see a proliferation of casual and comfortable clothing. Yet, in the movies there are people in shiny foil suits, latex rubber suits, and uni-tards – none of which look particularly comfortable.

Probably the most common example of trend-bucking is the creation of dystopias. Having already bad-mouthed features of utopias (e.g. free money and enlightened individuals devoid of ego), I will now argue against the simple slide into dystopia, be it the rightist dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale or the leftist dystopia of 1984. Our current political dysfunction aside, the trend has been for representative governance to expand and individual rights to be held inviolate.

True, we see backslides as with the US PATRIOT Act, which represented a movement away from individual liberty, but, on the whole, the world seems to grow more tolerant and towards an optimization of what I will call “societal friction.” By “societal friction” I mean the tension that builds as a result of control being exerted over one’s personal domain by society. As there is no reason to believe anarchy is optimal (and good reason to think it isn’t), there is some positive but minimal degree of societal friction which is optimal.

Consideration of political trends can make for interesting speculative fiction questions. There are some who believe that there is an overarching trend toward unified governance. I don’t know whether I buy this or not. Yes, it is often the case that – despite the proviso “all politics are local” – there is tendency to look toward the national government for solutions. On the other hand, the largest example of international consolidation in recent history, the EU, seems to look more likely to deteriorate than to be a model for the benefits of global unification.

However, say we had a Star Trek-esque solitary government, I think that it would be born and exist only through the most violent of creation. Milton Friedman said that where governance is to be done it is better at a local level than the state level and better at the state level than the federal level. His idea was that the more disconnected one gets, the less representation one gets. I would fight life under Sharia law to the death, but there are a lot of folks who seem to think they can’t live without it. Imposition of overarching governance would be impossible without creating hostility.

Follow the trends: Technology gets smaller. Humanity packs more densely into cities. Democracy proliferates?

The Question to Ask: Does what looks good bear any resemblance to real world trends?

6.) Failure to Acknowledge the Inevitable Yin to Every Yang:

There is no escaping pain and sorrow, and there is no way to entirely kill joy or eradicate humor. Utopias and dystopias don’t ring true if they are devoid of some balance. This goes for the real world analogues of the “recessionless-economy” or the “permanent 10+% unemployment economy.”

A related concept to be kept in mind is that no matter how bad things get someone makes out spectacularly, and no matter how good things are someone will suffer. You may have heard of counter-cyclical industries, which are ones that do well when the economy suffers a downfall. Certain repair shops fare better because people get things fixed that they can’t live without but would otherwise replace entirely. On the other hand, while the invention of the word processor has been glorious for me, typewriter sales or repair firms beg to differ.

The Question to Ask: How would one know what’s good if one never experienced bad, or vice versa?

7.) Spending Too Much Time Worrying About “Getting It Right”:

One cannot possibly know the future. Inevitably, one will overshoot by including features that are actually impossible, and, on the other hand, undershoot by including features that will be obsolete by the time anyone reads the darn thing.

Referring again to the example of For Us, The Living, Heinlein has a very swift transistion of a mind into a new body (perhaps impossible), but there are an awful lot of references to paper documents. Every day it seems less likely that by 2087  people will be printing information onto paper anymore than we chisle it into stone.

The Question to Ask: Why the hell are you reading advice about how to write the future?

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About B Gourley

Bernie Gourley is a writer living in Bangalore, India. He is currently writing his first novel entitled CHASING DEMONS. He is a martial artist, yogi, and world traveler.
This entry was posted in essay, Science Fiction, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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