Monday, August 8, 2011

Seeing the Future: Not Always Helpful by Lamont Wood

Jobs are tight. Having a stand-out skill is important. Surely, as skills go, being able to predict the future would be unbeatable way to boost your career.

Guess again.

My recent book, Out of Place in Time and Space, highlights several people whose careers incorporated what we now know to have been accurate prophecy. They correctly predicted at least one future trend, and in some cases built their careers around that prediction. And it was of almost no benefit to them.

If you're thinking of Jules Verne (1828-1905) he did indeed predict a wide range of future developments, from feminism to mutually assured destruction. (And, no, he didn't connect those two trends.) But in any event he died long before most of his predictions were realized. A better example would be his younger contemporary Albert Robida (1848-1926) who wrote richly illustrated science fiction about life in the 20th century.

Robida portrayed his heroes as awash in information from a global telecommunications network, including flat-screen teleconferencing devices that could dial each other at will. (Sound familiar?) High-speed flying machines were used for long-distance travel. All professions were open to women. There had been a catastrophic war in 1910.

The war came four years late and claimed several family members. Robida died embittered, professing to hate the 20th century.

A little more upbeat would be the prophecy of Chief Plenty Coups (1848-1932) of the Crow Indians. His coming-of-age vision (induced by fasting and exposure, as tradition demanded) told him that the white men would over-run the land, their cattle would replace the buffalo, and those Indians who resisted them would suffer a fate like trees splintered by a hurricane. Under his subsequent leadership his tribe allied with the whites against those tribes (who also happened to be enemies of the Crow) who resisted. Things were a little rocky during one eventful summer when he sent men to ride with Son-of-the-Morning-Star (Gen. Custer) but in the end the tribe acquired a reservation on land they considered worthwhile.

But his tribe's way of life was still destroyed. They were still relegated to a reservation. His prophecy merely let him make the best of a bad deal. But it must have given him some ray of hope that total destruction could be avoided, and perhaps that was enough.

No such ray lit the prophecy of Hector Bywater (1884-1940). A British journalist and naval expert, he wrote a book in 1925 about a future naval war in the Pacific between the U.S. and Japan. After opening the war with a surprise attack, Japan over-runs the western Pacific but is eventually defeated by an island-hopping campaign, despite Japanese suicide missions. Sound familiar? He mentioned ships by name, and some showed up in the actual war 16 years later.

In fact the main differences between the plot of his novel and the real campaign was that Bywater's surprise attack was against the Panama Canal rather than Pearl Harbor; the real war started in 1941 whereas the book was set it in 1931; in the book neither the Americans nor the Japanese had any allies whereas in the real war both sides had allies; and the Americans in the book were slow to adopt island-hopping. (Of course, the real American generals in the real war had read the book, and adopted island hopping without delay.)

We don't really know how Bywater felt as the world descended into real war, but evidently the sight of his predictions coming true gave him no joy. He died nearly a year and a half before Pearl Harbor, in London, apparently of alcoholism. Perhaps, having seen the future, he didn’t want to go there again.

Of course, if you see things too far over the horizon your predictions will be no practical benefit, and your prophecy will end up as a footnote in history—if that. Suffering nearly that fate was Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, who wrote the first computer program about a century before the first programmable computer was constructed. Then there was Vannevar Bush, who wrote a magazine article describing what we would call a Web browser about 50 years before the World Wide Web was invented. He was already a presidential science advisor, so you could not way his career suffered.

But the most extreme case of unproductive prophecy would have to be British journalist W.T. Stead (1849-1912), who was involved in the birth of the British tabloid genre. (With the recent "News of the World" scandal, we may be witnessing its death.) When not dabbling in sensationalism he used his publications to promote a number of causes, including women's rights, world peace, and the suppression of child prostitution. At one point he also campaigned against obsolete laws that let passenger ships carry an inadequate number of lifeboats. He even wrote dramatic fiction describing the outcome of a mid-ocean collision where panic broke out as it was discovered that there was lifeboat space for only about a third of those on board, the loading of what few lifeboats were available was botched, and the "women and children first" rule nearly broke down.

He got rich, so in 1912, when he decided to attend a conference in the U.S., of course he bought tickets on the finest, newest passenger ship available.

You might have heard of it: Titanic.

He was one of the many who didn’t survive, so we don’t know what he was thinking when he bought that ticket. Later, after the collision, perhaps the irony of the situation struck him, as the story that he wrote years before played out around him—but it seems highly likely that he had more immediate concerns on his mind.

And indeed, that probably sums the situation of our other prophets. Foreseeing the future is one thing, but getting through the day is quite another, and inevitably consumes more mindshare. The fact that you have clear conception of where events are headed is interesting, but on a given day it won't get you a good table at a restaurant.

As a journalist and freelance writer of wide experience, Lamont Wood is familiar with the sometimes arbitrary distinction between cause and effect, and the subsequent gulf between what happens, what is experienced, what gets written, and what is understood. He has been freelancing for nearly three decades

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