by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
©2004 Quentin Long -- all rights reserved
Show of hands: How many of you knew that Robert A. Heinlein invented the waterbed? Those of you with your hands raised are probably science fiction fans; to those of you whose hands are down, I recommend Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land. And if you're asking "Hold on, who's this Heinlein guy?", congratulations: You have just proven yourself a functional illiterate, and get thee to a library, damnit! Now! Anyway, Heinlein described the mechanical details of the waterbed in Stranger, which is where the rest of the world learned about it. But what's more interesting, and less known, is why he came up with the idea: Heinlein, a man of chronically poor health, was trying to create the perfect hospital bed.
Didn't quite work out as Heinlein envisioned, did it? Moving right along...
Back in 1965, Frederik Pohl wrote The Age of the Pussyfoot, in which a gizmo called a 'joymaker' played a significant role. Pohl described the joymaker as "a combination of telephone, credit card, alarm clock, pocket bar, reference library, and full-time secretary", among other things -- and most (if not all) of the joymaker's usefulness derived from its wireless connection to a central supercomputer.
"Okay, joymaker. So what?" I hear some of you asking. "I can surf the net on my cell phone, and that's 95% of the joymaker right there." Exactly! To a first approximation, Pohl's joymaker is the contemporary cell phone! When it comes to envisioning how society would be affected by their respective toys, Pohl did a better job with the joymaker than Heinlein with the waterbed -- but this is largely because Heinlein wasn't really trying to do that sort of thing in Stranger.
I could go on with dozens of other innovations that were 'predicted' in decades-old science fiction, but that would be grossly misleading, because there's any number of other SF 'predictions' which not only haven't come true yet, but aren't likely to ever happen at all. This should come as no surprise; SF writers, as a group, are more concerned with telling stories than they are with creating factually accurate portrayals of The Future, after all. The question is, what is it that separates the successful 'predictions' from the failed ones? Why does one imagined gadget see the light of day as a commercially available product, while another is never found outside the covers of its book?
The answer, I believe, is that where gadgetry is concerned, the future doesn't just happen -- rather, the future is invented. Machines don't arise as a result of some sort of immaculate conception involving an impersonal, irresistible force of nature; if a machine is going to exist, it's going to have to be designed and built and manufactured. By sentient beings. Which means that some person (or persons) must design the thing, and some person(s) must build it, and some person(s) must manufacture it.
Here lies the difference between fiction and reality: In a story, all those practical considerations aren't important because everything happens as and how the author wants it to happen. Real life, however, is a horse of quite a different color indeed! In real life, if all you do is sit back and wish for some desired machine, you had better hope that somebody out there is working on it, because if no one is, the machine you desire is not going to exist. Period, end of discussion.
Which leads, finally, to the whole point of this editorial: The best, most reliable way to predict the future is to build your desired future. Forget about bright, fluffy imaginings, because an idle wish plus 35¢ will get you a Xerox of a cup of coffee. If you want to see your future happen, you're gonna have to put in some serious effort. And if you're not willing to do that? Fine. Don't work for your future. Just remember that there are other people who are very willing indeed to work for the future they desire. And if the future that actually does occur is one of theirs, not the one you'd prefer... well, you had your chance, didn't you?