Future Imperfect – How Writers Have A Tendency To Predict Things And Why That Can Be Very Very Bad
When I was a kid, one of my favourite TV programmes was Tomorrow’s World. A brave new vista of Science and modern wonders laid bare in your living room at 7 O’Clock every Thursday evening, just before Top of the Pops. Or was it 8 O’Clock, just after Top of the Pops? I can never remember.
Tomorrow’s World was educational and informative, of that there can be no doubt. It described the latest technological developments in a delightfully cheeky and patronizing way. Or was it condescending? I can never remember that either. Packed with information as it was though, things went horribly wrong when Tomorrow’s World tried to live up to its title and actually predict the future.
When I was eight years old, I was really looking forward to having all my meals in pill form, owning a robot housemaid and getting to work by walking over the surface of the River Thames in a giant inflatable hamster ball. According to Tomorrow’s World, all of these things would be a reality by 1999. It was always 1999 too, wasn’t it? Or 1975, depending on the vintage of the episode in question. Well, it’s 2013 now and I’m still waiting. Oh, and it would be nice if my personal hovercraft materialized sometime soon too.
Educated and knowledgeable people who study trends and technology are notoriously bad at predicting the future. In 1943, Thomas J Watson, Chairman of IBM said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Well, actually there is no evidence that he did say this at all, but it is very telling that everyone believed he did. And even if he did and managed to dispose of all the proof, to be fair the average computer in 1943 would have been the size of an Amish barn.
There is a group of people who predict the future with frightening accuracy and frequency though. People who just make stuff up off the top of their heads with no thought whatsoever as to the possible future veracity of their statements. That is correct: writers.
Perhaps the most famous literary prediction is that of the sinking of The Titanic. In his 1898 novella “Futility or The Wreck of the Titan”, Morgan Robertson wrote about a man travelling on the biggest ship in the world across the Atlantic. The ship is called The Titan and is considered unsinkable, has too few lifeboats and comes to grief by hitting an iceberg halfway through its voyage. Spookily accurate, though the second part of the story is about the hero fighting polar bears, overcoming alcoholism and regaining his lost love.
In his 1948 classic “1984” – the title was just the year he wrote it with the last two digits swapped around- George Orwell predicted Big Brother. Not the TV programme you understand. God no. Even Orwells’ darkly fertile imagination couldn’t have forseen something that dismal and depressing. But he did successfully envision the world where we are spied on, day in day out, by CCTV. And oh yeah, Google Chrome anyone?
One of my literary heros, Douglas Adams, predicted tensions in the Middle East getting to such a fevered pitch that America performed what its fictional President called “a Damascactomy”. Literally “the taking out of Damascus”. That hasn’t happened yet, but it looks like it might do very soon.
You don’t have to be a creative giant to make accurate predictions though. I opened my morning paper a few days ago to find that an idea I’d thought of ten years ago as a comic and farcical aside had, in fact, become a reality. I was aghast to see that Drive In Brothels were now a real thing, in Switzerland of all places. Zurich to be precise. Admittedly my idea was more of an “exploit the rapid turn around time” idea than the “let’s provide a safer place for the Working Girls” thing that the Swiss came up with. Nonetheless, the practical upshot was the same. Drive In Brothels.
Another thing I predicted was On Line Pawn Shops. You know, send your gold of through the post in exchange for cash. My how I chuckled at the sheer silliness of the idea. Quite pleased with myself, I was. “No one” I thought “would be desperate enough or dumb enough to post off their family heirlooms to a complete stranger in the hope that they might get money for them.” I was wrong. Come the Credit Crunch, up popped all of those “Cash for Gold” schemes that are still going to this day. My missus even has the occasional light hearted pot shot at me about the phenomenon.
“Stop writing about such horrible things will you,” she’ll say. “They keep on bloody well coming true!”
All of this is not terribly surprising though. Not really. It’s a crazy old world out there. Write about enough things over a long enough period of time and some of them are bound to happen. Every writer has a little folder of ideas that they thought of first but have since become successful movies/TV series’/books. I’ve lost count of mine, but there’s no point in counting them anyway.
So you thought of them first? So fucking what? You didn’t do anything about them. The people who beat you to the punch beat you fair and square. End of story. And who’s to know that the idea wasn’t languishing in some other writer’s bottom drawer for 20 years before it popped into your head? I may have thought of the Online Pawn Shop, but I don’t know they didn’t already exist on the internet beforehand because whenever I typed the word “Pawn” into a search engine, I always spelled it with an “O-R” in the middle, not an “A-W”.
In summary, if you have a good idea, do something about it. Just be careful what you write though. There will be some of it you definitely don’t want to come true.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2013