The popular podcast is co-hosted by Steven Novella A skeptic’s guide to the universe along with his brothers Jay and Bob. As children of the 1970s and 1980s, the brothers were obsessed with science fiction and futurism.
“Our young people certainly imagined that this would happen now 2001: A Space Odyssey” Novella says in episode 526 Geek on the Galaxy podcast “There will be permanent space stations in space, there will be infrastructure between the Moon and the Moon, a lunar base. We took all these things for granted.”
The next few decades showed that futurism is more complicated than it seems. Technological change may seem inevitable, but it often boils down to one person making an arbitrary choice. If Henry Ford had decided to build electric cars instead of gas cars, it would have changed the course of our entire civilization. “Everything could have turned out very differently,” says Novello. “If some guy in Pennsylvania hadn’t found crude oil for another 20 years, how completely different would our world be? There is nothing inevitable in our present, and therefore in the future as well.”
In their new book A skeptic’s guide to the future, the brothers attempt to improve on the futurism of yesteryear by identifying 10 “futurism mistakes” that have marred earlier predictions. One of the biggest misconceptions is that the future society will be the same as today’s, only with more gadgets. “You can’t just project a technology forward, you also have to think about it in the context of all the other technologies that are also developing over the same time period,” says Novello. “In this way we won’t be traveling in space in 500 years, our genetically modified cyborg descendants will be traveling in space in 500 years. And you have to factor that into your calculation.”
Despite the complicated history of futurism, Novella believes that it is an important activity that deserves more attention. “If you live your life in that short period of time, without a sense of where you are in history, you can lose sight of what’s important, you can lose the ability to adapt nimbly to changes in technology, to changes in culture, to to make decisions about the future,” he says. “So I think futurism as an academic discipline has a lot of merit, we just have to be realistic.”
Listen to the full interview with Steven Novella in episode 526 Geek on the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Steven Novello on A skeptic’s guide to the future:
We have been looking for this book all our lives. We’re not starting from scratch, and it was fun and easy to write from that perspective. We know things like room temperature superconductors. We didn’t have to do any research to know this had to be a chapter in the book, the potential it had. But we needed to renew ourselves and go a lot deeper. We’ve been doing the podcast for 18 years, so we’ve had a huge background of science news and interviews with people on these topics, but it’s still when you sit down and say, “Okay, I need to write the final piece on the rockets and the what role they will play in the future,” you are still discovering amazing things.
Steven Novello on Space Travel:
If you have a space infrastructure where you regularly travel to different destinations in space, you will be in the optimal vessel for each leg of your journey. You’re going to take something into low Earth orbit, get to the space station, and then from there you’re going to take your space shuttle to the moon, or you’re going to get a shuttle that’s going to meet up with a deep space shuttle that’s going to Mars. And then you’ll board a lander optimized for Mars or the Moon or wherever your destination is. Because they are very different things and making one ship that can do everything is just not pragmatic and the waste would be huge. And so I think we’re going to have a lot of legs to get anywhere, which you don’t see in a lot of science fiction.
Stephen Novello on Futurism:
If you look at past futurists, the big mistakes they make don’t predict game changers. Anyone can predict incremental advances, but what really confuses futurists is that they think something is going to be a breakthrough when it isn’t, or they just don’t notice the real breakthroughs. The main thing is analog-digital transition. No one noticed it. Asimov completely missed the mark. No one saw how digital technology would change our society and the world. Of course, now that it’s happened, it seems obvious. But it was a game changer that no one saw coming. So now we’re trying to predict, “What’s going to happen in the future that’s going to change the game?”
Stephen Novello on Science Fiction:
Science fiction is just one massive thought experiment. It’s actually a thousand thought experiments, but collectively it’s a meta-thought experiment on the topic: What will the future hold? What will the technology be? What will people be like in the future?” Part of my fascination with it is that I’m just imagining something completely different and looking at things differently, changing variables that you didn’t know were variables—you didn’t even know it could be different. We’re all kind of fixed in our vision of life and the universe, and science fiction makes you want to lift your head and take a step back. It forces you to take a broader view, to take a look at civilization and humanity and vast arcs of time and things that are just far beyond our everyday lives.
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