Editorial: Roll on the future

Roll on the future

What makes him stand out wasn't perhaps his literary ability, great though his novels are, nor his engineering writing, fine though the work he did for us on 'Science Abstracts' undoubtedly was.

He was a visionary. His work tackled the negative side-effects and even more fundamental issues of technology (think HAL's rebellion in '2001') but he remained an optimist about what the future will look like thanks to scientific, engineering and technological progress.

It gave him an uncanny ability to see the future in an inspiring way. Piers Bizony, who interviewed him several times and wrote a best selling story of the making of Clarke's '2001', remembers in his feature on p22 how Clarke's visions inspired him and many others.

Cynics can sometimes guess developments in the short-term but it takes an optimist to predict the distant future. It's sometimes said that, as people grow older, they tend to become less idealistic and more cynical. But not Clarke. And, I'm pleased to say, that as far as science and technology are concerned, I have in fact moved in the other direction.

I used to have more of Doris Lessing's outlook (see p96) than Clarke's. I would be surprised when a gadget didn't work as it was meant to, but scoff at more wildly futuristic technology. Now I'm surprised when technology does work as it's meant to, but, now that I've seen fantastic technologies change my life, I'm also more inclined to believe the futurologists.

We list a few of Clarke's predictions, and there were many others sprinkled through the pages of his novels. They didn't all come off but some aren't far off and many have been exceeded.

Now when I read the predictions of today's futurologists, like Ian Pearson, I try not to sneer. They might sound little preposterous, but then so did Clarke's.

There's one type of change that futurologists have always underestimated, barely considered or just got plain wrong: social change. In 1999 I looked back at what people thought life would be like in 2000. There were a few old chestnuts like flying cars or videophones that never did come to be, but, on the whole, I was impressed by how much of our technology they had got right or how they at least had been on the right lines - even a hundred years ago.

As far back as 1900 it was predicted that our lives would be transformed by cheap and easy air travel, personal dictaphones and nuclear power - but it would still be men that went to work while women stayed at home to operate the labour-saving devices. Predictions hadn't changed much by the 1970s: just that the men would be at home more because there wouldn't be so much work to do in the future. People were going to be at a loss as to what to do with all their new-found spare time, apparently.

Anyway, I'd better cut it short there - I'm typing this in to my BlackBerry while travelling between meetings with high-tech companies in Besançon - the one-time French watch-making area, now settling into its future as a microtechnology hub - and our HAL 9000 sub-editing system has just bleeped me because it's way past deadline, and the pages are being transmitted to the printer's in 20 minutes.

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