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(Not) Knowing the Future

September 1, 2004


by Richard M. Dolan



There are no shortage of predictions, both utopian and dire, of the future of mankind and our beautiful Earth. We need to continue thinking about our future, but would do well to remind ourselves that reality is usually far more radical than our wildest dreams.


History has always been my single greatest interest – history of all types and civilizations, from earliest times right up till today. My personal library of books in history and philosophy is pretty good, and I spend many late night hours going through my old books.


But I’m alsointerested in the future. Now, I know as well as anyone that a knowledge of history does not necessarily accord you special insights into the future, but that doesn’t usually stop one from trying. It’s not that the future is impossible to predict – at least to a limited extent – but that we’re just as often wrong as we’re right.


After all, if you were a subject of Rome in 400 A.D., you’d be inclined to think that life would more or less go on for future generations much as it had for yourself and your ancestors. And in some ways, it would for a time. But could you predict that, in just a few years, Roman rule would collapse, and that warriors from the North would overrun the Empire? That Rome, The Eternal City, would become just another chapter of history?


The pace of modern life magnifies these problems tremendously. Try as we might to predict our future, we inevitably come up short. During the 19th century, an age with an unalloyed belief in Human Progress, many writers tried their hand at envisioning the future. Edgar Allen Poe and H. G. Wells, certainly two of the more creative men of that age, both gave it a try.


Poe wrote several futuristic-type fantasies, my favorite being “Mellonta Tauta.” This takes place in the year 2848 – one thousand years ahead of Poe’s own time. It’s a series of letters written on board the latest in transportation technology of that age, a vessel called “Skylark.”


“Skylark” is a balloon. Admittedly, a rather fast balloon, but a balloon all the same. This, from the imagination of Poe. By the way, I highly recommend the piece, notable as much for its humorous commentary on 19th century life as anything else.

Edgar Allen Poe (1810-1849) saw the future of transportation as balloons. Very fast balloons. 

Wells had a stronger foundation in history and science than did Poe. In various works, he predicted the use of tanks, aerial bombing, and even nuclear war. He is best known for The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, both of which deal rather creatively with futuristic-styled scenarios.


The Time Machine, of course, is about a man who invents a machine that takes him to different points along humanity’s future, until finally returning him to his Victorian home and time. We go nearly a million years ahead, where we discover that mankind has divided into two species, the fair and childlike Eloi, and the hairy, cannibalistic Morlocks. The book is brilliant, and Wells’ characterization of Time as the Fourth Dimension (in 1895!) is most impressive.


Still, you don’t get much sense of future technology in this story. The Eloi have none to speak of, and the Morlocks are afraid of a lighted match.


War of the Worlds gives you a bit more. A race of beings from Mars fly in several rockets to conquer the Earth. Wells presciently described gas warfare, laser-like weapons, and industrial robots, all of which were far removed from the world of 1898, when he wrote this.


And yet, the Martian “ships” did not fly – a simple enough concept today. Instead, the craft employed long mechanical legs to walk about on the Earth’s surface. No flying saucers here.


Poe and Wells were both brilliant writers, and very forward-looking ones at that. But despite their obvious intelligence and boldness of thought, humanity’s future easily outstripped their imaginations.


Remember that the next time you read some pundit’s prediction of “life in 2050.”

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