(The following editorial first appeared in the April 1989 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Thirty-five others, on a wide range of topics, are collected in the 2002 Tor book Which Way to the Future? A different one (usually one not available in the book) will be posted here a few times a year. And, of course, brand-new ones appear in each issue of Analog.)
One of the dubious pleasures of an Analog editor's life is the occasional irate letter from a reader complaining that we push an "Analog line" that happens to disagree with some aspect of that reader's philosophy. The accusation is particularly ironic since (a) they sometimes come from readers whose views are sharply divergent, and (b) Analog itself not infrequently publishes views that directly contradict each othersometimes within the same issue!
In this month's "Reference Library," for instance, Tom Easton begins, "Science fiction readers all know that the world is going to hell in a handbasket...." In last month's "Alternate View" (which reached my desk on the same day), G. Harry Stine concluded, "I have bad news for the environmental pessimists: we're going to live after all." You can't get much more opposite than that!
Which is "the Analog line"? Neither; there ain't no such animal. Which (if either) is the truth? Neither Tom, Harry, nor anyone else of my acquaintance knows. In a strictly literal sense, Harry's quote disproves Tom's: Harry is a science fiction reader, and he does not believe the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Q.E.D.
But that only proves that at least one science fiction reader doesn't believe itwhich is not at all the same thing as proving that it isn't true. If it is true that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, we need to know about it, and do something about it, in time to change course before we get there. (Which, of course and ironically, would make Harry's view ultimately the correct one).
The fact is that both statements about the future are opinions, in the strict sense of "belief about a fact based on incomplete or uncertain knowledge." What really happens in the future will depend on what problems people will face and what actions they will take to deal with them. We know quite a bit about what problems we face and what we are doing now, and extrapolating that data suggests things about what we are likely to be up against and what we are likely to be doing in at least the near future. But extrapolation is always a tricky business, and the real world is under no obligation to cooperate with our guesses about what it's going to do next (beyond following physical laws). Tom Easton and G. Harry Stine are both intelligent men who have looked at a lot of data, but they see the data differently. Their views of the future are informed guesses, but they are guesses nonetheless.
If such statements about the future are no more than informed guesses, are they worth making at all? Probably so. It's frustrating to base actions on incomplete and uncertain knowledge, but usually necessary. Complete, 100% certai information is a very scarce commodity, and often it is necessary to do something in an effort to stave off disaster. Although Harry is right that complicated systems often find their own ways of correcting imbalances, Tom is also right that some problems will get out of hand if nothing is done about them while they're still of manageable size. (Ask somebody involved in fighting forest fires at Yellowstone last summer!) So it's only prudent to try to recognize those problems and do the best thing you can think of to deal with them, based on such knowledge as you have.
Tom laments the fact that business and government think of long-term planning in terms of months or years instead of decades or centuries. Probably most people reading this would agree that it would be refreshing, and improve our chances, if business and government would look decades or centuries down the road in making today's decisions. But could they, in a meaningful way, even if they wanted to?
Imagine yourself living fifty years ago and trying to lay out a long-range master plan for the next century. Already, before 1989 (only halfway through), your plan would have diverged wildly from reality. Among many other things, you would have failed to anticipate the microchip and AIDS. One is a new tool to use in solving problems (with the usual side effect of creating some new problems in the process); the other is a new problem in itself. One is a fundamental and unexpected technological breakthrough (remember, a truly fundamental breakthrough, by definition, cannot be deduced from pre-existing knowledge); the other is a new factor introduced unexpectedly from outside. Both are surprisesthings which could not reasonably have been anticipated at the time the long-range plan was made. Both have already had large effects on how people live, and promise to have still larger ones in the futurewhich would demand sizable modification of the original plan. And they are not unique. Nature and history are full of such surprises.
How do you cope with surprises in long-range planning? To what extent is it worthwhile to try?
There's not a lot you can do except try to anticipate everything you can and be prepared to change the plan when a new factor enters the picture. You can't prescribe in advance a detailed solution to a problem you didn't even know could exist. You can't give detailed instructions for every possible use of a tool you didn't know could be built. But you need to try to anticipate as many contingencies as you canboth problems and what you would do about them, and tools and how you could use them.
There is, of course, one field of thinking which can and does attempt to anticipate both problems and solutions beyond those which can be rigorously extrapolated. It's called science fiction, and it's what this magazine is all about. Some science fiction, of course, confines its speculation to careful extrapolation of things we already know about, and examination of directions our very near future might reasonably take. There are purists who would like to see it do only this, and avoid subjects like time travel or faster-than-light travel which do not emerge naturally from what we already know about science. But confining science fiction so narrowly would defeat one of its greatest potential benefits. Certainly it's important and worthwhile to explore the near-term consequences of what we already knowbut it's also important to remember that we don't know everything yet, and that not only technology but science itself can and does surprise us. If science fiction confined itself only to direct extrapolations of what we already know, it would be almost as unrealistic as if it made no attempt to work within a logically and scientifically consistent framework. It is possible to postulate fundamental innovations in such a way that they do not contradict present knowledge, though they may contradict untested parts of present theory. A science fiction writer who can do so may give us not only a good piece of entertainment, but a chance to think about what we would do if we met a type of problem we have no reason to expectbut may someday meet anyway.
Despite their best efforts, though, I don't doubt that the world will continue to surprise ussometimes with problems we had no reason to expect, sometimes with new ways to solve them. Because of that, both optimists and pessimists would do well to remember that everything they conjecture is subject to change without notice. In the last analysis, either optimism or pessimism is usefula survival traitonly insofar as it stimulates efforts to steer us away from deadly futures and toward brighter ones.