Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Tantalising glimpse of tomorrow's world from half a century ago

Paul Hopkins: I found the piece in question and rereading it makes for intriguing reading
Paul Hopkins: I found the piece in question and rereading it makes for intriguing reading

On one of those listless non-days between Christmas and the New Year, contemplating my excessiveness in all manner and means festive and vowing to make amends in 2014, I found myself watching back-to-back episodes of Star Trek and realising, though nothing new, how predictive Gene Roddenberry's sci-fi cult-classic was way back then when it comes to the gadgets we now take for granted. The props of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, Scotty and all, were almost picture-perfect prototypes of today's iPThis, iPThat and iPtheOthers.

American screenwriter Roddenberry drafted his sci-fi series as early as 1964 and in the last 50 years, through the long-running TV series and the movies it spawned, Star Trek has dealt with issues of war and peace, authoritarianism, imperialism, class warfare, economics, racism, religion, human rights, sexism, feminism, and, not least, technology. To boldly go where no man had gone before.

Roddenberry said then: "By creating a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles.''

I remembered as the Enterprise and its motley crew faded from my screen I had, in a book somewhere, a piece by the biochemist and science writer Isaac Asimov addressing the World Trade Fair back in 1964 and looking 50 years ahead to today.

I found the piece in question and rereading it makes for intriguing reading.

Although he is off course with land vehicles travelling off-ground on compressed air and with underground housing, and way off beam with colonisation of the Moon, some of Asimov's predictions are uncanny. "One thought that occurs to me," he wrote, "is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colours that will change at the touch of a push button."

There's more: "Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare 'automeals', heating water and converting it to coffee; toasting bread; frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, and so on. Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semi-prepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing."

But: "I suspect, though, even in 2014 it will still be advisable to have a small corner in the kitchen where the more individual meals can be prepared by hand, especially when company is coming."

Robots will be big news this year, according to New Scientist magazine and, of them, Asimov said: "Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The IBM exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? It will be such computers, much miniaturised..."

His vision, half a century ago, of smartphones and tablets is eerily accurate, for he writes: "Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you phone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica."

Taking Gene Roddenberry's view of a new world order and Asimov's predictions for technology, it's a no-brainer to see which visionary comes out on top 50 years on. Of course the Star Trek creator is dealing with the ways of all flesh and the human condition – economics, racism, religion, human rights, and so forth – but I don't think a new world order is upon us yet. Though given capitalism is still on its knees and that people are suddenly copping on to the fact that the banks, in being bailed out by effectively you and I, have not, as was envisaged, passed it back on down to the little guy, one lives in hope.

This year's World Trade Fair on May 10 has as its theme Fair Trade People – to celebrate the people behind Fair Trade, ie a fair price for a fair day's produce.

I pondered this as I put Asimov's collection back in its box and went to make a fresh pot of coffee. I must make a determined effort, I mentally noted, to buy only fair trade coffee from now on.

If we want a new order we have to start somewhere, I said to no one in particular as I switched the telly back on to once more boldly go where no man has gone before...

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