Book Review: Profiles Of The Future

Profiles Of The FutureProfiles Of The Future by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An easy read, but a little dull. It avoided the usual problem of extrapolating and prophesying – being quickly proved wrong – by mainly discussing ideas and concepts Clarke located so far into the future they have still to come to pass. The book was written in the 60s, updated in the 70s, and last printed in the early 80s – so it is of course already old hat, and Clarke knew little about the future development of microprocessors, genetic engineering, and so on. Nonetheless, one of the entertainments of reading old books prognosticating about the future is seeing where, and how soon, projections diverge from reality. By being very vague and long-sighted, both the amusement of bad prophecy and, as somebody with an interest in futurology, the humbling realisation that nearly all prediction (especially about the future) is doomed to failure was denied to me. There is at least, at the back of the book, a table in which Clarke actually does attempt to pin down, with dates, when we would colonize planets, or when there would be a World Brain, or when we would control weather, and so on. At last, I could again be reminded that even those lauded as technological prophets are doomed to prophetic failure.

The main reason for this failure is because, as usual, everything happens too soon. Extrapolations from current technology tend toward exponentiality. For example, it is easy to look at advances in genetics in 1970s and posit replicants in 2019 (Blade Runner). Similarly, for Clarke, the space race of the 1960s is a harbinger of planetary colonization in the 2020s, and space-mining in the 2030s.

There are occasional hits; the “World Library” by 2010 sounds a lot like Project Gutenberg, or Google, or Wikipedia. However, the mode of delivery is completely different, relying on satellite-based communications rather than the internet. Network-based computing is absent, as are pocket-sized computers. A form of GPS is foreseen, however.

Still, this is an easy enough read. It also contains one of the best explanations I’ve read about how difficult interstellar travel would be in terms of time and communication (even at near light speeds); and how it is likely that, as humans spread among the stars, each area of colonisation would be so remote from Earth it would soon develop independently, and perhaps over time, lose connection with the ancestral planet.

If you do have an interest in futurology and scientific prophecy, if you find this lying around a second-hand bookshop, it’s worth picking up.

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