The Future of Today, According to Robert Heinlein

Back in the February, 1952 issue of Galaxy, Robert Heinlein set down some predictions for the ensuing 48 years. He revisited them in a 1966 collection, but died before he could see them come true. (Or, fail, in some cases.) Now, sixty years after he wrote them… let’s see how accurate they are. At predicting the world of 2012, much less the world of 2000.

Long-ass post going over list of 19 predictions after the bump.

So let’s have a few free-swinging predictions about the future. Some will be wrong – but cautious predictions are sure to be wrong.

1. Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door — C.O.D. It’s yours when you pay for it.

To be fair, we have done a bit with space travel, but interplanetary travel is still a problem we’re working on—getting devices with enough fuel to get people across space, while storing their food and equipment, plus finding people who wouldn’t mind spending the rest of their lives on a spacecraft of some sort. While we could do it, we don’t have the technology to do it right, and since the Moon Landing we’ve lost interest in space. Wrong.

2. Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure.

Heinlein wrote his predictions around the time we cured polio, a major crippling disease of earlier years; similarly, this follows the women’s suffrage movement (just thirty years earlier!) and moving women in the workplace during the war years. Some very canny observations led to correct assumptions; our control of disease—polio, malaria, yellow fever, quite a few others—increased, and our social structure underwent dramatic changes because of the Women’s Lib movement, leading to two-income households and the economic upswings in the ’80s and ’90s. Correct.

Well, more or less. We’ve seen a rise in sexually transmitted diseases, still haven’t cured cancer (or the common cold), and neither feminism nor free love reached the degree of “sexual freedom” Heinlein was promoting. But as written, it’s right.

3. The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to repel an attack from outer space.

This is a crucial military fact… but only if we are ever attacked from outer space. Since we weren’t, it’s kind of like saying the most important military fact is that we have no methods in place to resist a mole-man uprising. Or the crucial fact that I’m not prepared for a hurricane or tsunami here in Detroit. Correct, from a technical standpoint, but also very, very Wrong.

4. It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a “preventive war.” We will fight when attacked, either directly or in a territory we have guaranteed to defend.

Ah, hahahaha. Ha. Excuse me.

Let’s not forget that up through World War II, the Monroe Doctrine was still the primary American foreign policy: the United States wouldn’t interfere in European interests provided they stayed the hell away from US ones. Hence, a strong undercurrent of American isolationism that stalled entry into two World Wars, and a mentality that the United States spent the first half of the Twentieth Century as a reactive, non-interfering participant. But even then, the Monroe Doctrine’s isolationist parts were related to European conflicts, not American interests. The US had undertaken a dozen interventions and policing actions, occupying Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicouraga, putting down a revolt in the occupied Philippines, and intervened in both the Boxer Rebellion and the Mexican Civil War (amongst others).

There’s this mystique that the Monroe Doctrine created an isolationist US, but that just isn’t the case: it was “isolated” from the “real” parts of the world, e.g., the movers and shakers in Europe. There’s a difference between “isolationist” and “not wanting to get bogged down in some scheme of Bismark or Napoleon III.” And there’s also a large subset of conservatives and libertarians—Heinlein was the latter—who viewed isolationism as the ideal foreign policy platform.

This also shows that Heinlein hadn’t notice a major paradigm shift: post-War America had landed superpower status at the same time that European powers, broke and weakened from the World Wars, left a huge void in the balance of power. The United States has spent more time in preventative wars (remember Vietnam and the “domino effect,” on top of the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, and the numerous Cold War proxy wars) than it has in traditional declared ones. So: Wrong.

5. In fifteen years the housing shortage will be solved by a “breakthrough” into new technologies which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.

Another canny observation turned into correct assumption: the ’30s and ’40s had a huge housing shortage, but the post-war boom—along with newer housing materials, and development of pre-fabricated buildings—means that we now have a housing surplus. While the “new technologies” weren’t the kind of domes or arcologies that SF fans hoped for, it’s close enough to be Correct.

6. We’ll all be getting a little hungry by and by.

Nope. Industrialization, globalization, and losing personal farms to farming corporations meant that the horrors of the dust bowl and the Depression-era starvation evaporated. Instead of being too hungry, we’re too fat. Wrong.

7. The cult of the phony in art will disappear. So-called “modern art” will be discussed only by psychiatrists.

Modern art was supplanted by postmodern art, which was even moreso than modernism, and probably wouldn’t have changed Heinlein’s art-snob opinion. Both are still displayed in art galleries and college campuses the world over. Wrong.

8. Freud will be classed as a pre-scientific, intuitive pioneer and psychoanalysis will be replaced by a growing, changing “operational psychology” based on measurement and prediction.

Another that’s about right; Freud is viewed with less vitriolic derision these days, seen more as a pioneer and ground-breaker. But I don’t think Heinlein would be thrilled with how psychology has developed, since it’s not close to his logical, scientific definition. I’ll give it a Correct.

9. Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered; the revolutionary new problem in medical research will be to accomplish “regeneration,” i.e., to enable a man to grow a new leg, rather than fit him with an artificial limb.

A broad swing and one or two minor hits. We haven’t cured cancer, though we have methods to subdue it, along with drugs to ease things like colds and flus. Out of the first half, tooth decay has seen the biggest strides; it’s not gone completely, but modern dentistry is a high-tech art. As for part two… we do have limited “regeneration” techniques of growing/cloning body parts, but thanks to the stigma around stem cell research, they have limited applications. Our artificial limbs can be very high tech, but most of those are incredibly expensive. We have the ironic situation where our fake hearts are better than our fake arms… though those fake arms are better than the hook-hands of the ’50s.

I could go either way with this, since it’s partly Correct, but slightly Wrong in its assumptions.

10. By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system, and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be a-building.

We’ve done a lot more exploring than we realize; we’ve sent probes and landers to Venus and Mars, orbited Mercury, sent out the Voyager spacecraft and the Hubble to get information about the outer planets, sent probes to several moons and other planets, and the Voyagers are heading towards nearby stars (if they count as ships). But a true ship to head toward our nearby stars? Non-existent. I’ll give him a Correct for the first half.

11. Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision.

I’m not quite sure how he predicted this, since there’s not much pointing in this direction back in the ’40s, because it’s spot-on. The only way it could be more accurate is if he’d said our handbag-size phones would also be high-tech computers and midrange cameras. Answering machines and voicemail cover the last part. Vision? Let me introduce you to my 2006-era Skype setup with webcam. Correct.

12. Intelligent life will be found on Mars.

Alas. We’re still not sure how much water is on Mars, and the best lifeforms have been bits that might be fossilized indicators of microbes and worms, unless they’re just holes. And neither of those are intelligent. Wrong.

13. A thousand miles an hour at a cent a mile will be commonplace; short hauls will be made in evacuated subways at extreme speed.

The speed is a bit off, probably because he’s thinking of rockets, and he assumes a limitless supply of cheap petroleum—in other words, American in the 1950s. Wrong.

14. A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity.

Correct now as it was in the 1950s: it’s an obvious statement, not a prediction. Obvious statement is obvious. Correct.

15. We will not achieve a “World State” in the predictable future. Nevertheless, Communism will vanish from this planet.

We have parts of a “world state”—United Nations, European Union, NAFTA, globalization in general—but we still haven’t attained the “one-planet state actor” and instead have hundreds of individual sovereign nation-states. On the other hand, Communism has vanished from Earth as Heinlein knew it—China and Vietnam are moving away form Maoism to become Capitalism-fused authoritarian states with command economies, while North Korea and Cuba have more or less abandoned the variants of Communism for one-man totalitarian rule. I’ll give it a 50/50 Wrong/Correct.

16. Increasing mobility will disenfranchise a majority of the population. About 1990 a constitutional amendment will do away with state lines while retaining the semblance.

Heinlein’s correct in the general theme, but wrong in the specifics: the Federal Government has come to dominate much of what, in the 1950s, were State-controlled issues. But while states have been de-emphasized—something that’s been going on since the Civil War—to the point where they no longer act as states in the political science sense, becoming more of a collective under the US Federal Government than sovereign entities bonded together, they still have their boundaries and jurisdictions. I’m not sure about disenfranchising, but increased mobility—the vast highway network undertaken by the Eisenhower administration—is a very real part of American life, and helped make state boundaries malleable to promote tourism and travel. I’ll give it a 50/50 Wrong/Correct.

17. All aircraft will be controlled by a giant radar net run on a continent-wide basis by a multiple electronic “brain.”

Spot-on. Radar was a new innovation, and Heinlein picked up on some of its future uses: applying the giant radar net run by the Strategic Air Command and the military and applying it to civilian applications. Correct.

18. Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear.

Add in chicken to the beginning of the sentence and it’ll be more accurate. Beef prices have gone up over the decades, and will continue to do so as long as feed-cows are fed corn—since corn is used for everything else under the sun, from sweetener (high-fructose say what) to fuel (ethanol E-85), and is growing more expensive. Lamb hasn’t vanished, but it’s a luxury item. I’ll give it a Correct.

19. Mankind will not destroy itself, nor will “Civilization” be destroyed.

Well, since we’re here reading this, correct. But I’m also willing to predict that we’ll still be around in 2050—outside of action movies and science fiction, the number of world leaders who truly want the world to end are marginal. And thanks to our globalized world and interconnected economic system, it’s in the interest of other sovereign entities to keep the failing one afloat, in order to keep their own economies from intermediate collapse. Correct.

Here are things we won’t get soon, if ever:

— Travel through time
— Travel faster than the speed of light
— “Radio” transmission of matter.
— Manlike robots with manlike reactions
— Laboratory creation of life
— Real understanding of what “thought” is and how it is related to matter.
— Scientific proof of personal survival after death.
— Nor a permanent end to war.

In order: Correct, Correct, Correct above the molecular level (we can shoot particles and neutrinos around), Correct for another 20-50 years, Wrong (starting with Dolly the sheep back in 1996), Correct, Correct, Correct. Pretty obvious gimme, every one… though I’d kill for them to become reality. The exceptions are transmitting below the quantum scale and creating laboratory life.

The Bottom Line

Not counting the bottom “things we won’t get” list, the hierarchy of prophecy goes as follows: seven wrong, nine correct (of which three are freaking obvious, alien invasion, controlling gravity, and no end of civilization), and three that were hit-and-miss enough to cover both sides of the spectrum. That’s better than 50/50, hence why so many Heinlein fans point out how accurate a futurist he was. That overlooks that most of what he predicted didn’t happen like he thought it would, and that two of them (aliens, gravity) were “predictions” (statements) any layman could make. Most of them are within our realm of possibility, but we just don’t want them enough to develop them (interstellar travel), or have butted up against socio-religious issues (contraceptives and “regenerative” limbs, for example), so while they’re true—they just haven’t come true.

To me, this reflects more on observation than prediction; in many ways, science fiction is better at reflecting its observers and its era than it is at predicting the future. Heinlein’s strengths here were his ability to track areas of progress and assume they’d continue to grow. The first half of the 20th Century saw mankind move from horse-drawn transportation and steam-powered trains/boats to automobiles, airplanes, then jet aircraft and rockets; the assumption was that these areas would continue to see improvement, rather than hitting their peak in the late 1960s (with the Space Race, the Concorde, and the SR-71 Blackbird). Heinlein’s engineering background gave him a leg-up on the technical angle, hence many accurate predictions on that side, but left him blind to the growth areas of computing, bio-engineering, and our modern, high-tech medical practices—and their miniaturization nobody saw coming.


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