The Speculist: America's Tricentennial

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America's Tricentennial

While going through old SF magazines, I found mention of Atlantic Richfield’s ad campaign requesting vision statements from Americans of what life might be like in the Tricentennial. ARCO received some 60,000 responses and in 1977 published an 80-page booklet summarizing those visions.

The SF reviewer stated that most of the visions listed therein would have seemed old-hat to SF fans in the ‘70s. As in 20 to 30 years out of date. He figured these visions were “borrowed” from old-time SF books and movies. Or, more likely were (at the very least) slow extrapolations of life as lived in Bicentennial America towards Tricentennial America. A linear progression was foreseen for America, and presumably for the world.

Here are some of those visions: We will have early retirement. Education will stress careers, quality of life, liberal arts, and culture. There will be less government at all levels, with more relative power in local governments’ hands (well, we could always hope). There will be more interest in religion and spirituality. There will be universal health care (Obama, call your office). Labor unions will exist. The family as we now know it will exist. Marriage as we now know it will exist. Issues will include environmentalism, attempting to slow down the pace of modern life, restricting individual credit, and an array of even more prosaic concerns.

In short, life would be like 1976 in 2076, only more so.

No hint of the telecommunications revolution that was already well underway in 1976. No hint of the things young men named Gates and Jobs were up to. Nor any discussion about what that then newfangled computer network, the Arpanet, might grow into.

Curiously enough, when discussing the idea of a Technological Singularity on most public discussion boards today, I find most participants wear the same blinders the American people did 1/3 of a century ago. We’ll suffer from pollution, lack of jobs, poor education, traffic jams, health care rationing… The future will look an awful lot like now, only more so.

In the last few decades, we’ve had the advantage of seeing giant firms grow up out of what were then the garage firms of cutting edge computer technologies. We’ve witnessed the Internet explode with billions of web pages of content. We’ve seen a young grad student revive and expand the late ‘50s concept of von Neumann machines into the late ‘80s concept of nanotechnology. And we’ve seen master inventor Kurzweil analyze the history of human technology and detect what we all should have noticed, at least since 1976, that its development is indeed accelerating.

And yet, we (or most of us) have yet to put 2 and 2 together and come up with the accelerating technological answer: At least 16.

With the concept of the Singularity staring at us out of Moore’s Law and numerous other accelerating trends that are telling us emphatically that things really are changing faster and faster, will we do better than our younger selves did during the Bicentennial? I hope we will, but I suspect mostly we won’t.

The Singularity will sweep over us like a tsunami well before the Tricentennial and we will be stunned as the future proves to be far, far more than “2009, only more so.”

Comments

Very interesting Sally.

I'm reminded of Phil's "Amazing Exponentials" speech:

http://www.blog.speculist.com/archives/000128.html

Thanks Stephen. I'll have to check that one out.

I'm now working on an essay in which I describe how historically, modern science and technology have not only been symbiotically related, but converging.

I was 12 years old when I contributed to the ARCO campaign. They actually chose to take one of my ideas, "a computerized teacher" and shoot a television commercial -- which I wrote and starred in with Lee Remick. It was actually quite foward thinking and they built a mockup of it. Despite it's size -- it was about the size of a dresser, also my design, but that was mostly because it had three large screens, a desktop surface and what today would be called a "a gestural interface" with a stylus, touchpad interface. It also understood voice commands, had a video interface that monitored and recorderd the students as well as sensors built into their seats to monitor their vital signs in order to detect anxiety, discomfort, etc. (must have been a big thing for me back then). Despite being a commercial -- which unfortunately I never saw (this was before videotape was common and it was all shot on film) -- I don't think it or any of my other ideas appeared in the booklet which was really disappointing. I remember having an anti-matter solar probe, domed cities with automated recycling, reclamation and "green" power systems and just a bunch of other stuff. I wished I had made a copy of all those submissions. I think the pamphlet played it safe, for the most part. A lot of my ideas were pretty way out (I was a big Star Trek fan and Spock was my hero, until I hit puberty and realized that Kirk had more fun).

If anyone has a copy of the pamphlet or remembers that TriCentennial commercial with Lee Remick and a skinny walking around a school, I'd like to hear about it.

Karim Miteff

Very, very, very cool. Clearly, the Analog writer never saw that commercial. He only had a copy of the pamphlet to go by in his critique of the visions offered therein.

Yours was FAR MORE forward looking. More FFR.

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