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party like it's 1999

2.7.99

So I was going through some old magazines as part of my ongoing purge project. Don't cry for me, Argentina, it had to be done. Anyway, while bundling some unwanted back issues of Omni magazine ("The Science Magazine Rob Hasn't Looked At Since 1992, If Then"), I ran across the January 1989 issue. Inside: a bunch of sci-fi writers speculate on...the World of 1999!

I pulled it out of the bundle, visions of this lead story dancing in my head. This should be good for shits and giggles: Ten-year-old predictions of what this year would be like. I mean, how good was Omni ever, anyway? It ran ads for cigarettes and L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology books. Some science magazine. It was also the bid-for-respectability side project of Bob (Penthouse) Guccione, and it was designed like Penthouse, with airbrushed photos of spacecrafts replacing airbrushed photos of women.

Anyway, here's what the futurists of the past had to say about the present. And I was surprised: Some of the predictions actually aren't all that far stupid.

Listen to Pat Cardigan: "Another possible area of development is the pocket-size computer that uses CDs. The CD will contain an awful lot of information, much more than a floppy disk can now....Eventually we will be able to carry around all the information contained in a public library. Of course, by 1999 we might be able to carry only one room of the library -- we'll need five CDs to hold the whole library." This was 1989, before anyone knew from CD-ROMs -- and of course, with laptop computers hooked up to the web, you now don't even need CDs to carry around the whole library.

Joyce Thompson laid down "some quick and dirty prognostications: By the year 2000, the world's currency will be backed not by the traditional precious metals but by gallium arsenide or whatever is its successor as the medium of choice for computer chip architecture. The Electoral College will be rightfully replaced by the media college, which will elect the president and vice president. And a video game decathlon will become an officially sanctioned Olympic event." Thompson was way into games: she also predicted that quest-themed video games would replace religion, and game designers would become "our new priests."

Dan Simmons didn't think computers would play a big role in education; of course, that was before the Internet changed everything. Take it from me, the web is the new research tool. Librarians, be afraid. Be very afraid. David Brin mused that hand-held monitoring devices would be available to the elderly so that they could "record everything in real time and send it home," thus taking a bite out of crime. Jack Williamson hedged his bets: "If we develop superconductors," blah blah blah, then cool stuff might happen -- so far, though, no cars with superconducting magnets or levitating trains.

Greg Bear told us in 1989 that we will "probably have a complete understanding of the human genome." All I have to say to this is: duhhhh. I have not a clue what he's talking about. I feel all dumb now; maybe I should've read some of those Omnis. Gregory Benford talked up the importance of treating Mother Earth better. Lewis Shiner had some interesting notions about "bartering, underground economies, fake IDs, serious tax evasion" in 1999 -- could be pretty prophetic if Y2K hits us as hard as some say it will. Shiner also hit dead-bang with this: "People will probably be living pretty much sequestered in their own homes and be able to do so through home shopping clubs." Replace those last three words with "Amazon.com" or your web retail presence of choice.

Robin Cook (aka "the other Michael Crichton") prophesied that "genetic manipulation is going to make organ transplants seem terribly old-fashioned." Sounds solid. He also waxes Cronenbergesque: "We're going to see a change in our perception of viruses....They may be much more helpful than we realize." He meant in terms of research, obviously; I don't see anyone in 1999 wearing T-shirts reading "Have you hugged your virus today?"

I saved the two best for last. They deserve to be reprinted in their entirety.

Isaac Asimov saw "at least one great change that is now in the process of developing. Increasing computerization and robotization are going to decentralize the world. The fields will allow everybody to absorb and retain information, while passing on the three classifications of undesirable labor -- the dull, the dirty, and the dangerous -- to robots and computers. This will give us more time for more creative endeavors. The development of an educational system will also use computerization to encourage creativity and make learning a pleasant experience."

And yep, that does seem to be where we're headed. For better or worse. Not to knock the late great Asimov, but he had an unhealthy romance with robots -- understandable, given all his ROBOT books. I get a chill when he talks about machines doing undesirable jobs and leaving us free to pursue creative endeavors, as if time limitations had anything to do with dearth of creativity. The problem is probably more like the computerized decentralization Asimov was so fond of. Also, did Isaac see ROGER & ME the year he made that statement? I keep thinking of that song "Me and My Buddy," where GM workers sing praises to the machines replacing them on the assembly line -- and thus putting them out of work. The Internet has proven much of his theory accurate, and robotics get more sophisticated every day -- rent FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL.

Finally, Ray Bradbury with a message for us movie fans. "In the next 12 years, all our concepts of filmmaking are going to be torn apart and put back together as a result of the videocassette revolution. The traditional movie theater is going to be destroyed and rebuilt. We will stay home with our own video sets, our own popcorn, our own hot dogs, and our own friends. As a result of the video camera, the growth of young directors and filmmakers will be prodigious. We'll have a complete turnover in the cinematic industry between now and the end of the century. Studio bosses' clutches on worthwhile projects will be loosened because of competition from home sets."

When the man is right, he's right. Bradbury's prediction that the movie theater will be rebuilt falls right in line with today's futurists like George Lucas and James Cameron, who foresee digitally transmitted movies and the end of physical reels of film. Ray's also spot-on about our decreasing attendance of movies in favor of waiting for video -- especially now that many people have DVD players and better sound and image systems than can be found in Joe Sixplex. As for the line about camcorders aiding the growth of young directors, Robert Rodriguez, for one, would heartily agree -- that's how he taught himself to shoot and edit movies. The prescience of Bradbury's optimism about studio bosses, however, remains to be seen.


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