Journey to the End of the Night (H.G. Wells edition)



A project that I have long wanted very much to do is to write a history of the Future, especially, a history of the Future as seen in popular culture. Certainly a society’s view of its future tells what it values, and what it fears. If the positive outweigh the negatives, then we have futures such as is seen in Star Trek. When the negatives outweigh the positives, we have distopias, such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, George Orwell’s 1984, the Mad Max movies, Brave New World, or works such as Philip Dick’s Blade Runner or The Lathe of Heaven. In each of these distopian visions though, society fails in different ways.


The failure modes are each different and therefore informative. Sometimes these distopias actually do seem to predict the future, or at least a little piece of it. It is telling that it is very easy to think of many distopian futures, but rather difficult to think of utopian ones. It is clear that we are more interested in our possible failures.

Certainly, there would be much to say about the 1936 movie Things to Come (available for free download-it’s in the public domain). This 1936 film, based on a 1933 book, was nearly prescient in its depiction of Everytown (a typical city, which seems much like London) being the subject of a massive aerial attack at the beginning of a long world war. After that initial premise, though its predictive forces seem to falter.


For example, the industry of the future seems to be a linear extrapolation of trends in the 1930’s. The airplanes of the 1970’s are huge propeller driven monstrosities, with about 10 engines on each wing. There is no thought that perhaps something different would come along. The development of industry seems to proceed with ever large steam driven locomotives of some kind powering a new industrial revolution, that looks much like the first, only its less sooty and much cleaner. What we have here is an extrapolation of the then-current trends, with out any changes or non-linear developments in technology.

And those inflection points are exactly the kinds of things that are very difficult to see, and are often the result of interaction of different fields of knowledge in unexpected ways. For example, the enormous increase in destructive capacity in state controlled armaments, i.e., the nuclear bomb, did not bring lasting warfare without end, but lasting peace, or least restraint from all-out war, between enemies.

Similarly, I believe we are prone today to make linear extrapolations from our past experiences, without being aware of those inflection points and unexpected interactions between different fields.

For example, no one really predicted the rise of free/open source software collaboration that would come about by the networked PC. That happened, and will transform and massively reduce the monetization of software licensing, and will have consequent effects on the market capitalization of those firms which have software licensing as a substantial part of their business plan. So there are unforeseen economic impacts.


But we also should not abandon the perspective that history has given us. For example, historically, as one would observe in Things to Come, it is developments in the technology of warfare that profoundly alter urbanization patterns. Somehow, society has suddenly acquired the belief that our urbanization patterns are no longer subject to the same restraints they have been throughout all history. That’s called arrogance.

So, a couple of general observations:

1. The future as depicted in Things to Come is, in some ways, a linear extrapolation of trends then current. We can see this with the benefit of having lived 70 years into the future, and that very non-linear march of technology is apparent to us. Steam engines did not get bigger, but better things replaced them. Whole new areas of progress that were not even conceived of in the 1930’s now exist, for example biotechnology. (But see Blade Runner for that….)

2. Therefore, we have reason to believe that our own predictions are similarly flawed, and that future progress will be non-linear in unexpected ways. Many of these inflection points have been created by the interaction of different systems in unforeseen ways. For example, computers and organic chemistry lead to genomics. Another way that inflection points occur is that differences of magnitude become so great that they become differences of nature, for example in the case of nuclear bombs.

So this framework for evaluating past attempts to describe the future, and categorizing the failures of those attempts, could in turn be used to develop a typology of failures of predictive efforts.

A very Rough Draft of a typology of failures of predictive frameworks:

1. Contextual oversights: Failure to see a trend in an overall historical context. Usually the result of only seeing the present trends, without taking into account overall historical realities. There is a tendency to not realize that a set of contemporary conditions is in fact a special exception to a general rule, and therefore the general rule is overlooked. Example: discounting of effects of military technology on urbanization.

2. Complex interactions not understood. Two or more seemingly unrelated trends or process combine to create a new, unforeseen entity. Example: Organic chemistry + Genetics = Genomics. Then, Genomics + Computer advances = Bio-informatics. Hand-To-Hand combat + Airplanes = Short-lived Air Force

3. Scales changes lead to change of nature. Sometimes, something just getting much bigger, smaller or faster changes its nature. Example: Paul Virillio’s Dromology, Atomic Bomb.

That’s a start, with each type to be expanded upon, and more types to be added…

Related Posts:

About the Thirties:

Journey to the End of the Night (Hugh Ferriss Edition), Journey to the End of the Night (Lynd Ward Edition)

Journey to the End of the Night (H.G. Wells edition)

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