Isaac Asimov, the grandmaster of science fiction who coined the term “robotics,” was also a prolific columnist. His essays, always succinct and witty, appeared in many places: airline magazines, Newsweek, and even obscure trade publications such as SciQuest, the magazine of the American Chemical Society.
In one of these short articles, Asimov predicted Google, Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube. The essay is called ‘Future Fantastic’ and was published in 1989 in a periodical called Special Reports Magazine. At the time, only hardcore hobbyists used modems and trawled BBS servers. Tim Berners-Lee had not yet invented the World Wide Web, and Mark Zuckerberg was not even in first grade. No one today remembers Special Reports Magazine. But Asimov’s essay, which was later reproduced in his Robot Visions anthology, survives as a tour de force of technological extrapolation.
‘Future Fantastic’ starts as an examination of the ‘fourth revolution’ in communication: the computer. After speech, writing and the printing press, the networked computer “will enable most human beings to be more creative than they’ve ever been before.” According to Asimov, the first major positive effect of computer communication would be to transform education:
The library is a clumsy tool. One must go there, borrowing is limited to a few volumes, and books must be returned in a short time. Clearly the solution is to move libraries into the home. Just as record players brought home the concert hall and television brought home the movie theater, the computer can bring home the public library. Tomorrow’s technochildren will have a ready means of sating their curiosity.
Asimov wrote that “technochildren” would readily associate curiosity and learning with pleasure, and would be motivated to follow their own paths to knowledge. Thanks to networked computers, they would grow up used to exercising their brain muscles. Any of today’s parents will recognize that moment of open-ended curiosity: once, after watching an episode of Cosmos on our family’s iPad, my six year-old boy asked me what was beyond the limits of the universe. I whipped out my iPhone and, with the help of Google and Wikipedia, we embarked on an exploration of space-time, wormholes and multiverses.
Asimov’s second insight dealt with the nature of work. With automation, he wrote, most of the “mindless jobs” would be left to machines:
Any job that is so simple and repetitive that a robot can do it as well as, if not better than, a person is beneath the dignity of the human brain. As technochildren turn into adults and move into the work world, they will have time to exercise more creativity, to work in the fields of drama, science, literature, government, and entertainment. And they will be ready for this kind of work as a result of the computerized revolution in education.
Just as Keynes did, in his famous Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, Asimov firmly believed that automation would free humans from physical labor and would lead to a “world of leisure.” He saw human capital accumulating at a much faster rate as a result:
There will be no sensation of racing the clock, no compulsion to enter into a wild spree against the slavery of hateful work. People will sample a variety of interests without haste, become skillful or knowledgeable in a number of areas, and cultivate different talents at various times.
Asimov foresaw a society made up of “Renaissance People” who “will also want to share their talents.” And then he revealed his most insightful extrapolation: social networks and YouTube. He observed:
So many of us have a bit of a ham in us. We sing in the shower, take part in amateur theatrical productions, or love to swing along in parades. It is my guess that the 21st century may see a society in which one-third of the population will be engaged in entertaining the other two-thirds.
More than a billion people watch YouTube every month, and more than 100 hours of video are uploaded every minute. In the same vein, people upload and share more than 350 million photos each day on Facebook. Asimov’s prediction isn’t quite here yet, but it’s getting closer every day.
Manu Saadia is the author of Trekonomics, a forthcoming book about the economics of Star Trek.
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