April 11, 2013
A bright rainbow hangs in the sky, descending just over the horizon. The many people of Earth march slowly toward it, leaving behind the crumbling fist of war, oppression and international borders. Nothing less than the future is over that horizon; a future that is defined by a new world order where people are able to attain true happiness and leave behind the bleak conflicts of the early 20th century.
At least that’s how it was imagined by illustrator Fred Siebel and writer Vincent Sheean in the January, 1950 issue of Redbook magazine.
We may not have the one world government envisioned by Vincent Sheean, but we do have a version of the one-superpower world that he predicted would emerge. His vision left open many possible avenues by which this new world order might be achieved — many that left the United States, the Soviet Union or both in ruins. But however that cold conflict came to an end it would bring the dawning of a new age.
Sheean, writing in 1950:
Whatever shape your world may take in the year 2000 A.D., we can all be fairly sure that it will be one world. Whether through war or through peace, the nations fifty years from now will have learned to enmesh their sovereignties into a single supreme authority. They will have learned to do so because, difficult as it may seem now, no other alternative exists. One world or none at all is the choice.
If we examine the hateful and (to my mind) improbable possibility of war—atomic war between the great powers—we see that one or the other side must be destroyed. The A-bomb, the guided missile, bacteria weapons, make limited wars for limited objectives impossible between great powers. These powers are too powerful, and they have weapons, which once used, would lead into a completely unknowable future. If, however, anything survived, it is certain that one power alone (either the United States or the Soviet Union) would impose its version of world order upon the ruins. That single-power world is profoundly undesirable, because civilization will have been sacrificed to attain it. Barring war then, or a great depression, we can see that the next fifty years offer a tremendous prospect— and challenge. It is a fact that by increasing our production by only a tenth above normal expectations, the U.S. can provide enough to bring every American up to minimum living standards.
But Sheean held out hope that there was indeed reason to be optimistic about the year 2000. Tremendous scientific advancement and wondrous new tech like supersonic planes and a system of advanced highways (the Federal Highway Act of 1956 was still six years away) would allow humanity to achieve its full potential:
Vast advances in technology and science should let us insure our people against sickness, unemployment and the hazards of old age; lace the nation with 200-m.p.h., triple-tier highways and fill the skies with more comfortable, faster, perhaps supersonic air transports; build churches, schools, art galleries, lecture halls, libraries for everyone. Certainly power by nuclear fission will accelerate the most productive economic machine in world history. Nations will no longer be driven by hunger to overwork their soil and pillage other natural resources.
Thus, it is conceivable that we will have the time and the energies to attain the greatest of all goals — happiness — with values in art, music, culture, craftsmanship, intellect, and above all, in human relations. Without resolution of this issue—human relations on a world scale—productivity will mean little, for it will be devoted to only one ultimate weapon after another.
It seems to me that no atomic war will occur. We shall, indeed, work our way slowly, with much difficulty, through successive phases of “cold war” and uneasy peace arrangements, toward a world authority strong enough to establish and keep international order. This has been a dream for many men through the centuries. It now becomes a political necessity, the means of survival.
Sheean also argued that national sovereignty would become an antiquated notion.
This trend toward world authority will be contested bitterly for many years, because national sovereignty is something all men cling to. But sooner or later a number of overwhelming questions will impose themselves on everybody who thinks at all. Questions like these: Is national sovereignty more important than society itself? Is civilization not something bigger than either the nation or the society? When these questions are asked, over and over and over again, the tendency toward World Agreement, already strong in some areas, will become, I believe, irresistible.
Inspection and regulation of atomic energy enterprises will be established. World agreement, at top levels, will be achieved in a “crisis” — such as Berlin, Greece, or in southeast Asia — and we will have a pattern upon which, with many a failure and many a discouraging rebuff, men of good will will slowly build up and strengthen a world authority. Societies will continue to be different; nations will keep their identities in every respect, except the freedom to murder each other.
This one world government, Sheean writes, would not come without considerable debate. Americans in particular, he argues would be incredibly resistant to the idea of this transition.
The social and economic aspects of this slowly evolving process are very hard for any American, especially a Congressman, to contemplate. Whether our road lies through peace or through war, it is going to cost billions of dollars. There will be helpful factors: split-second communications, world-wide walkie-talkies perhaps, transocean facsimile newspapers, an international language, which would be of enormous aid in surmounting international barriers. There will be a helpful atmosphere, one freer of worry over cancer, tuberculosis and polio. Most important, there will be a constantly growing realization of the imperative need for a common brotherhood of man.
I dare guess that it will be peace, dangerous and difficult peace, leading at long last to a world authority for the government of international relations by controlled disarmament.
Controlled disarmament of the world is obviously far from a reality today. But thanks to the technological growth of the second half of the 20th century, it’s hard to argue that—despite the continued existence of very distinct national borders—we’re anything but a smaller world here in the 21st.
War, well that’s another thing entirely.
April 5, 2013
Imagine a world where the only media you consume serves to reinforce your particular set of steadfast political beliefs. Sounds like a pretty far-out dystopia, right? Well, in 1969, Internet pioneer Paul Baran predicted just that.
In a paper titled “On the Impact of the New Communications Media Upon Social Values,” Baran (who passed away in 2011) looked at how Americans might be affected by the media landscape of tomorrow. The paper examined everything from the role of media technology in the classroom to the social effects of the portable telephone — a device not yet in existence that he predicted as having the potential to disrupt our lives immensely with unwanted calls at inopportune times.
Perhaps most interestingly, Baran also anticipated the political polarization of American media; the kind of polarization that media scholars here in the 21st century are desperately trying to better understand.
Baran understood that with an increasing number of channels on which to deliver information, there would be more and more preaching to the choir, as it were. Which is to say, that when people of the future find a newspaper or TV network or blog (which obviously wasn’t a thing yet) that perfectly fits their ideology and continuously tells them that their beliefs are correct, Americans will see little reason to communicate meaningfully with others who don’t share those beliefs.
Baran saw the media’s role as a unifying force that contributed to national cohesion; a shared identity and sense of purpose. With more specialized channels at their disposal (political or otherwise) then Americans would have very little overlap in the messages they received. This, Baran believed, would lead to political instability and increased “confrontation” on the occasions when disparate voices would actually communicate with each other.
Baran wrote in 1969:
A New Difficulty in Achieving National Cohesion. A stable national government requires a measure of cohesion of the ruled. Such cohesion can be derived from an implicit mutual agreement on goals and direction — or even on the processes of determining goals and direction. With the diversity of information channels available, there is a growing ease of creating groups having access to distinctly differing models of reality, without overlap. For example, nearly every ideological group, from the student underground to the John Birchers, now has its own newspapers. Imagine a world in which there is a sufficient number of TV channels to keep each group, and in particular the less literate and tolerant members of the groups, wholly occupied? Will members of such groups ever again be able to talk meaningfully to one another? Will they ever obtain at least some information through the same filters so that their images of reality will overlap to some degree? Are we in danger of creating by electrical communications such diversity within society as to remove the commonness of experience necessary for human communication, political stability, and, indeed, nationhood itself? Must “confrontation” increasingly be used for human communication?
National political diversity requires good will and intelligence to work comfortably. The new visual media are not an unmixed blessing. This new diversity causes one to hope that the good will and intelligence of the nation is sufficiently broad-based to allow it to withstand the increasing communication pressures of the future.
The splintering of mass media in the United States over the past half a century has undoubtedly led to the stark “differing models of reality” that Baran describes. The true believers of any ideology will tow the party line and draw strength from their particular team’s media outlets. But the evidence remains inconclusive when it comes to the average American. Simply put, there’s not a lot of evidence that people who aren’t already highly engaged politically will be influenced by partisan media sources to become more radical or reactionary as the case may be.
Writing in the Annual Review of Political Science this year, Markus Prior explains, “Ideologically one-sided news exposure may be largely confined to small, but highly involved and influential segment of the population.” However, “there is not firm evidence that partisan media are making ordinary Americans more partisan.”
Stepping back and looking at ourselves from the perspective of a future historian, it’s easy to argue that we could still be in the early days of highly-polarized mass media. The loosening and eventual elimination of the FCC’s fairness doctrine in the 1980s saw the rise of talk radio hosts unhindered by the need to give opposing viewpoints equal airtime. The rise of the web in the mid-1990s then delivered even more channels for political voices to deliver their messages through the young Internet. User-generated online video saw its rise with the birth of YouTube in the mid-2000s allowing for the dissemination of visual media without many of the regulations politicians and content creators must normally adhere to when broadcasting over the public airwaves. The rise of social media in this decade has seen everyone from your grandmother to hate groups being given a platform to air their grievances. And tomorrow, who knows?
Just how much more polarized our nation’s mainstream political voices can become remains to be seen. But it may be safe to say that when it comes to a lack of message overlap and increased political diversity in new forms of media, Paul Baran’s 1969 predictions have long since become a reality.
March 28, 2013
Anytime the government tries to ban something there are usually loud warnings about slippery slopes and guesses as to what perfectly reasonable American past-time might be banned next. If New York City bans trans fats (as it did in 2007), what’s next? Smoking in its parks? Oversized sodas? Oh, right. It banned those things too, with mixed success.
Perhaps the most notorious ban in U.S. history was our national experiment in forced sobriety. The United States ratified the 18th Amendment in January of 1919 which outlawed the sale of alcohol and many people were (understandably) not pleased. The one-year gap between the ratification of the amendment and it becoming the enforced law of the land led many people in 1919 to speculate (and joke) about the repercussions.
Life magazine ran a number of illustrations in 1919 predicting what would happen after the law went into effect. Their most dire guess? A mass exodus. This “Great Exodus of 1925″ would be thanks to new bans on everything from baseball to pork and beans:
- No Dancing
- No Golf
- No Pie
- No Kissing
- No Theatres
- No Smoking
- No Tiddly-Winks
- No Baseball
- No Pork and Beans
- No Ice Cream
- No Lemonade
- No Candy
- No Golf
- 6 p.m. curfew
No ice cream? That’s just about the darkest dystopian prediction we’ve ever looked at here on the Paleofuture blog.
Of course, the 18th Amendment became the only amendment of the U.S. Constitution to later be repealed. Thanks to the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, Americans could enjoy a drink again, though many dry counties still exist.
What do you think? Will alcohol prohibition ever be tried again? How much longer will tobacco be legal? Is a ban on large sodas a good idea?
January 22, 2013
Back in 1970 the idea of a black person being elected president of the United States sat somewhere between flying cars and robot servants in the realm of futuristic possibility. The ink was barely dry on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court had only recently ruled in 1967 that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional, and there were just 10 black members of the House of Representatives and one black member of the U.S. Senate. A black president was still very much the domain of science fiction.
But civil rights activist Roy Wilkins thought Americans electing their first black president could very well be a reality by the year 2000. His prediction appeared in a 1970 book edited by Irvin A. Falk called Prophecy for the Year 2000 which included futuristic ideas from a number of notable figures. At that time, Wilkins was executive director of the NAACP.
Wilkins touches on a number of different issues that he saw as hindrances to progress, but he remained optimistic that should the “tremendous problem of education” be addressed “in the next 30 to 100 years” then the country will be greater for it. He explains that, “it took us almost 200 years to elect a Catholic President, and presumably it will take us a few years to elect a Jewish President.” With the nation’s recent progress, a black president was not “impossible.”
An excerpt from the book appears below.
I think probably what we will have in this country (if our progress in human relations between whites and blacks is going to be progressively better than it has been in the past 40 years) by the year 2000 is a great diminution in the kind of racial conflict that we now have. We will have more unity between the races. I think we’re going to evolve, not melt together. We have a distinctive contribution to make to each other.
In the United States in the year 2000, I think it will be no phenomenon to see Negroes occupying all kinds of positions on all kinds of levels. There will be interracial marriage, and people won’t talk about it as such anymore. They’ll talk about it from another point of view: is the person a good person or a bad person?
This, of course, means that the separatism which we know today, initiated, I’m sorry to say, by a good many people whom I regard as misguided among the Negroes, will give way to a mutually respectful coexistence. Each one will respect the other’s religion, and the other’s race.
I regard this period in our human relations here in the United States as an interlude. I think the young Negro militants, so called, are trying to find themselves, and as soon as they do, then they will get back on the track of being human beings rather than being black human beings. It took us almost 200 years to elect a Catholic President, and presumably it will take us a few years to elect a Jewish President.
We’ll elect a Negro President, and I don’t conceive it to be impossible. It is not in the dim future. It is not a hundred years away; it is not 200 years away. It is much nearer than that. As far as race relations abroad go, I don’t think Rhodesia can last, and I don’t think South Africa can last in its present attitude. It simply isn’t possible, no matter how well armed, and how well controlled the politics of the country happen to be by a numerical minority. It is simply not in the cards for that minority to control the majority forever. There will be either a bloody upheaval and a long struggle to the death or there will be some kind of mediation and negotiation. Rhodesia and South Africa cannot last.
In this country, we can say confidently that most of the white majority knows very little, basically, about the Negroes, and a great many Negroes, many more than you would suppose, are totally ignorant about white people and about the ways to deal with them. The belligerence and arrogance of some of the black nationalists now is a natural reaction of persons who try to cover up the fact that they are unable to deal with other people.
I think prejudice can only be overcome by knowledge, by association and by a regard for people as people, irrespective of their color. What needs to take place in the next 30 to 100 years is a tremendous program of education. People are all together, and the big problem before us is learning to live together. People are people. It isn’t a question of white versus black. It is good versus bad. And if we can see that, we are on our way.
Roy Wilkins died in 1981, so he didn’t have the opportunity to see Barack Obama elected as the nation’s first black president.
November 16, 2012
Interest in the life of legendary inventor Nikola Tesla has seen a tremendous resurgence in the past two decades. And with good reason. The man was a genius who was able to take so many of the ideas swirling around in the 19th century ether and turn them into fantastic new inventions — both real and imagined. Tesla’s wondrous imagination made him quite the futurist and here at the Paleofuture blog we’ve looked at some of his remarkably prescient predictions over the past few years.
But the 21st century’s rather fashionable interest in Tesla has had some disturbing side effects. Specifically, people want to canonize the man (sometimes literally) and turn his personal and professional struggles into a sort of morality tale involving clearly delineated characters: some ostensibly good and others ostensibly evil.
Tesla boosters of the 21st century will tell you that Tesla was the embodiment of all that is good in the world — Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal did just that in one of his more recent comics, “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.” They’ll tell you that Tesla’s struggles against professional adversaries like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse (both of whom Tesla worked for at various points in his life) were the most pure examples of good versus evil. This past year, people have been crowdfunding museums and films and any number of other events in an attempt to raise Tesla’s profile and are constantly couching his work in moralistic terms. But I hope that with this renewed excitement for the life’s work of a great inventor people don’t lose sight of one thing: he was a brilliant man, but he was just a man.
Like any man, Tesla was far from perfect and sometimes had very warped ideas about how the world should operate. One of Tesla’s most disturbing ideas was his belief in using eugenics to purify the human race. In the 1930s, Tesla expressed his belief that the forced sterilization of criminals and the mentally ill — which was occurring in some European countries (most disturbingly Nazi Germany) and in many states in the U.S. — wasn’t going far enough. He believed that by the year 2100 eugenics would be “universally established” as a system of weeding out undesirable people from the population.
The February 9, 1935 issue of Liberty magazine includes many other fascinating predictions by Tesla for the future of humanity, which we’ll no doubt look at in the weeks ahead. But for the time being I’ve transcribed only the eugenics portion of Tesla’s predictions below, to remind us that we should be cautious when making gods of men:
The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established. In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct. Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.
The ideas behind eugenics would become substantially less popular after World War II, for obvious reasons. I doubt that Tesla understood the scope of the atrocities that were being committed in Europe (and at the hands of the California eugenics movement) at the time. But again, his ideas were clear: the world should be rid of so-called undesirables. However unpleasant the idea of eugenics is to reasonable people on its surface, this notion seems particularly strange coming from a man like Tesla, whose own mental illnesses would have likely put him in the “undesirable” category under any authoritarian regime.