July 20, 2019

2 minute read

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. In 1986, Arthur C. Clarke collected essays from fellow futurists, and edited them into a book predicting what the world might be like 50 years after that momentous event. Different editions have slightly different names. My copy is entitled July 20, 2019: A day in the life of the 21st Century.

Now, on that very date, I am sitting in the library of the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka with my son, reading that book and seeing how his predictions of the work 33 years after he was writing have fared. Sir Arthur lived most of his life in Sri Lanka. Much of it in Colombo, and stayed at this very hotel frequently througout the 80s and 90s. The hotel historian, who showed us into the library says he knew Clarke, having worked in this hotel for over 50 years. There is a bust of him next to me.

The book is divided into 16 chapters. Each of these is the work of a different contributor, which means some is better than others, both in the quality of predictions and the writing style. Clarke wrote the introduction - a letter from a resident of the new research station Clavius City on the moon. He points out that the way to the moon will require international cooperation, and the first step will be an international space station.

Overall, the predictions in most chapters are overly optimistic on some topics (general purpose robots, neuroscience), but have often quite good on others. One suggestion is that houses would have a home computer connected to heating, lighting, security, etc described as an automated majordomo. That sounds quite like where Google Home and various connected devices are heading.

One chapter on education has an excelent point that the traditional education system has its origins in the Industrial Revolution, and is designed to turn out factory workers. For the future, we need adaptable thinkers, and the key skill to be taught is how to think logically, creatively, and process and interpret information. Unfortunately, we haven’t progressed as far in the 33 years since this was written as I would like, but I’m hopeful that some of the changes are underway.

The chapter on war describes World War III fought mostly in cyberspace in 2018 over the period of a week - triggered by riots over the Berlin Wall. So some predictions weren’t quite right. Another chapter describes a powerful pro-environment, anti-corporate revolution of greenies.

Clarke also wrote the epilogue, regarding the United Nations. He points out the difficulty in keeping a committee of over a hundred delegates focused, and the obsolte nature of the security council veto by the five permanent member states. He closes with a line suggesting that though United Nations is likely to last through to 2019, it will become obsolete when we move through the concept of a Global Village to a Global Family, and the need for distinct nation states fades.

Overall, the book has some interesting ideas, and some fairly clever predictions mixed in with some less accurate ones. But it’s not his best work. I’m reading Rendezvous with Rama to Inigo at the moment as well. That’s great.

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