Friday, 12 September 2014

The Toffler scorecard part 2 - weathering heavy seas

A little while ago I took a step into Alvin Toffler's bestselling 1970 book Future Shock to see how its vision of the future has held up. Here's the second instalment.

Perhaps the biggest danger was always where science is involved, and in a chapter titled 'the scientific trajectory' we start off with a pair of unlikely projections.

The first concerns the oceans. As has often been observed, there are huge opportunities in the sea, particularly as we use up more and more land-based resources - and there is far more space than on the land - so it was common back then, and Toffler falls for it hook, line and sinker, to assume that we would see far more sea-based industry, and even underwater cities.

Toffler quotes Dr F. N. Spiess, heard of the Marine Physical Laboratory of the Scripps Institute as saying 'Within fifty years man will move onto and into the sea - occupying it and exploiting it as an integral part of his use of the planet for recreation, minerals, food, waste disposal, military and transportation operations, and, as populations grow, for actual living space.'

That 50 years is close - but very few of these predictions are. Yes, we make more use of underwater resources like oil and gas. But living on and in the sea is generally a very expensive and restrictive way of going about things, and there is no sign of it becoming commonplace. Toffler expected 'aqua-culture' to be as frequently used a term as agriculture by now. Maybe not.

I'm not quite sure why, but Toffler links his second dubious prediction to the first when he says 'The conquest of the oceans links up directly with the advance towards accurate weather prediction and, ultimately, climate control.' He quotes Dr Walter Orr Roberts, past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science as saying 'We foresee bringing the entire globe under continuous weather observation by the mid-1970s - and at reasonable cost. And we envision, from this, vastly improved forecasting of storms, freezes, droughts, smog episodes - with attendant opportunities to avert disaster.' What they didn't realize was that the seeds of the failure of this prediction were already sown.

While it's true that weather forecasting has got a lot better since 1970, so has the understanding that we are never going to be able to predict weather more than a few days into the future. Through the 1970s and 80s an increased understanding of the nature of chaotic systems would make it obvious that it doesn't matter how good Dr Roberts' worldwide weather observation is, the weather system is just too complex and too susceptible to small changes in initial conditions producing huge changes down the line. I suppose I shouldn't be too hard on Toffler as we still regularly see presented as 'fact' forecasts outside the 10 day window, where a guess based on typical weather for the time of year is more accurate that a forecast. But the confidence in the predictions on weather forecasting and climate control vastly misunderstood both the nature and scale of the problem.

Sorry Alvin - this one's a 100% fail.

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