Futurologists of the 20th century painted a future world that was far ahead of the actual reality that we have achieved. This is because of the sheer human progress in the first few decades of the previous century overwhelmed most thinkers of that era.
“As a mid-level manager at an IT firm in Bengaluru, my take home was roughly 60,000 every month. Now I make almost 50% more by driving my own car at my own convenient timings” says young Rohan Gowda with a sense of satisfaction one rarely ever witnessed on a well-educated cabbie’s face before this. He is one among some thirty thousand odd cab drivers in Bengaluru who are now famously part of taxi aggregators like Uber and Ola.
“Please do give me a 5-star rating” asks Shiva Kumar, another young man after delivering our fruits and veggies (at a discounted price) within two hours of ordering on a grocery aggregator app. You can order a taxi, get hot home cooked food delivered to your doorstep, shop for groceries or even get your dirty linen washed within hours by just finger tapping on an App on your smartphone these days. In fact, you can choose a new discount every week on a new app to order the same goods/services, for the mad rush means every new app is willing to bleed more money to tap the same customers.
All these mundane everyday services being rendered seamlessly by a thousand new start-ups in Bengaluru –which, by the way, is still suffering from erratic power shortage every day and there seems to be no Android App as yet to somehow provide us uninterrupted power supply – were unthinkable just a few years ago.
In fact, when we were growing up as kids in the 1980’s, no science fiction writer or futurologist had ever warned us about a future world where the Domino’s Pizza Business Model would be the greatest innovation to disrupt mankind. Imagine, if Stanley Kubrick or Robert Zemeckis had made a sci-fi movie in the 80’s with a Faaso’s home delivery boy as the main lead or an Uber car driver as the chief villain along with all the associated technological advancements of Apple and Android App environments, it would have been a box office disaster of the worst kind.
There is something innately unromantic about millions of Mobile Apps that have changed the way we live our lives every day. Where are the hoverboards, the flying cars and those trips to Mars? Why is 21st century so singularly banal? What happened to all those exciting promises that were made to us by hundreds of science fiction writers of 20th century?
October 2015 is the “Back to the future” era, for this is where Marty McFly and the Doc had time-travelled to in 1989 but as the countdown to real October 2015 is almost over, reality is overwhelmingly boring. Let alone flying cars and hoverboards not becoming common, even something as simple as size adjustable and self-drying clothing or automated litterbins are nowhere on the horizon. Robert Zemeckis really overestimated scientific progress by a wide margin some 25 years ago.
Unfortunately, Zemeckis is not alone, for almost every science fiction writer and futurologist of 20th century painted a future world that was far ahead of the actual reality that we have achieved. From Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke to lowly Indian Sci-fi writers like Laxman Lokhande and Yandamuri Veerendranath all made the same mistake of gross overestimation of human progress.
Why did this particular malaise affect the futurologists of the 20th century?
The answer is quite simple. The sheer human progress in the first few decades of the previous century overwhelmed most thinkers of that era.
It had taken us around 4000 years from the Middle Bronze Age and invention of the spoked wheel and chariot to the era of sudden industrialization and mechanized transportation. Then, within 70 years (from 1900 to 1969), mankind took a giant leap from plying horse carriages on our roads to landing on the moon!
For most generations of people born in the 5th century AD or in the 1500s, there wasn’t much change around them, for the whole societal systems remained predefined. For instance, a rich trader born in the 5th century India would be selling silk or spices to other traders of Babylonia or Mesopotamia, while his great, great, great grandson born some 1000 years later would still be selling the same spices and silk to other European or Muslim traders. Both their lives, separated by a millennia would be more-or-less same socially, economically and technologically.
All of this changed within the span of one generational lifetime in the first 7 decades of 20th century. From automobile and telephone to music capturing devices to moving images on the screens to radio and television to transcontinental flights to complex surgeries of the brain and heart to the nuclear fusion reaction, everything was encapsulated in that short span of time. No wonder then, most philosophers and thinkers of the previous century firmly believed that this human progress would continue with even greater pace.
Truly, after the moon landing, Mars was our next destination and ideally we should have been on the red planet by now. Yet, nothing happened. It is almost as if somehow mankind decided to take a collective pause after that breakneck pace of development. Maybe it was the decline of the second superpower (Soviet Russia) in the 80’s which reduced the competitiveness of the sole surviving superpower (USA), maybe it was the rise of Asia coinciding with the European fall in the 90’s which probably put an end to exploratory innovation, maybe it was the rise of religious fundamentalism (especially of the Islamic variety) which created existential questions or maybe it was the overwhelming presence of internet that made any other kind of innovation unviable. We do not yet know the reason for this pause, and it is for future historians to judge our times.
In the mid to late 90’s, the advent of the internet and the decoding of the human genome were the last great leaps of mankind. Since then, we have almost frozen in time. As the East-Asian economies and China began to rise in the 90’s, the human race decided to simply build more cars and more cameras and more TVs and more mobile phones than ever before in assembly line manufacturing units. Most ‘great’ innovations these days happen on mobile phones as Steve Jobs, a marketing genius, is venerated by an entire generation as the (false) God of science.
Great technological disruptions are built around creating social networks of people in disparate geographies and by delivering goods and services at the fastest possible time (Domino’s Pizza Model). Behemoths like Amazon keep inventing newer ways to lose money by selling at the cheapest of prices while newer ‘innovations’ attain impossible valuations almost overnight – Uber, essentially nothing but a taxi aggregator, is the latest kid on the block to be valued at 50 billion (virtual) dollars!
Shorn of all the touchscreen mobiles and OLED screens, we are probably living every day in mediocrity. It is this mediocre generation of the human race depending on a search engine for all its answers that must have shocked the futurologists of the 20th century. What mankind needs is a course correction to once again get on a path of true innovation, on a path to find answers to our questions of existence in the universe. Will the new rise of India, the original civilization that explored true knowledge, be able to change the course of humanity?
Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.
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