Asimov in a 1983 Radio Shack ad. Image via Redditpics
That we can effortlessly peruse humankind's vast archive of predictions is one of the tiny thrills of the internet. It's funny and vindicating when the great asses of the past get it wrong and a little exhilarating and eerie when the goodly prescient get it right.
So the internet has obviously exalted over noted non-ass Isaac Asimov's vision for 2014, which he articulated in a New York Times opinion piece in 1964. The sci-fi writer imagined visiting the 2014 World Fair, and the global culture and economy the exhibits might reflect. NPR called his many predictions, which range from cordless smart telephones, to robots running our leisure society, to machine-cooked 'automeals', "right on." Business Insider called the forecast "spot on." The Huffington Post called the projections "eerily accurate."
The only thing is, they're not.
Taken as a whole, Asimov's vision for 2014 is wildly off. It's just that 'Genius predicted the future 50 years ago' makes for a great article hook. Asimov does hit a couple of his predictions pretty close to home: He ballparked the world population (6.5 billion); he anticipated automated cars ("vehicles with 'robot brains'"); and he seems to have described the current smartphone/tablet craze ("sight-sound" telephones that "can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.")
But he also thought we'd have a colony on the moon, be living under a global population control regime, eating at multi-flavored algae bars, and letting machines prepare us personalized meals. Most divergent of all, he believed that increasing automatization of labor would spawn not inequality or joblessness, but spiritual malaise. Here's the concluding section of his essay:
... mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.
Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!
Asimov imagined that humanity would decide to distribute the wealth accrued by the automatons, and the problem wouldn't be lost capital for workers, but lost meaning. Of course, in reality, it's both—and therefore a much, much bleaker scenario.
Now, picking apart Asimov's predictions and tallying up the wrongs and the rights is missing the point. To treat Asimov's essay as a spate of Nostradamus-style prophecies is to misunderstand its aim; as with most good sci-fi, the important part is how it reflects on the present in which it was written.
In this case, Asimov was doing his pontificating in the wake of the comparatively financially egalitarian era of the New Deal, on the heels of LBJ's Great Society. He'd just returned from the 1964 World Fair, and was a little disappointed in the lack of far future foresight. Meanwhile, income inequality wasn't the problem it would become in subsequent decades. And in keeping with the relatively robust social programs of the day, it's not hard to see how Asimov would extrapolate that we'd have the decency to provide a strong safety net for the "machine tenders" instead of merely allowing their wages to evaporate. But that's what we've done, and there's no "society of enforced leisure" to be found.
Still, the resolutely optimistic Asimov had apparently revised his previous vision of how robots and humans would intersect: For most of his famed I, Robot series, manufacturing robots aren't allowed on Earth at all, because the labor unions, who indeed feared they'd be replaced by automatons, were too powerful. Once again, not quite the way things played out.
We pick and choose the past predictions we like in accordance to their resonance, not their correctness—if we'd spent 2013 talking about algae bars and not Google cars, we'd still be forwarding Asimov's article. But we can still use the predictions, we just need to think a bit harder about where they're coming from and why they haven't come to pass. Sure, Asimov foreshadowed a couple of gadgets, and that's pretty fun. But more importantly, he reminds us that there was a time when scientific optimism and social egalitarianism helped build a pretty idealistic vision of the future—and if we're willing to do some heavy tinkering, it might technologically be within our grasp.