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Science Technology

These 19th Century Postcards Predicted Our Future 157

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the radium-powered-central-heat dept.
kkleiner writes "Starting in 1899, a commercial artist named Jean-Marc Côté and other artists were hired to create a series of picture cards to depict how life in France would look in a century's time. Sadly, they were never actually distributed. However, the only known set of cards to exist was discovered by Isaac Asimov, who wrote a book in 1986 called 'Futuredays' in which he presented the illustrations with commentary. What's amazing about this collection is how close their predictions were in a lot of cases, and how others are close at hand."
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These 19th Century Postcards Predicted Our Future

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  • Predictions (Score:5, Insightful)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday October 15, 2012 @06:17PM (#41664381)

    The problem with predictions is that if you make enough of them, whether vague or detailed, you'll find some of them came true. That is not surprising in and of itself, but some people take this as proof of something. But it's not proof, because they aren't looking at all the predictions that didn't come true, or weren't close. It's all about coincidence and the laws of probability -- things that are highly improbable by themselves can become highly probable with repetition or over time. So even if one of the greatest minds of the time predicted all these things for the future that came true, we cannot consider them in isolation -- we also have to consider all the things predicted that didn't come true.

    Mr. Newton would have understood that as a scientist, and if he could be conjured up from the dead to utter a few words on this, he'd likely agree.

  • by Andy Prough (2730467) on Monday October 15, 2012 @06:33PM (#41664463)

    They missed the 3 inventions that have done the most to promote health and prolong human life expectancy: toilets, refrigerators, and water treatment plants.

  • Re:Predictions (Score:5, Insightful)

    by isorox (205688) on Monday October 15, 2012 @06:35PM (#41664471) Homepage Journal

    The problem with predictions is that if you make enough of them, whether vague or detailed, you'll find some of them came true. That is not surprising in and of itself, but some people take this as proof of something. But it's not proof, because they aren't looking at all the predictions that didn't come true, or weren't close. It's all about coincidence and the laws of probability -- things that are highly improbable by themselves can become highly probable with repetition or over time. So even if one of the greatest minds of the time predicted all these things for the future that came true, we cannot consider them in isolation -- we also have to consider all the things predicted that didn't come true.

    Mr. Newton would have understood that as a scientist, and if he could be conjured up from the dead to utter a few words on this, he'd likely agree.

    What amazes me is the things which weren't predicted. Even as recently as the 80s and early 90s, films of the future had flying cars (3 years, 5 days to go!), robots, space ships, etc.

    Very few got the internet, or the pervalence of pocket computing and connectivity that we take for granted 20 years later.

  • by realityimpaired (1668397) on Monday October 15, 2012 @07:26PM (#41664779)

    A fool-proof containment unit for radium wouldn't heat the house...

  • Re:Predictions (Score:5, Insightful)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday October 15, 2012 @07:38PM (#41664827)

    What amazes me is the things which weren't predicted.

    The future can't be predicted with any certainty beyond only the smallest of timeframes -- the further you look out, the more likely something major that you couldn't anticipate will significantly impact the prediction being made. Nobody could have predicted in 2000 that we'd be looking at the longest period of economic downturn ever seen in this country's history (if not globally). But all it took was a few airplanes slamming into the side of some buildings to cause radical shifts in our way of life, our economy, etc. There's nothing particularly amazing about that.

    Very few got the internet, or the pervalence of pocket computing and connectivity that we take for granted 20 years later.

    Even in the late 90s, when the technology was already on the market, people still didn't see its importance. Babylon 5, considered at the time as one of the most progressive scifi shows of the era, showed people on space stations standing in line to get newspapers dispensed by computers. It was inconceivable even then that computers would replace printed media. And that was at a time when exactly that was starting to happen right under their noses.

    The future can't be predicted. That's what makes living so worthwhile: What kind of life would it be if we knew what would happen tomorrow?

  • Steampunk (Score:4, Insightful)

    by aNonnyMouseCowered (2693969) on Monday October 15, 2012 @07:47PM (#41664875)

    They're far too whimsical to be predictions of OUR present. They're best suited as material for a steampunk movie or anime, what people thought was possible using souped-up versions of the technology of the day. I doubt whether it's possible to predict what the future will look, although it should be possible to describe vaguely what type of technologies people will use. For example, it should be possible to describe a tablet computer in terms that a 19th century geek would understand, a portable magic lantern that can also serve as a camera, telephone, phonograph, etc. In a non-dystopian future, we're sure to have micro-versions of today's supercomputers, but whether it'll look like a smart phone, AR glasses, or something implanted inside our skulls is something for the next Steve Jobs to market to the gadget sheep of the future.

  • by wierd_w (1375923) on Monday October 15, 2012 @08:54PM (#41665201)

    Worse.

    The 1880s were still deely gripped by puritanism, social stratification as being a good thing, institutionalized racism, and a very narrow and rigid view of what was considered "acceptable", and "proper".

    We aren't talking a comical spin on modern problems with aliens and silly technologies.

    Think about what *we* consider unspeakable. THAT, times 9000.

    I doubt that a 19th century time traveler would have a sufficiently powerful adjective to describe what he would see, and how he would percieve it.

  • Re:lame (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tbird81 (946205) on Monday October 15, 2012 @09:05PM (#41665269)

    I agree. And I doubt these were even "predictions", more like fun cliches and what-ifs. It's the same as how many movies think that everyone in the future will wear vinyl clothing.

    It is painful trying to watch the writer compare the postcard to something either Google or Apple have made (rather than saying the generic term), then explaining that the prediction was "not far off".

    Then to top it off, he states some of the postcards as bad ideas. Such as rapidly turning eggs into baby chicks. This idea could revolutionise the poultry industry! But it's bad! Then there's the heater with the glow: the author interprets it as radium, but it might just be electricity and be quite correct. Or it might be contained nuclear fusion, and the illustrator just got the timing wrong by 1000 years.

    A pathetic, lame, cliched, "lol at predictions from the past" story. I find it interesting to see the pictures, but the commentary makes me cringe more than Cringely.

  • by wierd_w (1375923) on Monday October 15, 2012 @09:24PM (#41665387)

    I agree. Explaining the extreme difficulty involved with machines even approaching that level of autonomous function would be hard to do indeed.

    Even today, few people realize how excrutiatingly difficult AI really is. Something as intelligent as a mouse would be a radical accomplishment. (And we routinely make science fiction where AIs with superhuman intellect are commonplace...)

    Like everything, the devil's in the details. Sadly, this is something that routinely goes unnoticed or unappreciated, even today, where the reality stares us brazenly in the face and mocks us openly. (How many times have you had to deal with the starry-eyed executive, who has "a great idea"?)

    Many of the things we have today came from trying to solve the frustratingly difficult, but seemingly simple things people have imagined for ages. Like going to the moon. I would be hard pressed to make an all-inclusive list of things around me at this very moment that exist exclusively because we dared to tackle that seemingly simple problem, [which it turns out wasn't so simple.]

    I just think it prudent for people daydreaming about the future to rationalize that the future world where your romantic idea becomes real, is one that you simply cannot understand, because of all the knowledge and social changes it brought in the intervening time.

    When I think about a future with strong ai in it, I imagine a future where goatse-esque things are commonplace, and even appearing on things like gameshows. Essentially phillip k dick on an ecstacy and crack smoothie. (With barbituates and chocolate chips blended in.)

  • by YrWrstNtmr (564987) on Monday October 15, 2012 @09:46PM (#41665523)
    Looking at a lot of predictions of 'the future', a lot of them were right on, and a lot of them were "WTF".

    I wonder what a prediction today, of 200 years in the future, would be. Life in 2212. We've been tainted by Star Trek, etc All that stuff should be possible, NOW! But what will it really be like?

    My predictions:
    1. We will have landed men on the Moon again.
    2. We will have landed men on Mars (why? I don't know...)
    3. There will have been another nuclear weapon used in anger (this leads to a major restructuring of global politics)
    4. We still won't have anything like a warp drive
    5. We will have actually come up with a better power source. Cold fusion or similar.
    6. There will still be religious nutcases (See #3)
  • by wierd_w (1375923) on Monday October 15, 2012 @10:12PM (#41665653)

    The issue is not the lack of logic, or having weaker minds. (The exact counter argument could be made, in fact. The greeks had an entire profession built around training people to remember huge volumes of information, for instance.)

    The issue is the distance on cultural norms, and radical changes that disruptive technologies produce. (Compare the culture of the 80s, with that of 2012. What changed? What stayed the same? Why?)

    As for the 1880s mathematitian being daunted by factoring a 4096 bit integer, on paper... approach this rationally.

    A 4096 bit integer has more possible factors in an exhaustive search than there were human beings on the planet at the time. Assuming 100% utilization of 100% of the world population, factoring a single crypto block would take more time than the human race had previously existed up until that point. Even with technological devices of the time, running at a few hundred operations per second (per babbage), the absurdity of doing this so uncle sam wouldn't spy on your private correspondence would be dumbfounding.

    (People used cryptograms back then, sure. But nothing approaching the "overkill" of modern cryptography. When we measure "time to factor complete space" in terms of "time before universe dies of heat death", using modern, multi-gigahertz machines with billions of FLOPS each, *and* ubiquity of such horsepower, doing it on PAPER would be laughable, and a good mathematician would point out how impractical that is. Its like inventing superliminal processing, only to get porno from the future.)

    As for victorian era porno.. with exception to houses of ill repute, and dog and pony shows, the "pornography" of the era is easily trumped with a victoria's secret catalog. Goatse, tubgirl, and "2 girls, one cup" and their ilk would send victorians rushing for the door. Remember, "dog and pony" were the "extreme" of that era. The shit on the internet, both real and fake alike-- puts even the raciest stuff from that era to shame in terms of being scandalous.

    While wells might be willing to have an open mind about the future, I think he would draw the line at child porn snuff films, and people using the greatest accomplishment since the library of alexandria to wipe their asses with. (Intellectually speaking.)

  • Re:Predictions (Score:5, Insightful)

    by obarthelemy (160321) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @01:15AM (#41666299)

    "all it took was a few airplanes slamming into the side of some buildings to cause radical shifts in our way of life, our economy, etc."

    I've got 2 issues with your statement:

    1- I'm not sure there have been *major shifts* in your way of life and your economy. What are you thinking about ?

    2- What changes there have been, I'm not sure where due to the planes crashing. The housing bubble was there for the pricking, it was bound to burst at some point; the banking system had been running amok on the path of max.rewards for its workers and owners regardless of risk or sense for a while (glass-steagall repeal ?); I remember back when I was in college (and that's 20 yrs back), my econ prof telling us the US Auto industry had insolvable pensions liabilities that would require a bankruptcy and/or bailouts.

    And a more general issue: that comment is very US-centric.

    There are other predictions that are easy to make:

    - A major political party embracing bigotry and idiocy can only lead to strife. Usually the bigots/idiots have to start from scratch, which makes success harder. But if they succeeded, their lies and idiocies can't sustain them in power, and they need to resort to external and internal violence. We're seeing a bit of that already.

    - Economic upheaval can lead to regime change. that's what caused the French revolution. At some point, the low and middle class will realize they are being fleeced by the corrupt and the mega-rich (and that both are often the same), and will react.

    - Dependency on foreign oil and money can only make a state economically weaker and politically more quixotic.

  • Re:Predictions (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Sardaukar86 (850333) <cam@nOSpAM.todaystlc.com> on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:11AM (#41666861) Homepage

    But all it took was a few airplanes slamming into the side of some buildings to cause radical shifts in our way of life, our economy, etc.

    That's a fair summary really. I find it deeply disheartening to consider how we Western nations have caved in to perceived terrorism over the eleven years since 9/11. Western nations faced a very real, terrifying enemy but somehow managed to find the backbone to stand together. To help drive the Axis powers into submission when forced to by the events of WWII. Can you imagine such a thing today?

    How we have squandered these gains! Complacent and greedy, we are collectively a whimpering, mewling shadow of our former selves and we have nobody else to blame. We have allowed ourselves to backslide shamefully, our primitive animal fear taking the reins and enabling the dramatic re-shaping of our way of life - and all for the false promise of temporary safety.

    Worse, WE are all that is left; the custodians of a Freedom earned through massive sacrifice made by others on our behalf. It is NOT OURS to give away but we just cannot help ourselves because we're taught to be so. damn. afraid. Meanwhile, the law concerns itself with idiocies such as Intelligent Design and its place in the classroom; fiddling as Rome burns.

    Whilst I find these early postcards insightful and very interesting, I ponder on the artists naive innocence and wonder how anyone at that time could have imagined such a disgraceful future for ourselves.

    One need only view a minute of Fox News to understand that George Orwell's dystopic vision has been fully realised; slowly and with much more subtlety than I would have ever thought possible. Maybe it's really myself that's the naive one here.

  • Re:Predictions (Score:3, Insightful)

    by laejoh (648921) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @05:30AM (#41667135)
    Even better: "A Logic Named Joe" is a science fiction short story by Murray Leinster that was first published in the March 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Look it up :)
  • Re:Predictions (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @12:56PM (#41671545) Homepage Journal

    That's because the internet and pocket computing have made little difference to how people live their lives. I know this is heresy on slashdot

    Not heresy, just the ignorance of someone who has had these devices all their life. You have every single book ever writen before Micley Mouse stole copyright, you have a camera, movie camera, sound recorder, telephone, calendar, calculator, address book in your pocket. You no longer have pay phones.

    If you wanted to contact someone who didn't live close by in pre-internet times, you spent quite a sum to talk over the phone, or you wrote a letter on paper and set it to them, and they'd get it in a week or two. If you wanted to send a photo, you had it printed and again, they'd have it in a week or two. If you took a picture, you couldn't see it for a week because that's usually how long it took to get film processed.

    If your band wanted to record its own album, tough shit -- nobody recorded without an RIAA contract. There was no such thing as indie music. Nobody would hear your band unless they were drinking in the bar you played in. Today your band in empowered, if you're good you may go viral on the internet.

    If you wanted to write, nobody would read it without the blessing of a book publisher. If you wanted to express your opinion on politics, you wrote a letter to the editor and he would get it in a week, and then not print it. Letters to teh editor are printed at the editor's whim. Now, anybody can publish a blog and if it's good it will be read.

    the fact remains that being poor and having a crappy smartphone still means you're poor.

    If you're poor you're not going to have a crappy smartphone, you'll have a crappy dumb phone, and then only if your government or a charity supplies it.

    Their has been no increase in equitable power and wealth distribution due to the internet

    Nor has it given us free energy, flying cars, and world peace. So fucking what? That wasn't its intended purpose. Its purpose was communication, and it's been serving its purpose well.

    We've just got some new toys.

    No, we've got some new tools. Very powerful tools. The internet is more world-changing as the Gutenberg press was. I know, I lived most of my life without it. Without the internet, you wouldn't have my Nobot stories or the Paxil Diaries. You would have never seen that shot from an airplane of the last shuttle launching. before the internet, if a cop beat you, well, you tripped and fell. Now someone's got a camera phone aimed at him.

    The Rodney King riots would not have happened ten years earlier, because nobody would have made a movie of him getting beaten. Powerful tools, son. I did without them for almost half a centurey, be glad you have them.

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