The Big Picture: Life In The 21st Century
Prologue: Past and Present


Clarke's Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

                    - Arthur C. Clarke, author, inventor of the geosynchronous satellite.


          At the dawn of the twentieth century, the predominant mode of transportation walked on four legs and ate hay. About 1.5 billion people walked the Earth and the life expectancy for both men and women in North America was in the late forties. This was little different from a century earlier when the population was about half a billion less.

          It was an age of discovery and fundamental shifts in perception. New elements, new planets, new laws of physics, new artforms, the list of achievements from the turn of this century is extraordinary and unparalleled, a catalog of miracles that we almost as miraculously take for granted. We were discovering the causes of the diseases that plagued us, the structure of the matter that made us, and our little planet's place in the Universe. The Age of Reason had become the Age of Science and Science was paying off with a cornucopia of wonders that would not only enlighten us but would actually begin to change us, altering not only our views and our lives but our very selves.

          The foundations were being laid for the quantum leap in technology yet to come and the thinkers and dreamers of the time were then, just as we are today, trying to come to terms with the new world hazily visible in the distance. They may not have known what new marvels awaited them and what prices these marvels may exact but they could be certain that the old ways were going to undergo change, and some would even realize that there would be radical, fundamental change.

          The world of the late nineteenth century was a contrast in hope and horrors. A steam engine driven Industrial Revolution belched dark coal smoke into the skies over the explosively growing cities. Factory floor conditions more closely resembled visions of Hell and death and disease were rampant among the often overcrowded worker populations. There were no worker rights and no social safety net so if a business closed, people could starve.

          Yet at the same time, this was an era of incredible progress both in technology and in what we would term a social conscience. Industrialists such as Samuel Cadbury built proper housing for their workers and made working conditions and lifestyles for their communities that were models of respect and human dignity. Writers such as Charles Dickens told the tales of the human suffering of the time so eloquently that reform became a political priority. Upward social mobility was now possible for a member of any class. No established idea or dogma was safe from scrutiny and progress was now viewed as being as powerful as a force of Nature, capable of sweeping aside any obstacle put before it.

          "One can look back a thousand years easier than forward fifty", said a character in one of the era's most-read books. The writer, a thirty seven year old Massachusetts man named Edward Bellamy, told the tale of a Boston aristocrat who through a combination of perfect conditions and mesmerism sleeps through the twentieth century and awakes in the year 2000 to find the world changed in astounding ways. The book, Looking Backward From 2000 - 1887, available in Etext from Project Gutenberg described a world where the cities were smokeless towers of glass, where people could spend their evenings in rooms lit by no readily discernible source, listening to music available on demand through telephone lines and paying for their purchases with credit cards. It was the number two top-selling book of the time and Bellamy clubs sprang up overnight.

          Bellamy's twentieth century was a time of amazing social progress as well - hunger and war had been eradicated and all men worked together improving not only their world but themselves. In his telling of our century's tale the people had assumed control of all industry and business and by doing away with the wastefulness and self-serving competitiveness of the past had created such wealth that all could share in it without want.

          The book, a series of discussions between awakened sleeper Julian West and his hosts in the new world of the year 2000, likened the give and take of the capitalism of the late 19th century to the 1756 "Black Hole of Calcutta" atrocity where:

"A number of English prisoners were shut up in a room containing not enough air to supply one-tenth their number. The unfortunates were gallant men, devoted comrades in service, but, as the agonies of suffocation began to take hold on them, they forgot all else, and became involved in a hideous struggle, each one for himself, and against all others, to force a way to one of the small apertures of the prison at which alone it was possible to get a breath of air. It was a struggle in which men became beasts, and the recital of its horrors by the few survivors so shocked our forefathers that for a century later we find it a stock reference in their literature as a typical illustration of the extreme possibilities of human misery, as shocking in its moral as its physical aspect. They could scarcely have anticipated that to us the Black Hole of Calcutta, with its press of maddened men tearing and trampling one another in the struggle to win a place at the breathing holes, would seem a striking type of the society of their age. It lacked something of being a complete type, however, for in the Calcutta Black Hole there were no tender women, no little children and old men and women, no cripples. They were at least all men, strong to bear, who suffered."

          Even the availability of music to any who wanted it was considered a miracle by West:

"It appears to me, Miss Leete," I said, "that if we could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements."

"I am sure I never could imagine how those among you who depended at all on music managed to endure the old-fashioned system for providing it," replied Edith. "Music really worth hearing must have been, I suppose, wholly out of the reach of the masses, and attainable by the most favored only occasionally, at great trouble, prodigious expense, and then for brief periods, arbitrarily fixed by somebody else, and in connection with all sorts of undesirable circumstances. Your concerts, for instance, and operas! How perfectly exasperating it must have been, for the sake of a piece or two of music that suited you, to have to sit for hours listening to what you did not care for!"

          The book, which is as startling for its misses as well as its hits in prediction, is an object lesson for anyone trying to catch glimpses of the always uncertain future. Bellamy might have foreseen the twentieth century's music on demand correctly for example, but in his vision there were musicians performing twenty four hours a day supplying several separate channels of music and not recordings. In his world of the future manners and social mores have scarcely changed since his own time even though, for example, women work and enjoy a social status the equal to men.

          It's this interaction between one prediction and another that most futurists and utopians fail to take into account. Actions have consequences which in turn affect other actions, other consequences. There is also the wild card of history itself to consider. The assembly line death camps of Nazi Germany which mark one of the lowest points of a century filled with more than its share of low points may be tied together by the combination of a pre-existing cultural bias combined with the political will for scapegoats and the success of the factory system, but nobody could guess in advance that anyone would put those particular elements together to actually produce such an abomination.

          So it stands at the end of the twentieth century. We have many of the comforts envisioned by Bellamy in his opus, but few of the advances. There is still hunger and still poverty. The gap between the hand to mouth existence of the world's poor and the obscene extravagances of the world's rich is wider now than in Bellamy's time and our cities are still filled with smoke. Wars still rage on around the world and suffering and disease are still part of the human condition.

          Where there is life, however, there is hope and there is much to be hopeful about. The single biggest advance of the twentieth century has been the revolution in communications and the accessibility of it to all. The first part of the century built up passive communications: newspapers, radio, and television - all ways for everyone to see the world. Using these tools, we accomplished much. We eliminated the scourge of smallpox from the world, wiping an historical plague from existence. We accelerated our species' learning curve to a near vertical line; most of what we as humans have learned about everything has been learned in your lifetime. And we have developed the tools to advance further.

          The last decade of this century is a forerunner, a taste of the next century. The communications revolution is now a two way link - you can now communicate to the world as easily as it can talk to you. The growth of the internet, now rated - incredibly - at almost 10 % a week, is only the start. Nothing less than a global consciousness is being created here and soon everyone everywhere will be able to participate. What will come of this cannot be predicted - and scarcely guessed at - at this time.

          The one truth to be told here is that the twenty first century is going to be a whole new ball game. In the same way that today's wealthiest man made his money in an industry that did not exist forty years ago and the business of the planet has shifted from production to information, the changes to come will be even more profound. Some of the foundations for this change are as available to us now as the building blocks of this century were to Edward Bellamy.

          Let's see what we can see, shall we?

[Chapter 1]


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Andrew D. Wright,


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