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Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[REVIEW] Arthur. C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century

I had been passingly aware of Arthur C Clarke’s 1986 book Arthur. C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century for some time. This book was one of his many books in his later career where Clarke played the futurologist, pointing his audiences towards the possibilities of the future. It was only when I saw this winter a copy in near-mint condition in The Junction‘s Pandemonium that I took particular note: The date of the title was closing. Surely it merited some exploration. Sadly, when I popped into Pandemonium I was told that someone had bought that copy just a few minutes before my arrival. Off to Amazon I went.

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The significance of the title July 20, 2019 comes of course from this date being the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. It does indeed begin with an imagined address to the reader by the Arthur C. Clarke of 2019 himself, a resident of Clavius City, a base in the Moon’s Clavius Crater home to a only a thousand people. From that lofty perspective, Clarke sets out from this lofty perspective the framework for these great changes in humanity. The subsequent chapters, written with a wide variety of collaborators, go on to look at different areas of the human future: education, health, robotics, space and transportation, sex and work, crime and war, all get explored in turn.

The one overriding theme that July 20, 2019 gets perfectly right is the extent to which what we in actual 2019 would call Big Data is transformative. The new generation of computers and associated technologies that were only beginning to emerge in 1986, capable not only of collecting vast amounts of data but of drawing meaningful conclusions from these, would make many things possible. It would become possible, for instance, for modern medicine to provide finely tailored recommendations as to what patients should do to enjoy the best possible health, to finally make psychiatry a science wit effective interventions to deal with the ills of the human mind.

It would allow people to become life-long students, to continue to expand their skills and to learn more about the world.

It would allow people to enjoy all kinds of popular culture, for sports enhanced by bioengineering to new distribution methods for shows and for altogether new cultural forms scarcely imagined.

More, this Big Data would enable all sorts of innovations in the physical sciences, in the manufacture of all sorts of robots capable of acts of great precision and in the development of new swift vehicles to travel the skies and the oceans and in new sorts of pleasure.

All of the chapters are informative, but not that many were outstanding. I did particularly like one built around a criminal investigation looking at the relationship of a smart home with its owner. (I, for one, take care to always be polite to my Google Home Minis.) I was also caught up by the drama of an imagined Third World War, fought almost bloodlessly with precise smart weapons along the inner German frontier, ending mildly enough with a loss by East Germany of Schwerin as West Germany gave up the Fulda Gap.

It is not that there were many things that were outright wrong. (I remain convinced that we were biased by the geopolitics-driven space race of the 1960s towards thinking crewed space travel would be easier and would come about earlier than we should have expected in the technologically primitive and poor world of the mid-20th century; the 2020s might well be a good time for a durable resurgence.) The overall contours of the world depicted, generally speaking, are ones that people in actual 2019 would be able to recognize as something mostly like their own.

The big problem with July 20, 2019 is that it does not quite take account of people. Who was it who said that science fiction was a literature of ideas if not a literature of literature, of heady concepts but not so much about people or societies? The geopolitics of this imagined Third World War are uninspiring, reflecting Clarke’s 2001 or 2010, the colossi of the United States and the Soviet Union dominating to the exclusion of anyone else. We have fought multiple wars with smart weapons, and we know that even if these smart weapons actually are as good as we’d like them to be they are fired by governments acting with imperfect knowledge at targets in societies made up of innumerable human beings. This imagined near-total stability, in retrospect, is a failure.

Beyond this, I do not think that Clarke quite recognized how the impact of Big Data would change the quality of human lives. If people are to become life-long patients, life-long students, constantly being engaged in a stressful world full of challenges and stimuli barely imagined to the people of 1986, what would the impact of this be? Looking back, I think that we can see the people of Clarke’s imagined 2019 would be desperately grinding, perhaps just as we are in our post-Cold War globalized era. Clarke, though, did not seem to get this.

July 20, 2019 is a good book. I quite enjoyed going through it, taking a look at what one of the great science fiction writers imagined our world might come to be. I just think that the gaps and failed predictions are as interesting as the successes. These all are the sorts of factors that people aspiring to predict the future should look to learn from.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 20, 2019 at 11:58 pm

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