[Viewpoint]Imagining the future

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[Viewpoint]Imagining the future

A 21-year-old United States Navy fighter pilot received a Gold Star medal for flying 78 missions in the Korean War. His plane was shot down once by a North Korean land-to-air missile, forcing him to eject.

Later, he was selected as an astronaut at NASA and became the first human to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. The man, who famously said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” is Neil Armstrong. He must have been overwhelmed with hope that an era of space development would open up.

He was not the only one. Many believed that the 21st century would herald the dawn of the space age.

We would fly to the Moon for honeymoons, robots would be doing our chores for us, and cars would be flying.

But what’s the reality now, four decades since the Apollo 11 moon landing?

On the surface, the only thing that is different from the 20th century is the ubiquity of personal computers, Internet communication and cellular phones. Humanity has chosen the age of information over the era of space. Since 1972, no one has traveled to the moon.

However, humanity will not give up on the promise of a space era forever.

New powers such as China and Japan are ambitiously making progress in their space development projects. Korea is also driving skyward.

Strictly speaking, space exploration in the 20th century was a race between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The two powers poured enormous amounts of capital into projects that cannot be explained with any economic rationale. In fact, the rosy vision for the 21st century was a byproduct of the space race.

Here’s a story of another young man. In the 1960s, when NASA was busy planning the project to travel to the moon, a teenage boy in New York read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation,” a science fiction series about the future history of mankind spread around outer space.

In this series, Asimov introduced the concept of psychohistory, a fictional social science to measure all variables of a society to accurately predict the future. While the boy made up his mind to become a psychohistorian, he realized that it was a field that did not exist in real life. So as an alternative, he chose to study economics.

As an assistant professor at Yale University, in 1978 he even wrote and published a paper on the theories of space trade that would provide theoretical underpinnings to the stories of the Foundation series.

The paper deals with the method of calculating logistics costs when goods are transported at the speed of light in outer space.

The man is Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Both Armstrong and Krugman are established figures, but Armstrong might be the one to have witnessed his dream being frustrated.

In 1969, he might have imagined himself as the future commander of the moon base. In fact, it was too naive to assume the 21st century society to be a utopia created by science and technology.

Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984” demonstrated far more poignant insights.

Predictions on future human society should not just consider scientific and technical developments but also include more fundamental elements of human and social psychology.

Futurist Alvin Toffler makes the following claim in his book, “Future Shock.”

“We offer our children courses in history; why not also make a course in ‘futures’ a prerequisite for every student? A course in which the possibilities and probabilities of the future are systematically explored, exactly as we now explore the social system of the Romans or the rise of feudal manors? ... Our children should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.”

In Korea, science fiction is still treated like a genre of fabulous imagination. However, if we were to draw a big picture of the coming future, nothing can better provide rich inspiration and insight than science fiction. After all, in these novels unfold every spectacular scenario imaginable.


*The writer is the president of Omelas and the Seoul SF Archive. Translation by
the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Sang-jun

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