Asimov’s Foundation and the Elusive Future of Technology

For the past couple months I’ve been re-reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” science fiction series. Or rather, I’ve been enjoying the series on audio tape while traveling to and from work — a reading technology I could perhaps have imagined but didn’t, when I first read these books about 30 years ago.

In the original trilogy, “Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire” and “Second Foundation,” Asimov’s treatment of technology forces me to reflect on how much our vision of the future is colored by current technology, our own human limitations and the near unpredictability of developments to come.

Asimov wrote his initial three novels in the 1940s and 1950s. The saga is set many thousands of years in the future, after humanity has established a galactic empire. The premise of the story: Scientist Hari Seldon has foreseen that the galactic empire will crumble. To head off the 30,000 years of barbarity that would otherwise result, Seldon sets up a Foundation that will survive the decline and later establish a new (and, we assume, kinder and gentler) galactic empire.

When I read fiction, I always imagine a movie in my mind. Interestingly, when I read the “Foundation” novels, the movie I see doesn’t look like “StarWars” or “Star Trek: Voyager.” It looks more like “Plan Nine From Outer Space” or “Forbidden Planet,” movies of Asimov’s era (and my childhood). Cardboard sets, banks of toggle switches and Bakelite knobs, characters dressed in shiny collar-less tunics.

I suppose the reason might partly be the association of this story with the long-gone days of my own youth. But I think it has more to do with Asimov’s 1950 view of the future and the technology available at the time. His future universe is missing elements that are de rigueur in today’s movies.

The most obvious lack: Here is a galactic civilization that has had hyper-space travel for thousands of years, yet has virtually no computers! Scarcely a mention in the entire first three novels. The computer finally does appear in the sequel, “Foundation’s Edge,” written in the 1970s.

In reality, this isn’t surprising. How many people, even scientists like Asimov, could foresee how vital computers would become in business, industry, transportation, even everyday life, only 50 years later?

One computer-like device that does show up in the trilogy is the Second Foundation’s mysterious Prime Radiant, which is used over the centuries to track the progress of the Seldon Plan for re-establishing civilization. The Prime Radiant makes me think of today’s knowledge bases or collaborative workflow applications.

Another intriguing Foundation technology: The Galactic Lens, a 3D representation of the galaxy. A navigational aid, you can use the Galactic Lens to view any section of the galaxy from any viewpoint.

Nowadays we would use 3D imaging software to create the Galactic Lens. But as with the Prime Radiant, Asimov gives little idea of the underlying technology of the Galactic Lens. I don’t think he knew — he just liked the concept.

Here’s one touch I got a kick out of: When one of Asimov’s scientists has do some calculations, he whips out, not a scientific calculator, but that quintessential geek tool of my youth, the slide rule. Only this is no ordinary slide rule. This new gadget, the result of 20,000 years of nerd evolution, makes the slide rule look in some vague way ‘like a child’s toy.’

Without computers and networks, the communications technology of the trilogy sometimes comes across as amusingly clunky. No electronic messaging, no idea of a paperless office. Messages arrive in capsules, shot through tubes or teleported through hyper-space. When a capsule arrives, the message pops out on a piece of film, which — if it happens to be top-secret, as most are — shortly self-destructs a la “Mission Impossible.”

Young Arkady Darell, heroine of “Second Foundation,” doesn’t have a PC, laptop or PDA, but she does have a transcription machine with voice recognition functionality. Arkady speaks into the machine, and it prints out her words in a fancy calligraphic font. Although Asimov surely had no conception of a personal computer in the days he wrote these books, a form of fax machine had been around for many years, no doubt providing the germ of Arkady’s transcriber.

The sequel, “Foundation’s Edge,” reads much more like contemporary SF. Computers are ubiquitous and often mentioned. Asimov introduces an immersive computing experience leaning toward Gibsonesque cyberspace. The interface is interesting — you merely place your hands on a panel and communicate mentally with the computer, through your hands.

Reading the initial three stories, though, I get an overwhelming feeling that Asimov’s vision was limited by the technology that was current (or at least foreseeable) in his day. This is not in the way of a criticism — that would hardly be fair. In fact, what it does is to force me to think about our own current visions of the future. Surely we are just as much limited by the existing state of technology around us.

For seven years, I’ve listened to self-styled experts pontificate about ‘what the future holds for the Internet,’ and I’ve always thought what a lot of arrogant nonsense it is. When it comes to the Internet, I’ve always resisted the urge to predict longer than about six months into the future. Experience shows that as time goes on and human society gets more complex, the ability to predict the future becomes more and more nearly impossible.

I suppose I can see some trends that look promising. For example, convergence of media as the digital pipelines grow larger. I can also imagine a personal customized knowledge base with ubiquitous access, networked with other knowledge bases, both personal and public. It’s a system that uses artificial intelligence to learn and anticipate my needs and preferences. But there’s nothing surprising there. I certainly didn’t think it up myself. It’s an idea that’s already out there and is based on today’s thinking about the future and where technology is obviously heading.

I can imagine some possible technologies of the future — instantaneous travel by teleportation, time travel, telepathy. I can imagine living forever (although I don’t really think science or technology will be involved in the final solution to the problem of death). Right now, some of the staples of science fiction are genetic engineering, nanotechnology, cyberspace and artificial intelligence.

These are all projections of the future that exist in fiction, in religion, in the popular imagination, in the hopes of people. And no doubt some of them will come about. But even now, as with Isaac Asimov, our vision of the future is tied to what we see around us in the present. Big events and innovations that change our lives come in from left field and surprise us all. What inconceivable developments are just ahead? What profound limitations of vision are we right now laboring under?

We can make guesses, but realistically only some of us will guess only partly right only part of the time. Asimov was one of the better professional guessers of his time, so how far off must we amateurs be?

AB — Originally posted around 2001


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