Rule 34 and the shape of things to come

Unless you’re very old or very ill, you probably expect to live to see the near future. The “near” future is a terrifying period: it’s that part of the future when I’ll still be around, and readers like you can poke fun at me for my predictive failures. (Not that SF is actually *about* predicting the future, but lots of people seem to think it is, and the fun-poking proceeds on that basis.) It’s also that part of the future that’s hardest to second-guess, because we’re so close to it.

Who, five years ago, would have predicted that we’d have had a global banking crisis, a wave of democratic revolutions in the Middle East, a black President of the United States, and three nuclear meltdowns in Japan? It sounds like the back story for a bad technothriller. On the other hand, I don’t see a technothriller author as being likely to predict a 1970s fashion revival, vinyl 45s making a come-back, or Apple being the #1 smartphone manufacturer. (In 2006, Apple didn’t have a phone. They made computers and mp3 players.) So, to a first approximation: the shape of the future is made up both of big pieces (political upheavals, natural disasters) and ephemera (steampunk and smartphones).

But that’s what the future looks like. What is it made of?

William Gibson famously observed that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. The flip side of that observation is that the near future is just like the present, with added nuggets of weirdness embedded in it. About 90% of the near future (10-20 years out) *is* here today: the buildings, the cars, the clothing. This is because we don’t junk our entire fleet of automobiles every time a new model appears — change is incremental, and old stuff hangs around. In addition to the 90% that’s familiar, there will be another 9% that is new but not unexpected — cheaper, flatter TV screens, better cancer treatments, bigger airliners, cars with extra cup-holders. These are the things that are trivially predictable. Finally, if you go more than 5 years out, about 1% of the world will be utterly, incomprehensibly alien and unexpected. To a time traveller from 1994 to 2004, that would have been the internet (which suddenly detonated, and went from being a techie/academic/corporate nerd thing into a ubiquitous communications medium), or mobile phones (expensive yuppie business tool to ubiquitous pocket lint).

As to the future of “Rule 34” …

A lot of it is here today. Self-driving cars may sound exotic, but Google are pouring lots of money into them and indeed have a fleet of robot cars chauffeuring their meatsack passengers around the back streets and highways of Palo Alto. Police remotely piloted drones (or UAVs as they’re called) are very real indeed, but not yet widely deployed in the UK. We know the price of oil is volatile and hybrids and electric cars are the next big thing. Police forces are increasingly deploying modern information technology tools to help do their jobs, from smartphones (to push work that formerly required an office out onto the beat) to video cameras. As for the business practices employed by the Operation, they’re well-established under other circumstances. If anything I have been too conservative in my futurology: there isn’t anything in “Rule 34” that is obviously way out there except possibly ATHENA, and even ATHENA doesn’t look particularly revolutionary in light of similar software applications such as IBM’s Jeopardy-winning Watson AI.

Maybe I should have thrown in a meteor impact taking out the 2021 FA Cup Final, or a sudden fad for 16th century fashion. But then, nobody would believe it.