STINE (was: Re: The Spike, nanotech, and a future scenario)

Damien Broderick (
Mon, 13 Oct 1997 11:24:02 +0000

At 07:27 PM 10/12/97 -0400, Gregory Sullivan wrote:

>Damien Broderick replied to the note and stated that he was planning
>to cite some of Stine's predictions in his, at that time forthcoming,
>book "The Spike".

Here's a chunk:


Stine's 1961 article was a deliberately provocative slap at his fellow
speculative writers, usually regarded by sober citizens as crackpots and
lunatic technophiles. Stine denounced these specialist dreamers and
extrapolators for their stick-in-the-mud conservatism.

Look at the curves! Stine cried. What's wrong with you? Are you all
blind? A year later, in the wonderful non-fiction book Profiles of the
Future, Arthur C. Clarke diagnosed this same defect as the Failure of
Nerve, and coupled it with another crime, the Failure of Imagination.
Stine was determined to fall victim to neither failing. The trends were
going asymptotic, he pointed out. An asymptote is a curve that rises
sharply until it is heading almost straight up the page, and gets closer
and closer to the purely vertical in a shorter and shorter time. At the
limit, which is reached quite quickly (disproving Zeno's ancient paradox
about the tortoise beating Achilles if it has a head-start), the curve goes
to infinity. It rips through the top of the graph and is never seen again.

When you're tracking the patterns formed in 20th-and-21st centuries by data
on available energy, or transport speed, or numbers of people in a world
afflicted with unchecked over-population, you can get some hair-raising and
very weird results. Too weird to be true. In 1973, the transhumanist
sociologist FM-2030, previously known as F. M. Esfandiary, predicted faxes,
satellite cell-phones and something like the Internet (good going!)
together with the feasible-but-impossibly-expensive `hypersonic planes
projected for the late 1980s' that would `zip you anywhere on the planet in
less than forty minutes', not to mention the wildly extravagant hope `that
by 1985 we will be able to postpone aging in a dramatic way' and on to the
truly fatuous: `The use of artificial moons or satellites to control tides
and floods'. Curves are tricky things to interpret realistically.

`If you really understand trend curves,' Stine wrote with a perfect poker
face, in 1961, `you can extrapolate them into the future and discover some
baffling things. The speed trend curve alone predicts that manned vehicles
will be able to achieve near-infinite speeds by 1982.' Perhaps that seemed
safe enough back then. Two decades away. Anything could happen in twenty
years. Perhaps the horse would talk. To tell the truth, Stine was
concerned that this prediction might be too conservative. `It may be
sooner. But the curve becomes asymptotic by 1982.'

You have probably noticed that this did not happen, except on the
television and movie screens when starships routinely travel at Warp Speed
or burn through wormholes from one side of the galaxy to the other. It's
quite disappointing. So where was the flaw in his case? Surely it wasn't
simply that we didn't yet know how to do such things. Science keeps
learning new and astonishing things about the world. We bump into
discontinuities, and have to reformulate our theories, or the theories lead
us into novel facts. Sociologists of science, as everyone now knows due to
the term's misappropriation by New Agers, dub these major shifts `paradigm

Stine was expecting some very big paradigm changes.

Led astray by his transport-speed trend, he had noted: `If this is really
the case, a true scientific breakthrough of major importance must be in the
offing in the next twenty years.' But how could such an infinitely-fast
vehicle be propelled? Look, say the trend curve had got a little confused,
mistaking Newtonian physics for the more up-to-date Einsteinian variety.
Perhaps we would settle for close to the speed of light, the best one can
hope for in a universe where nothing material can go faster than light?
But that costs a lot, it takes plenty of juice. Pushing a 100 ton starship
up to 99.99 percent of the speed of light, as close to infinite speed as
we're likely to reach any time soon, you have to pump in so much energy
that the damned thing is a kinetic bomb carrying more than 220 million
megatons locked up in its inertial mass. Energy equals mass, remember, and
that's how much brute energy it takes to get 100 tons moving that fast.
Luckily, explained Stine, that's okay! `The trend curve for controllable
energy is rising rapidly... By 1981, this trend curve shows that a single
man will have available under his control the amount of energy equivalent
to that generated by the entire sun' (his italics).

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. I don't think so.

It would have taken more than a genuine `cold fusion' breakthrough to bring
that one off. It would have taken a tame black hole in your tank.

Stine's trend curves, in other words, were totally bogus. Or rather, they
were just what they seem to be - idle curves linking four or five quite
disparate historical trajectories. Athletes and swimmers have surpassed
previous records every year on the dot, as they eat better and train more
cunningly and indeed come into the world as bouncing world-beaters, having
enjoyed optimum medically-guided conditions in the womb, but it doesn't
mean that some day an Olympic-class runner will smash the tenth-of-a-second
mile record set an instant earlier by her Reeboked rival.

Does this dash of cold water mean that the Spike, the technological
Singularity curving up there in the mid-twenty-first century, is nothing
better than a mirage? Perhaps not.

It wasn't sheer fantasy Stine was retailing, after all, just a rather
trusting - or wickedly goading - application of the principle `If this goes

Plenty of things are going on and will not stop before humankind and our
world are changed forever.

Indeed, in a tip-toeing sequel published in 1986, Stine avoided any mention
of his most preposterous trends and settled for merely utopian expectations:

`We can't close the Pandora's Box of technology. Technology is never
forgotten; it's only replaced by better technology. Because we can't put
the thermonuclear bomb, recombinant DNA, and a host of other technological
wonders back into Pandora's Box and forget them, we must deal with them.
It's not easy.'

He added: `A hundred years from now, barring an incredible combination of
bad luck and poor management, people everywhere will be many, rich, and
largely in control of the forces of nature. I've got faith in the
capabilities of human beings. We'll make it. Therefore, we must learn how
to be rich and handle abundance because we've never had to do it before.'

Probably this less extravagant forecast would raise no eyebrows among
`conservative' soothsayers. In 1996, a team from British
Telecommunications made its futurological report for the period to 2020.
The average western lifespan by that date would be a century.
Self-programming computers were expected as early as 2005, as was full
voice-interaction with machines (IBM, they noted, `has already released a
program that understand clear, continuous speech'). AIs emulating the
human brain might exist by 2016, and by the same date genetic links to all
diseases will have been mapped from the decoded DNA template so everyone
will carry an individual genome record wired into a personal health card.
These projections were modest, befitting a vast corporate institution like BT.


Damien Broderick