It Is Easy To Predict an Automobile in 1880; It Is Very Hard To Predict a Traffic Problem

Frederik Pohl? Robert Heinlein? Isaac Asimov? Connie Willis? Ed Bryant? George Zebrowski? Ben Bova? Robert J. Sawyer? Sam Moskowitz?

Dear Quote Investigator: Predicting the primary effects of a new technology is difficult but feasible. Anticipating all the secondary effects is nearly impossible. Here are two statements of a viewpoint that has achieved popularity amongst science fiction aficionados:

In the nineteenth century a machine enthusiast could have predicted the automobile, but an SF writer could have predicted the traffic jam.

It is easy to predict the automobile but difficult to predict the traffic jam.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI occurred in a 1953 essay by prolific science and SF author Isaac Asimov titled “Social Science Fiction”. Asimov discussed three different types of SF stories: 1

Let us suppose it is 1880 and we have a series of three writers who are each interested in writing a story of the future about an imaginary vehicle that can move without horses by some internal source of power; a horseless carriage, in other words.

According to Asimov, gadget SF, the first type of tale, highlights the struggle to invent such a device and climaxes with its successful demonstration. Adventure SF, the second type, presents a romantic tale that hinges on using the device during action packed scenes. Social SF, the third type, explores the complex ramifications of the device as it is deployed within a society.

Asimov remarked that automobiles catalyzed the construction of suburbs. He also observed that vast networks of busy roadways resulted in large numbers of injuries and deaths. These indirect consequences of automobile usage would not have been easy to foresee. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

It is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem. The former is really only an extrapolation of the railroad. The latter is something completely novel and unexpected.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Is Easy To Predict an Automobile in 1880; It Is Very Hard To Predict a Traffic Problem

Notes:

  1. 1977, Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction, Edited by Damon Knight, Social Science Fiction by Isaac Asimov, (From Modern Science Fiction, Its Meaning and Its Future, ed. Reginald Bretnor, Coward-McCann, 1953), Start Page 29, Quote Page 40, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1977, Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction, Edited by Damon Knight, Social Science Fiction by Isaac Asimov, (From Modern Science Fiction, Its Meaning and Its Future, ed. Reginald Bretnor, Coward-McCann, 1953), Start Page 29, Quote Page 41, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)