It's become a cliche to say that our world is changing faster and faster, as we hurtle towards an ultra-advanced future. But it's not true, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman told Worldcon. Actually, change is slowing down.
Krugman came to Worldcon for two events: a conversation with his favorite living science-fiction author, Charles Stross (which we sadly missed because we were on an airplane) and a one-person talk about science fiction and economics. At the latter, he started out by saying Isaac Asimov's Foundation series inspired his decision to become an economist, since you couldn't actually study to become a psychohistorian. (He's said this many times before, and in fact, said it again in this past weekend's New York Times Book Review.)
But the most surprising part of Krugman's talk was his assertion that the world is actually changing less quickly than in the past. "The pace of change has actually, generation by generation, been slowing down," he claimed. "The world of today is not as different from the world of 1959 as the world of 1959 was from 1909."
So let's say that you travel 30 years into the future and find yourself in a shopping mall. You'll be astounded at the "great gizmos" that are for sale there, but you'll still be able to recognize it as a shopping mall, said Krugman. On the other hand, lots of trends are likely to come to a head over the next few decades, including climate change and peak oil, and they could result in a drastically different world.
Krugman just cleaned out his library and found he had four copies of tons of books published over the last couple decades, since he gets two advance review copies and two copies of the finished book. And he found himself tossing out duplicate copies of tons of futurist books that were depressingly off the mark about predicting the main concern of the 1990s or 2000s. (e.g. war with Japan.) So he's leery of trying to predict the future.
And of course, science fiction was ridiculously over-optimistic about the world of 2009, with talk of space colonization and undersea cities, and yet missed some huge changes which really have happened. "I remember reading something which had all these people flying around between planets, and using slide rules to calculate their next course," said Krugman.