...Has to do with the complexity of the world and the way that things develop in a very unpredictable way: not totally chaotic, but not quite in a straight extrapolative manner, either.
Take for example the way government and politics have developed over the past 25 years or so in Great Britain. Imagine travelling back in time and telling UK citizens of the early Maggie Thatcher years that in 2008 their country would be well underway to having an Orwellian, '1984'-type government: CCTV cameras everywhere, civil liberties greatly reduced, the UK spending more money per capita on safety, security and surveillance than any other western country: they would probably nod in agreement. Then tell them that this was mainly implemented by a long-time Labour government.
It would be interesting to see their reactions. Then tell them that the tories, desperate to come back in power after a long stint in the opposition benches are -- among other things -- selling themselves as a green party ("making Britain safer and greener"). Do I see the sardonic smile of history stretching from the early eighties to the late noughts? Would these early Thatcher-era Britons believe you?
It what makes writing near-future SF such a daunting task, and a kind of catch-22 exercise: if it looks too believable it (most probably) won't happen; if it looks too implausible it might very well happen.
So if you dive into the world of tomorrow, you need to find a balance between not being too conservative in your predicitions, but also not too 'off-the-wall', either. For example, back in 1997 the movie "Wag the Dog" satirised the Clinton/Lewinsky affair by fabricating a war to cover up a presidential sex scandal. Nowadays, one would not only wish it was only a sex scandal they were covering up, but -- much more importantly -- that the war was 'fabricated' instead of real.
Instead, in the extremely important and hotly contested US election of this year the personalities of the candidates and the subsequent smear campaigns are -- or at least seem to be, like in 2000 and 2004 -- more important than the actual *issues*.
A quick reality check: the US government bails out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- which control or own about 50% of *all* American mortgages -- because their losses are so big they both threaten to topple over. It's yet another signpost of how bad the current credit crisis really is, but does it dominate the main American news outlets? One would wish, but it appears that the nomination of a previously quite unknown, but sexy and mediagenic VP candidate completely eclipses this. It's almost as if "Wag the Dog" had it the wrong way around: attractive personality and sex appeal are used to distract from the actual issue: the completely failed economic policies of the past eight years (thanks, Jeremy Lassen). And the fact that it bails out the rich through the US taxpayer's pockets goes unnoticed as the big media focus on polls, more polls (one that seems to support Dutch research that showed that men will indeed become less critical of a purchase when the salesperson is an atractive woman), or fear stories that question science without knowing much about it, and -- against my line of argument, just to show that tracking the present has the same pitfalls -- Fox reporting a near-record deficit.
(Update: as another big US bank reports a record loss, the distraction tactics intensify. "Wag the Pig", anyone?)
Anyway, the main thrust of this post is to show just how difficult it is to extrapolate the near future (and I mean near: even tomorrow is highly unpredictable, especially in socio/political terms).
So what's a poor SF writer to do? Well, dare to make mistakes, try to ride the fine line between extrapolating too straightforwardly or too crazily, and face complexity. More reminisces on that in a following post.
(Yeah: I certainly don't have all the answers. Otherwise I'd be solving all this planet's problems, if I could. But while I'm struggling like a lot of you to make sense of life on this insane, yet also beautiful planet, often putting my thoughts on [electronic] paper helps me move forward.)