Remember 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Fair Use. Movie poster by Robert McCall. Source: Wikipedia
The movie was released in 1968, and was both praised and panned at the time. Some critics called it the most extraordinary movie of any time or place, while others said that it was only extraordinarily dull. The file did run almost 3 hours, and contains no dialogue for the first and last 20 minutes. It made less than $5 million on the weekend when it opened. Now it’s recognized as a great artistic achievement, notable for Kubrik’s vision and boldness.
It’s also notable today for its vision of technology. Space travel is both commonplace and commercially viable. Artificial Intelligence is present, and pretty creepy. HAL, the “sixth” member of the all-male crew of the Discovery, can somehow be deactivated and the ship can still be operated manually. Pan-Am is still flying, Howard Johnson’s is serving food in outer space, and Bell Telephone is still in business, operating a Skype-like service.
Consider when the movie came out. Rockets were invented in the 1930’s, satellites went into orbit in the ‘50s, followed by people in the ‘60s. The Apollo space program was in full swing. It wasn’t unimaginable that space travel would be widespread in a few decades, in the same way that jet travel had moved from concept to military application to commercial aviation. Technological advance was a linear process flowing from large government projects. Cameras and space suits were still pretty clunky, however.
David Bowman’s space helmet. Photo: Rowan Peter. Source: Wikimedia
What we can’t see when we envision the future, either in fiction or in financial projections, are the discontinuities: affordable mobile technology that puts telephones, supercomputers, music, and decent cameras in our pockets, biotechnology that keeps us active, alert, and productive far longer than anyone expected, business models that use small-scale entrepreneurs to make ride-sharing and home-sharing and tool-sharing and home-education not only economically viable but far more efficient that the centrally-planned alternatives. And you don’t see email or anything like it in the movie.
2001 was and is a truly great movie, one of the best of all time, but it’s illustrative of how divergent the future will be. We don’t know what we don’t know. That’s why it makes sense to be humble about our predictions – and to stay diversified.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
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