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Foreseen Consequences

The art and science of looking ahead

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They don’t make the future like they used to. At the turn of the 20th century, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a feisty newspaper once edited by Walt Whitman, published a special section peering into the next 100 years. The future then was a bright, hopeful world of possibility. Just think of it: mighty airships crisscrossing the skies, electric lights solving the problem of crime, the elimination of houseflies due to the disappearance of horse-drawn carriages, and the “union of the telephone and phonograph” bringing theater and opera right “into the salon of one’s own home.”

Lately, our future seems to have grown more dystopian, worst-case scenarios waiting for us at every turn. This issue of Smithsonian plays on the theme of futurism, present and past, light and dark.

On page 12, our profiler of intellectuals, Ron Rosenbaum, sits down with American military seer Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar with 20/20 foresight who saw the tragedy of 9/11 on the horizon. Clarke’s new vision is bristling with digital spooks and cyberwarriors, a dangerous future that he warns has already arrived.

With apologies to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, we publish our own section about futurism (Phenomenon, p. 24), kicked off with an essay by award-winning science fiction author Bruce Sterling, who gives us a little insight into the tricky business of prognostication.

Four years ago, acclaimed photographer Mary Ellen Mark (“American Prom,”) set out to capture the American high-school prom, that awkward moment when so many of us stand blinking in the headlights of our oncoming future. Do you still have a prom picture tucked away somewhere? If you can find it, stare at the eyes that stare back at you. What lies behind them—what were you certain of then and what could you not have imagined? If you are brave enough, share your prom photos and memories with us at Smithsonian.com/prom.

The past, we know, is often as unstable as the future. Who could have expected that the largest snake in the world would remain buried for so long? Veteran science writer Guy Gugliotta pieces together the fascinating tale of the giant serpent in our prehistoric garden, a discovery that is now changing our ideas about our past (“Monster Discovery,”). For those of you who will be in Washington, D.C., a fearsome life-size replica will be unveiled at the Natural History Museum on March 30.

A snake of a different kind is profiled in “Casanova Slept Here”. Actually, snake is a bit unfair, a judgment applied by generations that were far in the future when he was, in his fashion, conquering Europe. That Casanova would come to be considered history’s greatest lover would have been bittersweet to him, since he thought of himself first and foremost as a man of science and letters. He would have been pleased to know, however, that his memoir, written feverishly when he was an old and broken man of 64, would one day set the record for the most valuable manuscript ever sold at auction.

Titanoboa reappearing at the Smithsonian, Casanova starring at the French National Library. Even posthumously, some futures burn bright.

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