August 17, 2014

Is the Future as Grim as Science Fiction Says It Is?

Looking into the future (Viggo Mortensen in “The Road”)

It’s striking the degree to which our hopes and fears for the future are tied up with technology. It’s as if we all tacitly agree that, for better or for worse, where we’re headed depends on our machines.

Therein, of course, lies the rub. Is the future toward which technology carries us for better, or for worse?

Two writers have weighed in on this question recently, both arguing that the answer should be  “better,” but that far too many people are telling us the answer is “worse.”

One is Michael Solana, who posted an essay on a few days ago under the headline, “Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi – It’s Making Us All Fear Technology.” Solana’s views echoed those expressed a few weeks earlier by Kevin Kelly, who posted an essay on Medium entitled, “A Desirable-Future Haiku: The coming hundred years, in one hundred words.”  

Kelly’s essay stemmed from a challenge he’d made on Twitter, offering a $100 prize to the person who best described, in no more than a hundred words, a technological future Kelly would want to live in. In addition to presenting the submissions received and naming a winner, Kelly's Medium essay included his own vision, which pictured a world laden with GMOs, nuclear power, robots, ubiquitous computer tracking, the quantitative monitoring of nature (whatever that means), and “mandatory” techno literacy. 

All of which caused me to appreciate that one man’s utopia is another man’s…you get the idea.


Both essays are, in my opinion, pretty silly, but the issues they address are worth responding to. A few points, then, to mention:

1. Kelly and Solana both argue that our visions of the future are being clouded by the relentless gloominess of current science fiction, in novels and in film. You can't deny that the fictional futures we’re getting these days are consistently downbeat. But that’s only in fiction.

What Kelly and Solana fail to acknowledge is that our media regularly expose us to the views of technological enthusiasts who present wildly utopian visions of the future as being completely plausible, in reality. Does the name Ray Kurzweil ring a bell? Other prominent advocates of technological deliverance include Kurzweil’s bosses at Google, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and Internet pioneer Marc Andreessen. 

2. To wish for more optimistic science fiction ignores the fact that fiction thrives on conflict. Utopian visions of a technological Eden aren’t going to be very compelling. Murder stories play a disproportionate role in popular fiction for the same reason. Kelly acknowledges this, as do some of those who commented on Solana’s piece.


3. Solana errs most egregiously when he fails to acknowledge that the purveyors of dystopia could be right. Here, too, Kelly is more forthcoming. “At the moment we have no shared positive vision of tomorrow,” he writes. 
We are unable to imagine it. I will be quick to add: that includes me. I too have difficulty in describing an exciting future for all of society in 100 years that seems plausible given what is happening today. I can imagine singular threads of the future rolling out positivemassive, continuous, cheap, real time connection between all humans, or total genetic control over crop plants, or synthetic solar fusion energybut it is hard to see how all these threads weave into the other threads of climate change, population decrease, habitat loss, human attention overload, robot replacement, and accelerating AI.
This is a surprising, even shocking admission from a writer who has long been one of our most prominent technological enthusiasts. This is not to say that Kelly has suddenly reversed himself. The qualifications in his technophilic reveries have been gradually but discernibly increasing for years. Still, for a man who as recently as December, 2012, argued in a Wired cover story that we ought to celebrate rather than fear the replacement of jobs by automation (“Let the robots take the jobs,” he wrote, “and let them help us dream up new work that matters.”), this may well be Kelly’s most frankly ambivalent statement yet.

"The Matrix"

4. Qualifications notwithstanding, from my perspective there’s a strong element of wishful thinking in both Kelly’s and Solana’s pieces, especially given that both admit things aren’t going so great right now.

It’s hard to understand how anyone can recognize our present state of danger and disorder and at the same time fail to recognize the role technology has played in the creation of those conditions. Don’t they realize that enthusiasts have been promising for centuries that technology will save us? Does it make sense to dream of a future in which technology comes to our rescue when to a large extent technology got us where we are in the first place? 

We do our artists a disservice if we discount the futures they envision. Their scenarios aren’t made up out of whole cloth; rather they can be seen as logical extensions of conditions that currently exist. Artists also tend to be attuned to vibrations in the collective unconscious, and despite the fact that most of our fellow citizens appear to retain their faith in progress, there are also reasons to suspect their faith has been shaken. Everybody seems to be on edge, and I don't think an over-abundance of science fiction dystopias is the reason why. 

©Doug Hill, 2014

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