Science fiction is an entertaining way to worry about the present. It uses stories set in the future to confront issues of today. Even when it is oozing marvels which have not yet been invented, those futuristic things can only be related in the way the current audience perceives them. Just look at decades old science fiction to see how old-fashion-y it considers the inventions of today – computers and the like. That’s what makes us giggle about yesterday’s visions of tomorrow. In the past they get the new gizmo, but miss the new context. It’ll be the same with the most edgy science fiction today. In the future they will giggle. Regrettably the bias of the creation date is indelible.
The best scenarioists understand this. Here is contemporary sci-fi hero William Gibson on why much of his science fiction these days is placed in the here and now, or what he poetically calls the “ever-alien present”:
I took it for granted that the present moment is always infinitely stranger and more complex than any "future" I could imagine. My craft would be (for a while, anyway) one of importing steamingly weird fragments of the ever-alien present into "worlds" (as we say in science fiction) that purported to be "the future".
Of course not everyone is satisfied with the ever-alien present and craves some ever-alien future. Best would be the far future where true “otherness” lives. Where the beliefs and assumptions of today can really be tested. Hollywood, which has taken over the cultural center of science fiction, prefers the cinematic far future, and so we continue to devour the far future sagas of Star Trek, Battlestar Galatica, Star Wars, Firefly, and so on. But current science fiction of all types is leaving the near future a bit blank.
As an audience we can believe an alien present. It’s like today, only more so. Maybe an alternative version of today. We can also easily be persuaded to believe in a far future. We feel sure that someday, somehow they’ll have massive floating cities, or highways in the sky, instant food, and all the rest. We feel certain about this despite the fact that we can’t fund fast trains between our cities today, or permit genetically modified insect-resistant corn, or take any unified step toward large-scale 21-century developments. Even returning to the moon next decade seems far-fetched.
The near future – let’s peg it 2020 and beyond -- is a blank because there is almost no vision of a near-future that seems both desirable and plausible. Most stories, “worlds,” and scenarios of say the year 2050 are dystopian. Take your pick of nuclear self-annihilation, mortal pandemics, planetary floods, robotic overthrow, alien invasion, or fascist apocalypse. They are all very plausible, but not desirable.
The advantage of the far future is we don’t have to be told the story of how we arrived there, of how we passed through the near future. It’s far away enough that the creators can punt past it. But the near future is such a conundrum that is it has disappeared from our culture.
Computer scientist and inventor Danny Hillis, born in 1956, noticed that when he was a child the future was ‘far away’ in the year 2000, but that as he grew older, the future remained rooted to the year 2000, as if newness could not move beyond that boundary. He describes it as feeling as if the future was “shrinking” year by year until in 1999 the future was only one year long. Now that we’ve passed through 2000, the future has effectively disappeared – except for the far far future.
This disappearance has been made more real by key science fiction authors, futurists, and the brainy, nerdy folks who ordinarily keep busy churning out visions of tomorrow. A common belief in this circle is that things are moving so fast and weird that it is physically impossible to imagine the future of 2050 and beyond. Many of these futurists believe this discontinuity, called the singularity, is eminently desirable, because it is sure to lead to great intelligence, greater wealth, greater heath and immortality. But because it is forecast to come about via the shattering of what we understand humans to be now, many others will resist this future at all costs. And others believe the singularity future is not only undesirable, but implausible.
Either way, we are left with a blank for the near future. We have no story of progress that fits in the next century. There is no vision of 50 years hence that billions of people on earth would say, yes, that is what I want. Billions of people in the developing world know what they want tomorrow: clean water, free education, self-governance, cheap consumer goods, and hope for their kids. But beyond that, what? What do the billion in developed nations want? A clean environment and opportunities for meaningful work and ……?
We have great difficulty imagining progress in this century because in the last century we were educated about inherent complex side effects, by-products, and unintended consequences latent in every new thing. We can’t see progress now because all we see are the costs.
It is unclear if the costs of technology are greater now because of their new complexity, or only more visible now because of their complexity. Probably both.
The conundrum is that no path, no vision of progress – technological, social, moral – will be plausible today if it does not include the complexity of costs, yet it will not be desirable if it does.
That makes our society blind. People assume progress even if they don't see it. They act as if progress is real, investing into future, starting things up, leaning into tomorrow as if it will be better than today – but there is no shared vision of what this is headed, or even where we’d like it to head. There’s no agreed way on measuring if in fact our actions are titled in the desirable direction – because there is no desired direction. Muddling through blind is the default scenario of the near future. We just kind of bumble along, taking one step after another with no larger goal. A few philosophers declare this is the post-modern stance. Living Without a Goal is all we can hope for, so we better get used to it.
The danger with this stance is that when there is no vision of progress or betterment to unify a society, the leaders will introduce fear to unify them. The BBC documentary series "The Power of Nightmares" argues that this is what recently happened in the US. When the hope of technology solving everything (he glorious days of Progress, with a capital P) petered out, it was replaced by the fear of communism as a way of unifying the country. When communism rotted from the inside and collapsed, the fear of terrorism had to replace it. That exaggerated fear governed the past decade. But unless there is a plausible, desirable vision of betterment, one that billions can agree on, another fear will have to be found.
In that way I think there is a moral imperative to articulate our path towards something better. Not to leave it a vague post-modernist muddle. Not to shirk from the complexity and realities of costs. And not even to expect everyone to consent.
I don’t know if it is possible. It may be as the postmodernists insist: a vision relegated to the past. But I think we’ll behave better to each other, and towards future generations, if we can tease out a scenario of near-future progress for 8 billion humans and our uncountable natural co-inhabitants on this planet.
If you have a plausible desirable version of progress I'd like to hear it.