Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Why our 'amazing' science fiction future fizzled"

I grew up as a sci-fi kid. I imagined I'd grow up to a world with Asimov's robots, Clarke's trips to Jupiter and Heinlein's moon bases. The truth is not quite so glamorous, having the gritty mixture of high and low tech of something like Blade Runner and avatar-based personas of Neuromancer. Where are technology and our society going? Technology that should be freeing us is tying us down. Innovation that can bring people from all over the world closer together is pushing us apart in many cases. Instead of the world of the Jetson's with jet cars, I see us moving towards The Road and I am Legend - alone, apocalyptic.

A recent article on CNN's website, "Why our 'amazing science fiction future fizzled" talks about this:

(CNN) -- ... Why isn't the future what it used to be?

... "Scientists are OK at predicting what technology is going to happen in the future," Wilson says. "They're really bad at predicting how it's going to affect us."

...People's fascination with technology's imprint on the future didn't start, however, in the mid-20th century with shows like "The Jetsons" or "Star Trek."

Joseph Corn, co-author of "Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future," found an inflated optimism about technology's impact on the future as far back as the 19th century, when writers like Jules Verne ("Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea") were creating wondrous versions of the future.

Even then, people had a misplaced faith in the power of inventions to make life easier, Corn says.

For example, the typical 19th-century American city was crowded and smelly. The problem was horses. They created traffic jams, filled the streets with their droppings and, when they died, their carcasses.

But around the turn of the 20th century, Americans were predicting that another miraculous invention would deliver them from the burden of the horse and hurried urban life -- the automobile, Corn says.

"There were a lot of predictions associated with early automobiles," Corn says. "They would help eliminate congestion in the city and the messy, unsanitary streets of the city."

Corn says Americans' faith in the power of technology to reshape the future is due in part to their history. Americans have never accepted a radical political transformation that would change their future. They prefer technology, not radical politics, to propel social change.

"Technology has been seen by many Americans as a way to get a better tomorrow without having to deal with revolutionary change," Corn says.

Today, however, a more sober view of technology has sneaked into the nation's popular culture. In dystopian sci-fi films like "Blade Runner," and "Terminator," technology creates more problems than it solves.

"Battlestar Galactica,'' the recent television series, is a prime example. It depicts a world where human beings have created amazing technology that has brought them to the precipice of extinction. There's no Buck Rogers zooming blissfully through the sky.

The show follows the journey of a group of humans who created a race of robots called Cylons. The Cylons rebel, virtually wipe out humanity with nuclear weapons, and pursue the survivors through space.

Mark Verheiden, a Battlestar writer, says the show's writers pay attention to current events when plotting their story lines. The contemporary world is filled with the unintended consequences of technology, he says.

"There are so many things you can't anticipate when you create a new technology," he says. "Who would have predicted that the Internet would be taking down shopping malls and wiping out newspapers?''

In Battlestar's finale, human beings abandon their faith in technology's ability to improve the future. They destroy their fancy machines and start again as simple hunter-gatherers.

"At some point, you can't expect a miracle to come in the form of technology to save us," Verheiden says. "At some point, the miracle has to come from a change in attitude and a new outlook." ...

Faith is the problem. And I'm not only talking about religious faith. We can't rely on God coming in to fix our problems. We can't rely on technology fixing our disconnect with the earth and with each other. We can't rely on the past. Just because we haven't destroyed ourselves yet doesn't mean that we won't in the future.

Maybe BSG had it right, maybe we need to get rid of it all. You can certainly see some of the signs of this now: No Impact Man, urban farming. But the true answer is somewhere in between. Innovate, but not just for the sake of innovation. As Google would say, "don't be evil".

"I just read this great science fiction story. It's about how machines take control of humans and turn them into zombie slaves! . . . HEY! What time is it?? My TV show is on!" -- Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes


CyberKitten said...

You're right. It is about faith - we've lost our faith in the future and we've lost our connection to the past. We don't see progress any more only decline.

It's not surprising that we're not living in a SF Utopia. It's not just that all technology has unintended consequences and it's not just because we don't think before we innovate (although there is something to both of these) it's that fewer and fewer of us see the future as a place where we would want to live.

wunelle said...

I think technology is one area where we might anticipate, collectively, improvements in the quality of life. But I think we no longer have any shared piece of the American dream in our societal psyche. We have become a culture of splinter groups. We can't mobilize against our common enemy (or mobilize toward our bright future) when we have a zillion different answers to those questions.

As always, I think a thorough education in history and science and art and music--and in critical thinking--will help us to make informed choices; and that will at least have us much closer to pulling in a single direction, versus having, say, nearly half of us trying to hobble scientific inquiry.