The Future Part 1

Andy44

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Over on www.3quarksdaily.com I ran across this article about "how the Victorians invented the future":

http://aeon.co/magazine/society/how-the-victorians-imagined-and-invented-the-future/

The author explains that our modern-day views about the future as an "ever on and up" type of thing really started with the Victorian era, when industrialization was followed quickly by electricity.

It's a good read. And there are so many echoes of Victorian futuristic ideas today. The British prime minister in 1889 said:

By making global communication immediate, the telegraph had made everyone part of the global power game. It had ‘assembled all mankind upon one great plane, where they can see everything that is done, and hear everything that is said, and judge of every policy that is pursued at the very moment those events take place’.

Sounds an awful lot like what the "information superhighway" people were telling us about the Internet in the 90s, and still are today.

There was a feeling among the Victorians that technology and society progressed together. As we master science and bend it to our uses, it will improve out lives materially and morally. It was an optimistic view of a bright future, and it persisted for a very long time.

Science fiction and real life science were intertwined. HG Wells and even Mark Twain told us what the future might look like, while Tesla and others were trying to make it happen. This continues to this day; Heinlein and Clarke showed us a possible future of spaceflight, and at the same time von Braun was trying to make it happen for real, and Elon Musk and Richard Branson have taken up the torch.

But we also got HG Wells' War of the Worlds, and in the 30s we got Huxley's Brave New World. After WWII we got Orwell's 1984. All was not happy in science fiction.

And it's worse. 1984 brought us Terminator. Sci fi has increasingly become pessimistic. Dystopian futures are en vogue these days, with Hunger Games, Oblivion, the 2000's remix of Battlestar Galactica, etc. The list goes on, too many to name, Children of Men and Red Planet and Interstellar...

Meanwhile, in real life (the RL environment in game-speak) the public mood seems to reflect this downer future. Global climate change is in the public mind. Despite the Cold War ending without a major war, Western nations seem to be locked in endless conflict involving Islamist upheavel. Population growth continues apace, with predictions for water problems being made, while ebola rages. Recent polls indicate that many people are pessimistic about the future.

The article mentions a "Project Hieroglyph" as an effort to get SF to rekindle public optimism. I don't know how much traction it will gain.

From where I stand it seems to me that people like dystopian visions. It has a certain nihilism to it that appeals to people because it's edgy. I also noticed starting with the grunge music movement in the 90s that pessimistic music seemed to be popular and still is. The roots of that go back way beyond the 90s of course, but it became widespread in the decade of "The Crow".

There is also the problem of broken promises. It is now 2015. The future, for someone like me who grew up in the 80s with Back to the Future, is now. So where is my robot butler/housemade/cook? Where is my flying car? Why can I not visit the Moon? No fusion power, still? Where is my "better world"? Was all that optimism misplaced?

And speaking of broken promises, remember the quote about the telegraph above? It didn't stop two giant world wars from happening. And the Internet hasn't put an end to war in the modern day, either.

Technology is a mixed bag. We love the Internet for what it gives us, but we have also grown dependent on it, and it is predictably becoming a tool to control and spy on us, as previous telecommunications tech was.

Now I'll be honest; a lot of things DID get better, just not the ones we might have put on the tops of our wishlist. Medical treatment, as well as telecommunications and computing. Lots of little things we take for granted that we would hate to lose such as GPS and text messaging on a powerful handheld computer/phone.

I just watched the movie Cloud Atlas. The depiction of a sleek, futuristic Soeul, Korea, in which slaves live among all the cool gadgets was striking. It seems we are worried about creating a really cool high tech prison for our selves.

So what do you all think? Does the future have to suck? Or can we get back to looking forward with optimism?
 

jedidia

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Heh, only saw this after stumbling over part 2 today. There's a lot of interesting thoughts here, I'd like to comment on a few of them. Might bring in a bit of a different perspective, although it pretty much confirms the thrust of your post.

Dystopian futures are en vogue these days

I think the emotional state is what influences the broad consumption of art, not the other way around. Of course art influences emotion. It's pretty much its only purpose. But it has a much easier time to do it when it falls on fertile ground, so to say. I.E. it is easy for art to exploit and reinforce existing tendencies, but nigh impossible to reverse them.

There is also the problem of broken promises.

The problem is not so much the broken promises on the technological front. Technology has not reached the aspired level in some spectacular disciplines, true, but it has excelled beyond anybody's wildest dreams in other, less spectacular, but frequently more immediately useful areas.

But there is one huge promise, the heart of the whole technological ideology of the modern era, that fell so flat that the realisation ultimately led to the end of modernism and the dawn of post-modernism: That technology would make us better people. The realisation that this was nothing more than a pipe dream has disheartened a lot of people and made them rather cynical towards science and especially technological evangelists. This, I think, is the major source of the pessimism inherent in todays western culture (let's not forgett that the victorian age didn't even happen on a lot of places in the world and that they never actually had that surge of optimism).

Technology and progress was our mirror on the wall, and we kept asking it how beautiful we were, and now that it showed us that we still have the same grumpy, ugly face as ever we don't like it so much anymore.

So what do you all think? Does the future have to suck? Or can we get back to looking forward with optimism?

The problem with this question is that it is rather centered around western culture and its perception of the world. I spent the last 10 years in a country that is about to become a failed state in less than 20 years (my personal prediction, I'll be glad to be wrong). There the question never even came up. OF COURSE it was going to suck!
The crux of that is, the future is always going to suck for someone. And while I would personally prefer that it won't suck for me, I have long abolished the notion that this is a usual moral framework. In fact, it might be good for the globe as a whole if the future is going to suck for the western nations and shine bright for somebody else. Or it might not mean anything globaly because somebody else is not inherently moraly superior, so they might just do the same to the rest of the world that we did.

Which brings us back to that one broken promise. It was the foundation of everything, really. The hope that technology will finally help us create a better world, with better people. While technology still holds the promise of creating the former, it is hindered in it by failing at the second, and people have lost faith that anything can ever overcome that. We keep screwing things up, and there seems no way to make us stop it.
 

Andy44

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The crux of that is, the future is always going to suck for someone.

Yes, of course, but the problem is that there is a good chance the future may suck for everyone. There are multiple versions of "sucks for everyone", too (see Part 2)!

Your point about "making us better people" is relevant, since that was the Victorian ideal.

I have a nerdy theory about happiness: having things/stuff/status doesn't make one happy; what makes one happy is the perception that things are going to get better. (This would explain why rich people can sometimes be unhappy, to the annoyance of the less wealthy.) Thus:

happiness = first time derivative of things/stuff/status

I think the immediate cause for pessimism is the belief that the future will be a more crowded, resource starved, authoritarian, and possibly religious wacko world from which there will be no escape.

In times past we always figured we'd find technological or social solutions to problems, now we seem to have had this belief shaken, and it's a viscious cycle. Before we can go about making a better future, we have to regain the belief in ourselves.
 
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