Friday, December 21, 2012

The Future Is A Foreign Country

Carlo Rotella, in this morning's Boston Globe, notes that a flying car is being tested.  He recalls a time when visions of the future extrapolated airplanes, telephones, cars, electric power, radio and ocean liners into a Radiant Future full of technological mastery and freedom, and then notes the turn towards a mostly darker anticipation of descent into apocalypse, slow or fast:

By 1982, in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” an enormously influential science-fiction portrait of the near future, the flying car had turned definitively noir. Cops lifted off in them from decaying, ungovernable streets, nosing through the perpetual twilight of neon-lit pollution.

 These days we seem to have even less use for sunny visions of the future, instead favoring zombie plagues, enslavement by machines, endless young-adult dystopias, and apocalypses of every stripe. (Today being the big day for Mayan doom, I trust you’re watching the heavens for the approach of Nibiru.) Then, in the real world, there’s climate change, peak oil, and more esoteric forms of resource depletion (we’re running out of magnesium?!), the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent, and the imperial tristesse that infuses the idea of America’s declining power in the world.

He then admits to being happy that expectations have changed:  his vision of flying cars isn't freedom to travel, but millions of Boston drivers up there doing on the skies what they do on the roads.

But an apocalyptic future is no more probable than a Utopian one.  Utopia means 'nowhere' for a reason.  And extrapolation, which is to some extent all we've got to define the future, is the very Devil's work:  there will always be completely unexpected game changers.  We don't have flying cars these days, but neither do we have computers that grew in size from basement-filling 7094s to whole cities or planets.  And they haven't taken over, and artificial intelligence remains not only a distant goal but one whose very definition, even the possibility of its achievement, remain the subject of dispute.

Problem is, there's an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to all this.  An apocalypse is nothing if not a breakdown of civil order and relations.  In the fifties and sixties, one thought of nuclear war, and, perhaps, built a fallout shelter.  Now, people imagine zombies.  But those zombies all too often turn into Ayn Rand's moochers and looters, and, all too often, people buy guns.  They buy ammunition.  They practice with them sometimes, and every shot fired reminds them that they're preparing to defend themselves against the Other, who becomes dehumanbized.  Trying to understand the Other is not only useless, but a sign of weakness.  Coming together to solve problems is not just a betrayal of values, but bringing a guitar to a gun fight.  Talking to someone with whom you disagree--negotiation, it was once called--is, as in the Bush-Cheney administration, viewed as concession to an enemy, rather than something adults do.

Me, I'll take a flying car over all that...

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