The Future We Almost Know
When I was young the future was very different from the way it is today. It was spaceships, and jet packs and flying cars. And when I was a bit older it was cybertech and biotech, humanity reinventing itself and making itself stronger, smart, faster and perhaps immortal.
The future we received was an odd one. The sheer ubiquity of communication is something not predicted by most of the futurists and sci-fi authors of the pre-eighties world. My generation, Gen-X, as a friend of mine once noted, may be the last 1st world generation to ever truly know what it is to be alone (and thus, perhaps, an important part of what it is to be human).
But even as the communications revolution has moved inexorably forward the world has grown physically larger – when the Concorde supersonic commercial transport was grounded, transportation speed actually took a noticeable step backwards and time from point to point actually increased (the true measure of distance is time).
There are three main reasons we didn’t get the future we were expecting. They’re worth going over a bit.
Energy: Yes, again. When you read the old sci-fi, the old predictions, the first thing you’ll notice is that they assume we come up with a cheap essentially endless source of energy. Whether it is some form of “atomics” or of cheap efficient water to hydrogen (used by Traveller, among others, in the 70’s, to show how old that dream is), cheap and plentiful energy was at the heart of their vision for the future.
You can’t fling things hither and yon – you can’t have widespread spaceflight, jetpacks and flying cars, without cheap energy. Until we break the hydrocarbon straight-jacket we will not have the future the 50’s promised us. If that’s a future you want then you have to figure a way out.
In principle there is no reason why we shouldn’t have all the energy we could ever use – the Sun blasts the earth with more than enough for any conceivable purpose at our tech level. The question is how to get it. Burning liquefied fossils of various kinds isn’t the way. It’s hardly more advanced than a bunch of neanderthals clustered around a fire – all we have on them is that we dig it up and distill it.
Superstition and Greed: The cyberpunk future of the 80’s, dystopic as it often was, included in it a vision of enhancing humans both through melding ourselves with machines and through genetics and biotech which gave a hope that we could eventually overcome the hand dealt us by fate – that we could become stronger, faster and smarter than our genetics would normally allow.
That future could never have been achieved by now. But what is noticeable about it is two trends. The first is that powerful forces of superstitious ignorance have tried to slow it down or stop it. Because of myths thousands of years old, unsupported by scientific evidence, they have sought to strangle funding for and make illegal much of the research in question.
The second is that both the human genome and indeed all biochemical information about all species has been regarded as a possible land grab situation. Powerful private interests want to patent your genome, or that of various plants, and then use those building blocks to create other patentable properties. This is in direct violation of the idea that natural processes shouldn’t be the property of anyone since they are expressions of natural law, but no matter. This rush – with carpetbaggers finding old plants to seize the rights on and then charging 3rd world peasants who want to plant them as they have for millenia, continues. It slows down the entire process because scientists can’t work with everything because they have to pay for every single process or piece of information. Meanwhile whatever is in the public domain can be used by private researchers.
So the future where you can be stronger, faster and smarter is not only moving ahead more slowly (at an incalculable cost in lives and suffering, since there are significant medical benefits) but it is being privatized. So that in the future, the privileged will be able to be smarter, faster and stronger – but you won’t be able to afford it. It’s the aristocrat’s old dream made flesh – to really be better than those they rule and in the long run it is the greatest threat to equality that this tired world has ever known.
Poverty: What is notable about the last few tech booms is that they come out of old, old research. The government funding which both seeded and nurtured microchips and the internet is old money – it goes back to the forties through the seventies at the latest. Since then the trend has been towards less and less expenditure on the sort of speculative basic research and support of new promising technologies.
Only government can afford the long term gambling perspective that is required for this sort of research and support, because only government can know that they will be able to cash in on any and all wins. In our current poor state period, where the highest priority of government action is to give more money to people who already have more money, this has fallen by the wayside. Technology and science are just as much creatures of politics as the economy is; the only time people are able to credibly deny it is when the government funding and protection is so complete as to be unnoticeable.
I miss the past’s future. I want my spaceships and jetpacks and flying cars. I want my cybertech and biotech and anti-aging treatments.. But you can’t have futures like that if you won’t pay for them, if you let public policy be run by people who are slaves to superstition, or if you ignore basic political economic problems.
Those futures were lost the same way that America lost its way in general – by deciding that the welfare of only a few was more important than the welfare of the citizenry as a whole.