Steven Savage has talked about Robinson Meyer's piece in The Atlantic about how looking to SF for ideas about the future via things like the Google X lab was a mistake. Steve's piece is worth reading, and he invited me to draft my own response — something I wasn't even sure was possible given how thorough his own essay was. So, while I'll respond on kind, consider this more of a string quartet to his symphony.
The big question I would pose to Meyer would be this: if looking to SF for a vision of the future is a bad idea, can we specify which SF he might be thinking of?
"SF" is not any one thing, but rather a general bucket into which a lot of different things get thrown. Star Trek and Blade Runner are SF, but nobody confuses the world-views of the two in the slightest. They come from different places, are informed by different things. The replicants of the latter sprung from different notions about life than the transporters of the former.
I'm sure to a great many people, such distinctions don't matter: SF is SF, and gadgets are gadgets. But I'll opine here that these distinctions do matter, that the kind of future we want to have is going to be reflected in what we choose to fill it with, and that where and how we choose to take inspiration for what kind of a future we have is going to matter.
Granted, I'd rather have the transporter than the replicants, if I have to choose — the former seems like a bigger net gain than the latter — but I'm also conscious of how any one of those things is not going to be inherently good or evil.
Technologies are water: they take the shape of the container they are stored in, and that container is us. People of a thoughtful and decent mien will build thorium reactors, not nuclear warheads; they will use information technology to build a society of wisdom and prescience, not a surveillance state. But we can't get there by just saying, we need to be a moral society. Such things are built by shaky degrees, and the advancements on one front often come at the expense of another.
This, I think, might be at the heart of what Meyer is objecting to. It isn't so much that a future peopled with gadgets is abhorrent by itself; it's the idea that our progress will not be measured in any way except technologically — that all these toys will not come with, nor will they necessarily produce, a concomitant rise in the quality of life. And by that I don't just mean how clean the water is, although that's certainly part of it; freedom from unnecessary disease and disability isn't something I want to shrug off. I also mean how decent we are to each other on a general basis, and the fact that civilization grows more, well, civilized over time is not a given.
If the arc of history bends towards justice — and dignity, and freedom from pointless suffering, and so on — it's only because a great many people put their weight on it and never let up. Technologies are part of that process, but not the reason for it. We didn't need Twitter to fight autocratic governments before, and while such a tool might well make that struggle less arduous or at least cause the struggle to come that much faster to a head, it also provides a convenient single point of failure for the autocrats in question to attack.
It's hard not to imagine what the future is going to be like without referring to the past or the present, especially the people of the past or the present. The trick is not to let this blinker us too much. One thing that struck me most about Frank Herbert's Dune was how Herbert's vision of the future was a mutant version of Renaissance Italy, one where all artificial intelligence had been banned by papal decree and where the only salvation was to be had by all-powerful messiahs. It made for great storytelling, but unpleasant futurism, because I didn't believe for a second the vast majority of people living in such a future would be in the sub-sub-one-percentile that actually have any social mobility, let alone influence. There's a reason people who fantasize about the past always imagine they'll be either Cleopatra or Caesar, and not one of their handmaidens.
But on the whole, we're not in the habit of thinking of the future as a better place, with a few exceptions, except maybe in the sense of having neater toys to play with. SF has become our way of asking the question "What could go wrong?", rather than our way of asking "What could we do better?" Storytelling of the latter variety tends to get stuck in the mud of didacticism and prescriptive solutions; think about how many Star Trek episodes placed Kirk & Co. in the position of — how did someone once put it? — a cosmic Mary Worth, a galactic buttinsky. (The ambiguities that did come into the show only came in over the objections of its own creator.) And SF's common use as a cautionary device is itself an outgrowth of SF's roots in things like the Gothic scare story.
It's pretty much accepted by now that our future — and our present — will be filled with innovations of the flying-car variety. What's not taken for granted is that any of those things will actually grant us a better life, one where we live with a little less of the fear and ignorance that our predecessors did, and one where the innovations we create are not used to grind us under one heel or another. And that uncertainty might be a good thing, because as far as the eye can see when looking over the whole of history, there's never a hint that such things came naturally anyway.
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