Is a positive science fiction trend emerging?

It would be impossible to quantify. The most esoteric of leading indicators. So indirect that its very existence is contested. But what if the outlook for the future, in the broadest and most imaginative terms, could be changing for the positive? What if, after decades in which the outlook for the future was muddled, or implicitly negative, or there was no concrete outlook, leaders and thinkers began to believe again that technology could shape the future positively? And what if that assumption began to color a lot of other assumptions about the world to come?

It’s a question worth asking because there are the glimmers of this sort of shift appearing, not in IMF forecasts or Gallup polls but in the rarefied spectrum of science fiction. The debate started like this. First there was Neal Stephenson’s essay called Innovation Starvation in 2011 which noted a fall-off in the pace of world-changing technology. He referenced Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research who noted that historically the icons of sci-fi universe served as “hieroglyphs” that supplied “a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place.”

1939 World's Fair in New York
1939 World’s Fair in New York

Before humans traveled in rockets, there were stories about humans travelling in rockets. Before submarines existed, they were written about. Not long after Stephenson’s essay was published, anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber engaged in a friendly debate with billionaire libertarian Peter Thiel.

Graeber in his speeches made the point that society was in this weird technological cul-de-sac – a point Stephenson and Thiel also make forcefully. Graeber offers some insights into what society, if it’s not pursuing poetic technology (gleaming white space stations), is doing (sending each other a lot of marketing material over the internet). These thinkers conclude the technological malaise and lack of sense of progress is a relatively recent thing.

In the Cold War era, for example, the West and East competed in contests of imagination and engineering. Think: the Concord vs SST. Skylab vs. Mir. The Space Shuttle vs Buran. But by the early 2000’s nothing so ambitious was happening. Even many of China’s great feats of space travel essentially mimicked much of where the US had been.

Perversely, this slowing of the spirit of scientific adventure seems to have coincided with the wider adoption of the internet. Even the notion of “technology” has, as Thiel points out, been reduced to IT, from an earlier understanding that included chemistry, energy, transportation.

Blade Runner from 1982 (Poster: The Ladd Company)
Blade Runner from 1982 (Poster: The Ladd Company)

Project Hieroglyph, the brainchild of Stephenson, is an open organisation that brings together authors, including Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, thinkers, scientists, journalists and futurists in a framework for producing science fiction and ideas with optimistic possibilities. The group has produced an anthology of “stories and visions for a better future.”

With these ideas introduced into the bloodstream of science-fiction, they are now apparently starting to flow through to the wider popular culture.

Tomorrowland, a film with a consciously optimistic view of the future was released earlier this year. Not only does it present the white-walled, clean, ideal of the future, it refutes the doubtful view of the future prevalent in a lot of society today. More recently, the “space western” film, The Martian, has been released.

The Martian is, according to the New York Times, “unambiguously on the side of science and rationalism with glints of manifest destiny” Even this is a change for science fiction films. Many blockbusters in the genre have been lost in a dystopian fog.

The Martian is directed by Ridley Scott who 35 years ago directed Blade Runner, the hugely influential film based on the story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by author Philip K Dick.

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Scott’s involvement in this film is interesting because of the role Blade Runner had in redirecting the aesthetics of the future towards a negative, claustrophobic, polluted and dystopian vision. In fact, after Blade Runner was released sci-fi movies began to turn away from any kind of idealized future in favor of increasingly dark visions.

In my younger years, I actually recall how the pristine white walls and silver space suits of Star Trek and Logan’s Run seemed jarringly dated. Utopian presumptions of the future were the epitome of out-of-date, stale visions, which were clearly products of the past. Even the premise and presumption of an-ever improving world portrayed in science-fiction rang particularly false in the harsh recession of the early 1980s. The concept of an ever-improving future made little sense in the era of the union-smashing Reagan, either, because the rising wages made possible by unions that helped lift expectations began to stall.

Instead of the hope of a transcendent space program, we had the Challenger disaster and the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars.

Tomorrowland presents an unabashedly optimistic vision of the future.
Tomorrowland presents an unabashedly optimistic vision of the future.

In the years that followed sci-fi sub-genre of cyberpunk showed, like in the film Blade Runner, a world of unintended consequences of technology, many of them negative. In the film, Los Angeles in 2019 was claustrophobic, polluted and overcrowded.

In the cyberpunk genre, there was social disorder. Where there had once been citizens and society, there were now gangs and violence.

Over time, the notion of cutting edge sci-fi departed fully from the aesthetics of idealized possibilities of Arthur Clark, Isaac Asmiov.

So what about today? If the mood about the future was turning negative while the economy was relatively strong, how could optimism for the future – at least in the sci-fi vision of it – increase now as the outlook for highpaying jobs grows clouded and unsure?

After all, we’re living in a time when change brought on by technology is challenging the nation-state’s power, the very political unit that can most effectively ensure higher standards of living for citizens. The internet and terror seem to be a perfect match, the one extending the reach and fear of the other. High-tech weapons of war are more deadly, more far reaching. Decades of carbon emissions are spurring environmental catastrophe. The war in Syria has claimed more than 250,000 lives, sending 4 million refugees packing, many of whom have nothing left to lose by going to Europe. And the “solution” we’re told is yet more bombing. China and Russia are on the march and not looking back. We seem to be living in the technological nightmare described by the cyberpunk authors. What possible reason does anyone have for an optimistic outlook today?

If history is any guide, optimistic visions of the future thrive during dark times.

A tower drawing by Hugh Ferriss (the Avery Collection on Flickr)
A tower drawing by Hugh Ferriss (the Avery Collection on Flickr)

Consider that some of the most optimistic visions of the future were born in eras of war and strife. The 1939 World’s Fair in New York included the World of Tomorrow exhibit, showing the possibilities of technology for the future.  Issac Asmiov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark, the big three of science fiction, lived through World War II, as they wrote what could be seen as ambitious views of the future. They would have experienced the Depression before then. Worth noting, too, that these authors would have seen the rise in incomes and living standards during post-war boom, which again, may have set the trajectory for their expectations for the future. E.g. Why will things improve? Because that’s what happens – time passes and the life improves. 

With Project Hieroglyph, one of Neal Stephenson’s aims is a plan to design a Tall Tower that would stretch 15 or even 20 kilometres into the sky. People and machines would be just an elevator ride away from the stratosphere, making the possibility of space launches cheaper. But as any anthropologist would tell you, this desire for great structures isn’t exactly new. In the 1920s, and the 1930s, in the depths of the Depression, architectural artist Hugh Ferriss drew imaginary epic structures that would have been many kilometres high. Many of the critics of the time assumed these structures would be forthcoming. Such was the thrust of scientific and engineering progress until that point.

Whatever link there is between optimistic visions of the future and grim realities in the here-and-now, there is no magical lever holding them together. And any turn in the outlook for sci-fi is a recent thing, in its early days, and very hard to quantify. There is no scale to check. But it’s a trend worth watching because if the implicit expectation for a better future takes hold among certain governments and populations, it can eclipse the kind of wait-and-see attitude linked to a short-term view of the future, a subject Peter Thiel discusses in his book.

One big question is whether sci-fi, by visualizing a better world that seeps into the public’s imagination, can shift the the goalposts for society, first by influencing leading thinkers, who in turn influence others? Or, is this just an illusion we have in looking backwards? After all, the New Wave of Sci Fi which was shot through with some idealism for the future, took place in the 1960s, a period when standards of living continued to improve and expectations were high. As the Beatles sang in 1967: “It’s getting better all the time”

So which came first? Was the optimism in fiction based on real-world economic gains in the quality of life, experienced by society and writer alike? If so, was this tone of past sci-fi an expression of society’s inherent hope for humanity at the time?

Or did sci-fi have a special role in guiding expectations, of presenting a tangible vision of the future, over the horizon? And then did it create a virtuous cycle, in which technological breakthroughs were conceived, and then expected, and then accomplished, because society’s imagination was led by them?

If positive sci-fi was just another reflection of the existing economic reality, can these changes in sci-fi today really affect the outcome of today’s economy?

My sense is that the rapid changes in the economy, the shift from a manufacturing to service economy, from a national to a globalized economy, are so disorienting, they have left people wary of having a vision of the future, let alone a positive one. If you want an example of a film that is a metaphor for the outlook for middle class America, circa 2009, check out The Road. The untold catastrophe can easily be seen as a metaphor for the individual versus the economy.  Where once there was a presumption of progress, today there is silence brought on both by the economic uncertainty and the doubt that comes from mass knowledge?

Another example, this from Australia: weeks before Australian PM Tony Abbott was replaced in a backroom coup, one private sector economist, commenting on weak consumer confidence, suggested the government’s focus on national security threats seemed to be tamping down on economic activity.

In the new media environment we live in, the detail and volume of fear served up to the public can be all-consuming. Without a countering vision of something positive to focus on, it’s no wonder the public becomes fixated on fear. The incoming PM has gone to great pains to emphasize an optimistic future for Australia, while laying out the challenge of creating an innovative economy.

But this little example is a microcosm of a much bigger problem for advanced economies which is the lack of narrative about where these societies stand in the cosmology of politics in a post-Cold War, digital age.

Into this vacuum, the sort of huge and ambitious undertakings articulated by people such as Neal Stephenson and the minds behind Hieroglyph come.

As Stephenson pointed out, part of the idea of these ambitious visions is to present projects that freshly graduated engineers could spend an entire career on. In other words, they are about Thinking Big. And this sort of thinking would go some distance to helping advanced, Western democratic countries define themselves in this new digital age.

Should talented sci-fi authors, screenwriters, directors begin to sketch out a positive vision for the public, one in which technology turns a corner and begins solving, rather than worsening problems, it could have a subtle but nonetheless, real effect. It would be impossible to measure. But the thematic change could be significant.

After all, a big part of economics is about expectations and behaviors. It’s been this lack of a Big Picture which has dogged much decision-making since the advent of modern globalization.

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