The Paris climate conference has come and gone, crystallizing international momentum on global warming. It’s a survival story on a mass scale that calls for action. Sure.
But there is another meta-story afoot gaining momentum. The drive for a human visit to Mars.
Both stories offer a secular vision of salvation. One, the restoration of our planet, the other, a transcendent journey to another.
These dueling narratives play out as the outlook for sci-fi itself may be turning positive.
Jeet Heer writing in The New Republic about utopian sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson:
In contemporary culture, utopia has all but disappeared from our imaginative map while dystopias proliferate.
Climate change, so difficult to grapple with because it requires the cooperation of nations across the globe, points to how our environmental problems are fused with the narrowing of our political options.
The end of history, much heralded by Francis Fukuyama, has been accompanied not by a flourishing of democracy but by plutocratic-friendly gridlock that prevents any political action that challenges the interests of entrenched wealth. The enemy of utopia isn’t dystopia, but oligarchy. (emphasis mine)
In this moment, I can’t help but think that part of the problem facing societies and economies today is that the adoption of life-changing technology is only half complete. The sharing economy benefits companies and consumers – but many workers, for example, say they are still struggling to gain from it.
The possibilities created through technology, nonetheless, have lifted millions out of poverty, empowered marginalized voices and raised standards of living. Enriched middle classes bring with them an expectation of justice in a way unequal societies don’t. And the catalyst that helped create the middle class was a chain of tech enabled productivity gains going back to the Enlightenment.
Of course, the notion of a positive future made possible by imagined technology is utopian in nature. One reason for more optimism in sci-fi lately may simply be the exhaustion with the dystopian genre.
Another reason may be the darkening outlook for the real world. Writers, audiences, screenwriters may simply tire of the Apocalypse Again and Again, particularly as the real-world news of terror and threats intrudes on their attention.
Sci-fi that passively guides technological development reflects society’s collective imagination. As in the Cold War, the battle for the public’s imagination is starting to again have some geopolitical bearing.
You can call it the soft power of competing dreams. While China remains a closed system, with its government preoccupied with corralling the imagination of its own people, in the US and Western nations, the dreaming is more “open source”.
As we know, ideas from books or films can lodge themselves in the mind of the public and become something that guides the real-world output of scientists and engineers.
Even before Project Hieroglyph, there had been moves to marry science and entertainment for a societal gain.
Created in 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences, the Science and Entertainment Exchange puts film producers, directors and writers in touch with scientists and engineers.
The idea is to ground fantastical stories in real science, literally putting science in the picture for the public. That’s what the Science and Entertainment Exchange did with Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The White House has embraced sci-fi in this way, too, although the message gets lost among the cascade of daily crises.
Don’t believe me? Check out the interview White House Office of Science and Technology’s Tom Kalil conducted with former NASA physicist Dr Phillip Metzger, who discusses the motivation for a grand project such as bootstrapping a solar system civilization. Says Metzger:
The challenges we face are not only those related to sustainability and the resource constraints of a finite planet. We are running out of adventures, too: the mountains have all been climbed, the continents explored, and the romance of sailing away on a tall ship to undiscovered islands is no more. What will fire the imaginations of the next generation?
Don’t discount this human need for adventure. No doubt it plays into nations’ willingness to flirt with war. As for a technological adventure, the promise of such an ambitious, trailblazing future has two sides.
The first: the country or society that can more effectively exploit technology can expect a stronger economy and more options for the future.
But a positive future made possible by world-changing technology has another value, too. It can absorb the public’s imagination, in a time when many competing images are available (religious extremism, nationalism, conspiracy.) In other words, major technological projects overseen by governments say: Dream our dreams, world. They generate soft-power, a concept developed by Joseph Nye. Don’t just think of the Apollo moon landings but the general admiration for Chinese bullet trains.
Promises of adventure, or new mountains to climb, or new continents to explore provide a far off goal, one that, if achieved, create a sensation of awe. The kind of “technology” needed for this kind of experience likely won’t be more apps for the atomized experience of an iPhone. By technology, I mean “poetic technology” in the way anthropologist David Graeber defines it: “the use of rational and technical means to bring wild fantasies to reality.”
It’s technology exceeding the expectations of humanity, literally lifting humanity’s gaze.
How “poetic” can this technology be?
Here’s an example offered by Dr Metzger in the same White House interview:
Future generations might build a space telescope described by astronomer Seth Shostak, which would consist of a constellation of mirrors spread out over a 100 million miles. Such a telescope would be capable of taking a picture the size of an automobile on a planet orbiting a star that is 100 light years away! This would be the equivalent of seeing an object the size of a cell nucleus on Pluto from Earth.
This is the stuff of fantasy.
But that’s the point.
In addition to the scientific progress, this project’s greater benefit may be that it symbolizes civilization’s aspirations and capability, much in the way trains or rockets once did.
You get a sense of the possibility in the utopian optimism in this ad for a California-based asteroid mining start-up called Deep Space Industries.
What other business can have a sales pitch like this?
What will tomorrow look like?
The world is at its limits
And yet we all want more
And why not?
Why shouldn’t the future be brighter than today?
Talk about lifting one’s gaze. Belief in a better future can be a major motivator for positive economic outcomes.
This is exactly where politics come in.
Fear of political decline, of strategic competition, of geopolitical rivalry have traditionally been drivers of the adoption of many technological innovations.
The airplane was invented before WWI, but it was only the conflict that made their use widespread in the peace afterward. Radar was developed for war, and went on to allow a boom in commercial air travel. Early social media supercharged US Democratic candidate Howard Dean’s run, but it took Barack Obama’s campaign to really unlock its power.
Islamic State has taken social media to a darker place. And confronted with terrorism, groups like Anonymous and 4Chan are adapting too, applying rubber duckies over the faces of militants.
Russia has been using the war in Syria to show off new weapons, ones meant to signal Moscow’s vitality to its rivals in the West. (On the issue of Russia’s relative strength note this reality: Russia’s GDP per capita is less than half of Britain‘s, even as Russia’s population is more than double Britain’s).
After two decades of geopolitical lull following the end of the Cold War, competitive pressure is growing.
This time the challenge is coming without the neat borders seen in the second half of the 20th Century. In fact, these days it’s all a little confused. International affairs are in a state of flux that hasn’t been seen in decades. The prospect for full-on crisis continues to increase (look at the downing of MH17, the Europe migrant crisis, Syria, and the Turkey’s downing of the Russian fighter jet).
As powers jockey, part of the longer-term competition is the fear of decline. Economic decline. Political decline. Fear of losing power…what have you.
It’s in these times when nations, countries, peoples have to grow resourceful to stay viable. The recently announced innovation push in Australia, for example, seeks to foster an ‘Ideas Boom.’
New ideas and new industries have to generate stronger economic growth because, frankly, stronger economic growth and rising incomes underpin political legitimacy, a fact highlighted by American post-war economist Paul Samuelson.
But there is another factor too. As the torrent of information available in the world clashes and contradicts before us, the human desire for order and meaning remains. It is a desire that would have been largely satisfied by religion in the West in earlier times. It still is satisfied by religion in the Muslim world. But for the increasingly secularized West, people seek the experience elsewhere: in politics, in social movements, in protest movements, in any number of activities to unify people under the banner of a bigger cause.
Causes like, well, combating global climate change a humanity-changing journey to Mars.
If you accept that the word ‘religion’ is derived from the Latin religare or “to bind,” you can argue that the effects of these grand narratives are quasi-religious.
Both major projects could galvanize people across culture, class, geography and transport them to a different place, in a sort of transcending act. Both meta-narratives offer a sense of purpose that for some achieves a nearly spiritual quality.
If you don’t think there is a something vaguely religious to the purpose of such utopias, consider how sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow discusses the concept. Rather than utopia as a perfect society set in motion like a wind-up clock, he says:
“What is Utopian is the belief that when the disaster comes — and it will come — your neighbors will look after you, and so you should go look after your neighbors. And if you believe that, then it becomes self-fulfilling.”
“I think that Utopia is a theory of human action, about our willingness to look after each other in times of extremis, and not a political system that describes what we must and must not do, or can and cannot do.”
In other words, utopia is not a place but a sort of state of grace, a transcendent solidarity, which in another time might have been the moral code of a religion. Even Doctorow’s pledge that disaster “will come” has an apocalyptic (religious) air.
The challenges of terrorism, climate change, war, rising great power rivalry and political destabilization make it easy for people in Western society to get discouraged.
But there is an alternative.
Seeing the future through the lens of the potential of great technological goals and feats can actually help make sense of the world today. It can give the future much needed shape. Not only does the pursuit of huge, game-changing technological leaps offer direction inside society, it may help inoculate the West from challenges pressing in from the outside – the lure of radicalism, the maneuverings of Russia (particularly in the information space) and the threatening influence of China (in the political realm).
In Paris, the world took the first tentative step on climate action. But for many others, it’s Mars that continues to beckon.