Choose your trip: climate change or a colony on Mars

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.

Farmscrapers – Asian Cairns, Vincent Callebaut Architectures

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.

A nearly religious experience? Colonizing Mars (D Mitriy, creative commons)

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.

Paris, site of the global conference on climate change (US State Dept)

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.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel Studios)

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?

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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.

The future: a great place to relax (Image from Deep Space Industries video)

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.

IS photo altered at 4Chan (Imgur)

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).

Russian ship reportedly firing missiles at targets in Syria (Russian Defence Ministry)

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.

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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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Science fiction as a bellwether

I have been reading more about optimistic and ambitious visions sketched by science fiction. Before the Walkman, Apple IIe, and Silicon Valley re-directed the creative imagination of much of the tech world, it was governments that led the charge into new frontiers. And rather than the anticipation surrounding new apps and devices that would be brought to market, the public marveled at big technology and science pursued by their governments. Saturn 5 rocket. The Space Shuttle. The Concord. The SST. The SR-71. Particle accelerators. Supercomputers. Of all the elements of the historical Cold War, this gaze upward to the sky and outward to the limits of possibility is one of the most missed aspects – and yet it is hardest to quantify or explain. There is an element of zeitgeist in the interplay between technological aspirations and the times and whether the outlook is hopeful or pessimistic.

A quote from author Kim Stanley Robinson in Smithsonian Magazine hints at this and it resounded with me in part because the glut of seemingly bad news out there these days. Robinson said :

“Science fiction represents how people in the present feel about the future,” Robinson says. “That’s why ‘big ideas’ were prevalent in the 1930s, ’40s and partly in the ’50s. People felt the future would be better, one way or another. 

The 1930s-1950s were marked by the Depression, war and post-war rebuilding – a pretty dark backdrop for writers’ imagination. The same article notes that the cyberpunk genre emerged in the 1980s, a time I remember as pretty culturally empty, full of angst and when the panic of the arms race gave way to a fear that a computer glitch could set off mutually assured destruction. Clearly, if sci-fi is a bellwether, we are living through the darkness the cyberpunks’ foresaw 30 years ago. Just look at the images of beheadings published online. The public is horrified and, like watching a car-crash in slow motion, can’t look away. 

Negative news today
Negative news today

It’s probably for this reason that I enjoy science-fiction from the 1960s because it was conceived of in a time when the Space Race was in full swing, incomes were rising and possibilities felt bright for the generation that had grown up with no memory of the Depression or World War. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar concludes with an ambitious plan by a multinational company and the US State Department to lift a small African nation into the modern world. People believed in achieving big things.

Space elevator (courtesy Liftport
Optimistic visions for the future – a space elevator
(courtesy Liftport

So, given this casual linkage between science fiction and the era of its creation, what can we make of new optimistic visions in science fiction? Is it possible we’re entering a time roughly equivalent to the 1930s, in terms of geopolitical forebodings and slumping economies? Sure. And with unrest from Libya straight through to eastern Europe, there is plenty to worry about. The Islamic State captures the world’s attention with their lurid execution videos. West African countries – the same location of the fictional Beninia from Stand on Zanzibar – struggle to contain the Ebola outbreak, while the world fears the virus could mutate. It’s hard to see a cause for optimism.

But history runs in cycles. And maybe nascent optimism is the vision-thing in science fiction today. It seems counterintuitive, but just as event seem to worsen in unexpected ways, countercurrents continue to run. Surely, stories written now won’t change the world overnight. But the ideas introduced into the bloodstream of the culture have a way of catching on, refracting, expanding. Now the visions just need the economic and historical imperatives to pull them forward.