There are few things we love more than predictions of what the future will hold. And predicting the future is a major industry, despite the obvious fact that most predictions turn out to be wrong. Yet now matter how much fun it is, there’s an insidious side to our love affair with the future and it’s one that’s sapping our mental and emotional resilience constantly.
Futurism (the activity of predicting the future, not the Avant-garde art movement) is a ubiquitous activity of our society. It’s in our newspapers and magazines, our scientists and engineers are trained to spout it, it’s built into the strategies of major corporations from Google Glasses to Google Cars. In science fiction, it arguably has a major industry of its own.
But futurism is also a major narrative force. It tells us how to understand our present, and why we should look forward to the future. It was the cornerstone of the state-sponsored religion of materialism in the former Communist bloc, justifying a repressive political system with reference to the bright future it was supposed to create.
It continues to perform a similar function today, justifying the present with reference to the future happiness of mankind through advancing technology and never-ending economic growth. And that is why it can be so damaging to our resilience, as individuals and as a society.
The Futurism Game
Futurists have one of the world’s best jobs. They get to sell people a vision of the future, and neither they nor their descendants have to give refunds if they’re wrong.
Jules Verne, one of the founding fathers of both science fiction and futurism, managed to get a great deal right, from submarines to the moon landing. The record since then is a little spottier. FE Smith, former cabinet minister and friend of Winston Churchill, prior to his death in 1930, wrote, “The man of 2030 will set off for the weekend, after his work, in a small, swift aeroplane, as reliable and cheap as the motor-car on which we depend today.”
This widespread prediction of personal aircraft and jetpacks replacing the car, stoked by the rapid development of aviation technology between World War I and the 1960s, was the bread and butter of futurism for quite some time. Even if you happen to own a personal ultralight aircraft today, chances are that your local municipal and aviation authorities would have some views on using it to make your daily commute.
Aviation technology has long since settled into a more incremental pace of improvement. While today’s futurism has gone off personal aviation, it works in exactly the same way. It looks at whatever areas of technology are currently advancing and projects from there, whether it’s artificial intelligence, brain-body interface or genetically-engineered humans. The game stays the same.
If projecting the future from the present is hit and miss in the technological arena, it is nearly always a miss in the geopolitical arena. Who in 1900 would have imagined the obscene toll taken by the World Wars, let alone the rapid decline of colonialism, the fall of the British Empire or the decline of great power competition in Europe? Who in 1980 could have imagined the end of the Cold War or the fall of the Soviet Union happening the way they did?
You may remember this post in which we outlined the development of postponed happiness as a major theme in Western life. First, we were taught to think of happiness as something external to ourselves, something that could only be fully enjoyed after death. Then, with the rise of Protestantism, we couldn’t even take solace in good works as an indication of our eternal happiness. Yet, we reasoned, God would bless the elect with prosperity. As capitalism became our new religion, we retained this idea of external, postponed happiness.
We have created a system of eternal movement in which happiness is always relative to material things which we can never have enough of. Happiness will come, we are told, with the next paycheque, the next promotion, the next business deal, the next product… But futurism uses scientific and technological development to reinforce this projection of happiness upon the ever-increasing technology of the future. In futurism, the naïve dreams of the Victorian era live on, from the pill to cure all illness to the industrial production of limitless food.
Even more problematic are the new dreams being sold - genetically-engineered transhumans, brain-computer interface technologies for everyday use, pervasive artificial intelligence. These are justified not by a sane analysis of cost and benefit or by principled application of logic, but simply because it is change.
Out of Control
The cumulative effect of all of this messaging is to justify whatever happens as part of the inevitable march of progress, sanctifying new technologies, new industrialization, new de-industrialization with the stamp of future happiness, whatever present problems it may bring.
Let’s look at some of the most recent changes that we have allowed to slip into our society without exercising any form of collective, conscious control over our destinies. We have accepted pervasive surveillance both physical and electronic, by government and industry alike, touching every aspect of our lives, from the apps on our smartphones to the televisions in our living rooms to the onboard systems in our cars.
To quote the Federation President in Star Trek VI, “Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not follow that we must do that thing.”
The Never-Ending March
You may have read of Stephen Hawking’s pronouncement that humanity must be careful to ward off extinction level events for the next few centuries, until we have developed the technology to colonize other worlds and so perpetuate our species.
This is the underlying theme of so much of modern futurism- man, or his technological creations if the Singularity theory proves correct, must live on forever, jumping from planet to planet until the stars have burnt out, and then presumably finding a way to exist in the universe full of black holes that will follow. That never-ending march of progress, which will so change humanity as to ensure it will have virtually nothing in common with ourselves, is the ultimate justification for never-ending, unchecked technological, scientific and economic growth.
Whether we destroy Earth’s biosphere in the process matters less if we can hop from planet to planet like a virus looking for a new host.
This is exactly the creed of C.S. Lewis’ villain, Weston, in Out of the Silent Planet. Weston, who has come to an inhabited Mars with the intention of taking over and colonizing a world which he sees as primitive, argues the right of civilization to expand without limit across the universe by any means necessary, pushing aside all lower cultures. He admits that those people of the far future for whom he imagines he is acting would be virtually unrecognizable to him in any respect. Ransom, the protagonist, translates Weston’s high-flying self-justification into the natives, but cannot make it sound less than utterly ridiculous.
The reply of the spiritual being who leads the peoples of Mars has the beginnings of a brilliant deconstruction of this brand of progressive materialism. He says that an evil spirit has taught us to abandon all moral values except for one- the love of one’s own kind. And this is exactly the state of modern materialism. All moral values that can stand in the way of the “progress” desired are deconstructed, and yet the reason why we should care about some far-distant future iteration of the human race long after we are dead is never brought up.
The Unfulfilled Promise
The reason why there is not and will never be enough progress to bring us happiness is that the real sources of unhappiness are internal to human beings.
As an example, global agribusiness has long promised that industrial food production would yield more than enough food to feed the world’s population. We currently have the capacity to feed everyone on the planet. Why doesn’t it happen?
Quite simply, the global food system is designed around the profit margins of global agribusiness. In that world, food aid in the form of wheat products discourages local farmers from growing the much healthier variety of crops that they previously depended on, leaving countries dependent on a nutritionally deficient global system.
Farmers throughout the world are losing access to land and water as corporations take over more and more of it. That corporate land is not used for local food production, but for export to the developed world. Meanwhile, throughout prosperous countries, excess food is discarded in vast quantities, and excess agricultural production is destroyed to keep prices at the desired level.
The source of global hunger is a system designed around unlimited greed, a system that continues to justify itself as the vanguard of the fight against hunger on the basis of what it produces rather than what it delivers to the world as a whole.
And this is exactly what futurism does that is so damaging to our resilience. We are encouraged to invest our hopes, our identity, our money, our lifestyle in a future of unlimited growth, underwriting a system that does nothing to resolve the true sources of human misery. From chemical contamination of our food, water and soil to the growth of economic inequality to the offshoring of production to the countries with the most miserable working conditions to the increasing unemployment resulting from automation, anything can be justified under the all-excusing rubric of progress.
In Buddhism they say that any “happiness” that depends on external stimuli and is not stable within a person is the result of dualistic thinking. They call it, “contaminated happiness,” and contaminated happiness contains within it the seeds of misery. So long as we seek happiness from material things, we will never have enough. The seeds of greed, anger, fear, all the human qualities that generate so much of our collective misery, are contained in this approach.
It is only in addressing the inner causes of unhappiness first that the world’s problems will truly begin to resolve. When we can develop technology not as a panacea but as an aid, when we can think through its impact dispassionately, at that point, we will have truly made progress.