We talk about living in the future, but there are lots of different futures we could be living in. On Election Day, I saw a tweet referring to us as living in “the timeline with the Black president and flying killer robots”. It made me wonder just how much we see the present through the lens of futurism from the past.
Hans Rosling, a genius statistician studying global population (who also gave one of the best TED talks of all time), recently reported that the total number of young people in the world–people under 15–is no longer increasing. I guess we’re not living in the Stand on Zanzibar future of massive overpopulation. On the other hand, information synthesis as Brunner described it is more important than ever.
This election brings us a Hindu congresswoman, a lesbian senator, a bisexual congresswoman, a female Asian senator born in another country, a half-Asian war veteran congresswoman with artificial limbs. Are we approaching Star Trek‘s diverse future? But it’s hard to imagine the Federation without star ships and aliens, and we’re still at the level of getting excited about a robot examining rocks on Mars.
I’m not suggesting that these futurists failed by not accurately predicting the future; rather, I think they succeeded in giving us visions we could aspire to. The parts of our future that are most under our control are the parts that look most like science fiction’s predictions. We don’t get to decide whether there are aliens, and global demographic change is extremely difficult to influence. But we can make our government more diverse, and we can develop new careers based on navigating the sea of data. And perhaps our choices to prioritize those things are directed in part by their familiarity from science fiction.
The flip side is that things the futurists didn’t imagine can be hard for us to see. It’s one thing to talk in broad terms about global warming shaping the world; it’s another to really grasp what it’s like for people living through the aftermath of a massive storm. When I think of the Manhattan canals in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, all I see are the wrecked homes and displaced people in Staten Island and the Rockaways–and I wonder how many of those images I’ve seen only because I live in New York and have gone looking for reports from survivors and volunteers. It was the same after Hurricane Katrina, when national attention wandered off while the storm’s victims were still struggling. Are the well-off programmed to ignore the less privileged, or just not taught how to see them?
What other past visions of the future are shaping our present, teaching us what to expect and giving us goals?