Friday, September 22, 2017

The Future Hasn't Been Invented Yet

This disgruntled article from Slate's Future Tense sort of struck a cord with me last week because it made a pretty good point while simultaneously undermining the point it was trying to make to begin with. Not to mention that it's premise it's kind of shaky to begin with. The topic of creating the future is one near and dear to my heart primarily because, thus far, the books I've written have been either some vague, unspecified 'not too distant future' or in the case of the one I'm working on now, the very distant future. I've read and have read plenty of science fiction that deals with the future, so topics and articles like this matter to me.

So, let's take it from the top, shall we?

From what I can tell, the original bone the article is attempting to pick is with the overall 'futurism' industry out there. Bankrolled by corporations, think-tanks and business-types, the article points the finger at the fact that rarely, if ever, do the future visions promulgated by the 'futurism' industry imagine a world with capitalism- and that's a problem.

Okay- first of all, how cool is it that there's a 'futurism' industry? Apparently I'm in the wrong line of work, because people get paid to look at the world today and then think about where it's going to be ten, twenty, thirty or three hundred years down the line. 'Futurist' is officially going on my list of dream jobs, right under 'Working in the SyFy Channel Writer's Room when they come up with their next ridiculous B-movie of the week.'

Second of all, they're not wrong. It's just that their complaint is somewhat flawed. First, it assumes that what we have going now is capitalism. I would argue the opposite- what we call 'capitalism' today has about as much relationship to actual capitalism than the 'communism' practiced by the Soviet Union had to actual communism. Markets aren't free. There's a big, ugly, massive corrupt nexus between business, government and media- especially in America. When residents in Florida can't use solar panels during outages because Florida Power and Light lobbied to make that illegal, that's not capitalism. When city code enforcers hit the streets right after Hurricane Irma to start slapping fines on people up to their elbows in hurricane detritus, that's not capitalism. At least not to me...

I would argue that what we have is closer to corporatism than capitalism. So there's that...

The article does point out that there are visions of a post-capitalist future out there, most notably among them being the United Federation of Planets from Star Trek. But here's the thing: the economics of Star Trek have been annoyingly inconsistent over the years. There's references to indicate that they're in a post-capitalist society, but at the same time, there are also passing references to buying things with credits and having credits and owning property so I don't know what the deal is there.

Kim Stanley Robinson and his visions of the future are also cited- and those do tend to be a more explicitly post-capitalist society- especially with the Mars Trilogy. I think I'm honestly about due to re-read those, but the Constitutional Convention that takes place in the early going of Blue Mars is an incredibly detailed vision of the future that KSR is building. If I have a quibble with it, it's that the collectivist nature of it seems a little too good to be true sometimes. How do you overcome the natural tendency of humans to fall into hierarchies? Maybe I can get behind no private property, but people to simultaneously want to be around other people and want their own space all at the same time. (Like I said: I'm going to have to re-read the Mars Trilogy and really dig into this aspect of it.)

The post-capitalist future that I think I like the best is Cory Doctorow's Walkaway. It assumes that technology and the internet, like so many other things, will eventually disrupt the capitalist/corporatist system of the world. If you can make everything you want for free you can walkaway from the system itself. It's not about ideology and new constitutions- it's just taking advantage of the flaw in the capitalist/corporatist system itself: if you don't participate, the system breaks down.

Which brings us back around to the original point: not enough visions of the future after 'capitalism' (or whatever you want to call the current hot mess we're all dealing with.) The article is right in pointing out that it reflects a lack of imagination among futurists because they all work for business that are capitalistic in nature and don't want to think about a future where they don't matter. The solution that the article proposes though is just as flawed as their original premise: anti-capitalist, leftist, post-capitalist visions of the future from the Left suffer from the same problem that the current ones do. They lack imagination. Political theory sort of exploded in the 19th Century- before that, there were really things like anarchism or communism until folks like Marx and Bakunin came along and invented them. While it's true the Futurism Industry  needs more creativity in thinking about the future, responding to that lack of imagination with an lack of imagination that's equally blinkered by ideological thinking is also a problem.

So many things today are either/or choices. You're either for capitalism or against it. Republican or Democrat. Trump or not Trump. But there's more than two ways to think about the future- and try visions of the future would step outside the current, limited box of ideologies that drives our thinking today and try their best to think outside the box and realize that the future hasn't been invented yet.

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