Other Ten Percent 8/15/13

Aug 15 2013

You know, the weird thing about the schedule we’re on for OTP right now is that I’m not actually overwhelmed by the ammount of work I’ve got to put in to make it work but it seems like it’s slightly time-shifted from whatever my brain would find satisfying. I keep thinking up fairly good ideas for tuesday/thursday articles ON tuesday and thursday and then when it comes time to actually write them I’ve already started to get bored with them.

Here’s the idea I liked yesterday that’s boring me now: when did futurism get obsessed with the apocalypse? Like did we just never shake that off from the millennium or what? Because I can’t tell you how bored I am with views of the future that seem to divide the future into a binary where we solve global warming or we all die as a cautionary tail for aliens who, presumably, will come along and nod sagely that the environmentalists were right all along.

I mean let’s start with the fact that we’re not going to fix global warming. We missed that boat by like TONS of scientific estimates and even the ones that don’t think so are like “we’ve still got six years!” and…yeah that’s not going to happen. There’s some evidence that Obama’s got like a Xanatos Gambit of a plan for the EPA that might keep us from making shit even worse but the climate’s kinda fucked and its likely to stay that way for as long as I’m alive unless we figure out how to upload me into a robot body. (Still holding out hope that mind uploading is SUPER easy and we just forgot to carry a seven somewhere or something.)

On the other hand, it’s looking more and more like we’re NOT all going to die from that and, instead, like most awful things humanity has done that had a reasonable chance of destroying us, it’s just going to kill lots and lots of poor people. This is still bad enough that I’d really prefer it NOT happen but it’s also not bad enough that it’s plausibly going to be the defining historical state for the next century. We’ve been doing awful shit with second order effects that kill the poor for a few centuries now and we keep finding new and interesting ways to frame history as anything BUT “awful people kill countless innocents for slightly better quality of life” so I don’t see that stopping any time soon.

So that shit got dark. Seriously. Super dark. I just went to go do some stuff and came back to read this and…sorry. This was supposed to be about how futurism should be optimistic. On some level though that’s maybe good? If I’m going to suggest that futurism cheer up I should probably acknowledge that the futurists who are obsessed with the end of mankind aren’t just like…making it up.

I’m not suggesting a self-conscious move toward optimism in sci-fi the way that Neil Stevenson and others have recently. Most of the stuff I’ve seen come from that have been huge public infrastructure projects that reek vaguely of better designed 60s retro-futurism. “Let’s get back to the can-do optimism of the space age but also say ‘Material Sciences’ a lot!”

Instead I’m suggesting looks at the future that just go ahead and assume that since we’ve thought a lot of shit was apocalyptic before that we’ve just learned to live with we’ll probably do that again. What’s life like when everything goes about as badly as we think it possibly could but we keep just improvising to make shit work?

It’s 2063. There are cameras everywhere to the point where the expectation of privacy seems quaint. Late stage capitalism or whatever we want to call the clusterfuck of huge corporations constantly battling for just inhuman amounts of profit has escalated into effectively self-perpetuating patent and copyright wars that us mere mortals don’t really have much of a part in. Democracy continues to be the worst political system except for all the others that have ever been tried from time to time. And….things are pretty much just keeping on. I see no real reason all that won’t be true in 50 years since they’re pretty much true now.

I think the thing that futurism has lost when it imagines that future isn’t the idea that that kinda sucks. I mean when you’re describing the apocalyptic future as basically the present it’s kinda hard not to notice how little you like the present. I think what futurism has lost is the realization that history rarely flows logically very often.

I have very little doubt that 2063 will feature most all of the depressing things I’ve discussed here: climate change, flawed democracy, ubiquitous surveillance. These are big structures whose inertia has already shifted. But I do think that 2063 is going to be so bizarre that most of those predictions are going to just be underlying conditions to whatever 2063 actually thinks of as the present.

It’d be like looking at the future from 1963 and predicting that in 50 years we’d still have poverty. I mean sure. You’re right. Poverty is still here. But you’ve also failed to address the intervening 50 years of history. We’ve failed to address the underlying structural problems of our society in the last half century but that’s because we’ve kinda had shit to do. History kept happening which kinda put a damper on our theoretical busy schedule of obsessing over our failures to cure the ills of the human condition. Sure we haven’t figured out inequality but we were kinda busy negotiating an end to the Cold War that was so absolutely batshit insane sci-fi authors didn’t see it coming when it was like 4 years away. Seriously, Ender’s Game thought communism was so powerful it was going to take an invasion by an alien hive-mind to take it out and that book was published IN NINETEEN EIGHTY FIVE.

How is the future NOT going to be exactly what I expect it to be? That’s what I’m interested in. Which part of the unevenly distributed future am I not living in yet? This now seems like a really long and depressing way to say that the future’s going to be weirder than we expect it to be but it IS going to be weirder and I wish futurism would lose its odd obsession with trying to tame the future and get back to trying to make sure we understood just how bizarre the future can possibly be.

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