That wasn’t always the case. As recently as the 1970s, imaginary tomorrows that went zooming off at right angles to the conventional wisdom were commonplace. In the decades since then, however, a curious sort of conformism has squeezed the collective imagination of our era into an increasingly narrow rut. Take any randomly chosen portrayal of the future nowadays, and rather more often than not, you’ll find two and only two differences from the present: on the one hand, technology extends its current trajectory straight out to the horizon; on the other, the attitudes and customs of this or that affluent group in today’s industrial societies become more generally accepted. Nothing else is allowed to change.
So narrow a view of the future isn’t limited to the vague mumblings of politicians and pundits, or for that matter such bargain-basement pop culture phenomena as the Star Trek franchise. It’s pervasive even in science fiction, which used to be far more open to alternative tomorrows. I’m thinking here, among other examples, of Neal Stephenson’s otherwise intriguing 2008 novel Anathem, which is set on an alternate Earth some 3,400 years after the equivalent of our time.
Mind you, Stephenson is better at pushing the boundaries than most. His alternate world features an intriguing scientific monasticism that invites comparison with the scholarly monasticism of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, to the extent that I’ve wondered more than once if some of Stephenson’s inspiration might have come from the subtle ambiguities of Hesse’s novel. Yet the inhabitants of his alternate world, living in the equivalent of 5400AD, wear t-shirts, eat energy bars, and text each other and access the internet on what, despite a change in name, are pretty obviously iPhones. Worse, they talk, think, and act in ways indistinguishable from their t-shirt-wearing, energy-bar-ingesting, iPhone-using equivalents in 2016.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Stephenson could have taken his entire story — plot, characters, dialogue, and all — and set it in an upscale San Francisco neighbourhood of today without the least sense of incongruity. It’s very much as though an ancient Roman science-fiction writer penned an adventure set in the twentieth century, in which everyone still wore togas, ate stuffed dormice, wrote on wax tablets, and had the same interests, attitudes, and habits as intellectuals at the court of Augustus Caesar — as though the future had no other options to draw on.
At that, as already noted, Stephenson’s vision goes further than most. A great deal of science fiction these days is still stuck rehashing the shopworn trope of Man’s Future in Space, ringing changes on a handful of imagined futures that were already old hat in the 1960s. Year after year, the technologies become more elaborate but the underlying ideas become more tightly focused on the concerns of the present moment, and tales that span entire universes fail to conjure up the rush of strangeness and wonder that authors once achieved with a trip to the Moon.
I submit that something has gone far astray here. It’s the same thing that leads Pentagon officials to publish projections of the military environment in 2035 based on the assumption that the only significant change between then and now will be the arrival of new technologies, and convinces affluent liberals that their carbon-intensive lifestyles don’t conflict with their environmentalist beliefs in any way that really matters. A great many people these days have lost track of the fact that the future really can be different from the present.
There’s a tremendous irony here, in that modern industrial society belongs to the minority of societies that pays attention to the reality of historical change. Far more common among human cultures is the belief that the true order of things was set forth once and for all at some point in the past, and any departure from that true order is an error waiting for correction. That’s very widespread among those peoples sufficiently comfortable with their environments that they don’t need to insert complex technological suites between themselves and the natural world — yes, that’s pronounced ‘primitive societies’ in our tribal jargon — but it’s not only found there; ancient Egypt and classical Japan, among many other complex literate civilisations, revered narratives that explained how the principles of right living were set out at the beginning of time.
Among the minority of human cultures that have seen history as a dynamic process, rather than a continual reaching back to the First Time, far and away the most common vision of time is cyclic rather than linear. From within the traditional Hindu or the classic Maya worldview, for instance. the future is the past; all things have happened before and will happen again, and while historical change takes place, there’s nothing genuinely new about it. That’s one of many reasons why the people who pinned their hopes of Utopia, apocalypse, or some fusion of the two on a nonexistent Mayan prophecy four years ago were barking up the wrong stump. The classic Mayan vision of time has no room for such things, since in that worldview, the rollover of the thirteenth baktun has happened and will happen countless times in the spinning circles of eternity.
It’s interesting to speculate on why it was that tribal peoples in one corner of the long peninsula stuck on the western end of Asia — yes, that would be Europe — broke away from those standard options and began to think about time as a straight line. The curious thing is that while the straight lines of history that dominate the imagination of our time lead ever upwards, the oldest-known version pointed the other way. We know that because a bitter old man named Hesiod, who lived on a hardscrabble farm in Boeotia during the last century or so of the Greek dark ages, put the tale into one of the oldest surviving works of Greek literature.
There had been a golden age in the past, Hesiod tells us, when people lived without labour and suffering, and the gods walked among men. There had been a silver age of harmless folly after that, and then a bronze age of war. Then had come the time of heroes, and finally the iron age of suffering and destitution, in which Hesiod believed he lived — and not without good reason. Eventually infants would be born with their hair already grey, and then inscrutable Zeus would send the last wretched remnants of humanity tumbling down into darkness and silence forever.
Christianity, Islam, and a baker’s dozen or so of their mostly forgotten rivals rebelled against that vision without actually changing it. Their solution to the terrible vision of a world in permanent decline involved the prophecy of a deus ex machina at the end of the tale, to lift up the faithful remnant to inscrutable heights. It was only after the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and the first stirrings of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth, to give rise to the modern vision of history as a process of perpetual improvement, a vast journey up from the darkness and squalor of the prehistoric past to the luminous possibilities of an imagined future.
For a good long time, too, ‘imagined’ was the operative world. Once the idea of progress found its initial foothold among eighteenth-century intellectuals, imagining the future that progress would bring became a growth industry. The resulting images extended from the highly practical to the highly absurd — I’m thinking here especially of Charles Fourier, who predicted (and apparently believed) that when humanity passed beyond Civilisation to the supreme state of Harmony, the oceans would turn to lemonade and wars between communities would be replaced by competitive orgies — but the most popular visions provided anchors for the hopes of millions.
Not so long ago, this was still true. The question I want to raise is why that was replaced with the present habit of thinking of the future as just like the present, only a little more so. I have an answer to propose, too: the reason so few people spend their time imagining a future of perpetual progress is that so few people actually believe in it any more.
Gregory Bateson, one of the twentieth century’s most versatile intellects, pointed out many years ago the role of double-binds in the origins of schizophrenia. The pattern he traced out works like this. Imagine a child growing up in a family in which there’s one set of overt, verbally expressed rules for behaviour, and another, covert set of rules that contradict the first. If the child breaks the overt rules by obeying the covert ones, he gets a negative verbal response, but a covert emotional reward; if the child breaks the covert rules by obeying the overt ones, he gets punished on some other pretext. If the child attempts to bring the contradiction out into the open, finally, he gets a reaction intended to terrify him into never mentioning the matter again.
It’s the last element, Bateson found, that makes the double-bind so lethal. If the child can talk to one other person who understands what’s happening, and can thereby get some confirmation of the fact that there really is something profoundly tangled going on, the double-bind breaks down and the child can shrug and say, ‘I guess mom and dad are just kind of crazy.’ It’s when the child has no such option — when he has to confront an apparently crazy pattern of behaviour without any way of knowing whether the craziness is in his family or in himself — that he’s likely to give up on reality altogether, and take refuge in madness.
Bateson’s theory of the double-bind has been on my mind of late, because much the same pattern has taken shape in modern industrial society in relation to technological progress. The overt, verbally expressed rules concerning progress can be summed up in a straightforward way as ‘whatever’s newer is by definition better.’ Listen to media pundits and the chattering classes generally, and you can count on hearing words like ‘innovative’, ‘advanced’, ‘progressive’, and their countless equivalents constantly being deployed as synonyms for ‘good’.
The problem with this habit is that rather more often than not these days, the innovative, the advanced, the progressive, and so on are no longer good in any sense that matters. Calvin Trillin got a nervous general laugh recently with an essay suggesting that the most frightening word in the English language is ‘upgrade’. Less humorous and more pervasive are the innovative pharmaceuticals and medical treatments that have side effects worse than the conditions they are supposed to treat, the advanced technologies that never quite do what they’re supposed to do, the progressive political and economic policies that routinely hurt far more people than they help. Every time a new round of products hits the shelves labelled ‘new and improved’, the odds go up that if they’re actually new, they won’t have been improved.
It could be that the political shifts of 2016 marked the point where the automatic equation of progress with improvement is starting to fray even in public. Recent discussions of driverless trucks and artificial intelligence in the media have admitted up front that these technologies, once they reach the market, will cause tens of millions of people to lose their jobs — this at a time when a soaring number of people across the industrial world have already been pushed out of the workforce with next to no provision for their survival, and the reaction has sparked a populist backlash that already has political establishments running for cover. The Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, and the Italian referendum are straws in the wind; if the mindless pursuit of progress continues on its present track, as I expect, that wind will likely become a hurricane.
The core of the crisis of our time is that technological progress, which was once industrial society’s principal source of solutions, has become its principal source of problems. It’s not at all hard to see why this should be so. The law of diminishing returns applies just as forcefully to technological innovation as it does to so many other things; as time goes on, on average, each new generation of technology requires more resources, produces more waste, and yields fewer benefits than the ones that came before it. Keep going, and you inevitably get to the point at which the burdens of each new generation of technology outweigh the benefits. A case could be made that industrial society passed that point some years ago.
The difficulty here is that until recently, you couldn’t mention this in public — not without fielding much the same sort of response a child in a dysfunctional family gets if he tries to bring up the double-bind that’s literally driving him insane. As it becomes increasingly common to challenge the equation of progress with improvement, a good many of us may finally be able to have the conversations that let us know that there really is something profoundly tangled going on, and get to the point of shrugging and saying, ‘I guess our society is kind of crazy.’
Our society prides itself on its sense of deep time — its slowly earned recognition of the sheer shattering immensity of the prehuman past. The pride’s not misplaced, but it’s one-sided. A vast number of people today who think they’re comfortable with the abysses of the past turn pale and talk about something else when it comes time to look out on the abysses of the future.
As I’ve suggested, that’s largely driven by the dawning recognition that the future is not going to be anything like the grand upward journey to the stars we thought we were going to get. The thinner the rhetoric of progress has become, and the more obvious it is that the future ahead of us isn’t going to fulfil the promises loaded upon it, the more two-dimensional the collective image of the future has become. At this point it’s simply a placeholder, a cheery and increasingly flimsy image meant to give people something to look at, so they don’t have to notice the future that’s actually looming up in front of us.
Comforting though that placeholder is, I don’t think it’s wise, or for that matter psychologically healthy, to keep staring at it. To the contrary, it’s past time to take down the painted screen that shows people like us living lives like ours in a future that’s still stocked with its familiar quota of t-shirts, energy bars, iPhones, and contemporary chatter, hang it somewhere else as a memento of a departing age, and lift our eyes toward the deep future.
The truism that we can’t actually know anything about the future, like most thoughtstoppers of the same kind, doesn’t happen to be true. Just as an astronomer can observe a newly discovered exoplanet and, after a few observations, predict where it’s going to be found a day, a week, or a thousand years later, enough is known about the behaviour of civilisations, species, and planets to be able to predict with some certainty the trend of events in the deep future.
Among the things that aren’t subject to doubt are certain impossibilities. We’re not going to colonise deep space or the other worlds in the solar system, for example, because the Earth is the only rocky planet this side of Proxima Centauri with a magnetic field strong enough to ward off the streams of hard radiation pouring off the vast unshielded fusion reactor 93 million miles away from us. Space scientists have known about this for decades, and have been trying with an increasing sense of panic to find some way around it, without result; human beings simply didn’t evolve in a high-radiation environment like space, and it’s not a suitable habitat for us.
The grandiose mythic vision of humanity’s future in space, in other words, is going to have to be folded up and put away in whatever museum awaits our society’s dead dreams. It’s popular these days to insist that human beings can accomplish anything they can imagine, but this is another truism that doesn’t happen to be true; anyone who wants to make that claim, it seems to me, is obliged to present the world with a working perpetual motion machine. Some things just aren’t physically possible; some aren’t practically workable; some aren’t economically viable — and those are constraints that our species is going to have to learn to live with for the rest of whatever time-span we have ahead of us.
Then there are the constraints that follow from the choices we’ve already made. Our immediate descendants, for example, are going to inherit a planet stripped of nearly all its fossil fuels and most of its nonrenewable resources, and wracked by a wildly unstable climate. Until the coming thermal maximum peaks and levels off, maybe five centuries from now, we can expect wild swings in rainfall and temperature over most of the planet, and sudden upward surges in sea level — when ice caps break up, as glaciologists have learned in recent decades, much of the melting takes place in massive meltwater pulses that can send sea level up five meters or more in a decade or two. It’s going to be a very rough half millennium, and I don’t imagine it will be any consolation to the survivors to reflect on the fact that we did it to ourselves.
On the far side of the era of climatic chaos, to judge by the evidence from previous greenhouse events and global temperature spikes, the climate will stabilise again, following patterns sharply different from the ones that shape it today. Plants will recover fastest, as they always do after extinction crises, sprouting from buried seeds and spreading in the usual ways from sheltered refugia. The generalist animal species that get through the bottleneck of the current extinction crisis — rats, cats, feral pigs, crows, and many others — will begin expanding into new ecological niches, launching a burst of speciation that will populate the biosphere with a new fauna.
And human beings? We’re also a generalist species, and a highly adaptable one. Even before the industrial revolution, humans spread to every continent except Antarctica, adjusting without too much difficulty to environments as varied as the Arctic tundra, the Sahara desert, the great inland steppes and prairies of the Old and New World, and the island chains of the Pacific. That said, we have a bottleneck to get through, too, and the global population at the bottom of the coming decline will thus likely be only a few per cent of current figures.
Beyond that lies territory that’s rarely been explored, even in the pages of science fiction. I’ve suggested elsewhere that modern industrial society will likely turn out to be merely the first, not to mention the most primitive and wasteful, of a kind of human ecology we can call technic societies — that is to say, societies that get a majority of their energy supply from sources other than human and animal muscle. The technic societies of the deep future won’t have fossil fuels to draw on, but they will have renewable energy resources: sun, wind, water, biomass, and perhaps others that we haven’t though of yet. They won’t have the nonrenewable raw materials we waste so freely, except to the extent that they can extract them for a while from our landfills and ruins, but they will have renewable materials in abundance. The technologies they create using these resources will not be like ours, and will very likely be put to uses we can’t even imagine today.
The technic societies of the future will likely be more geographically restricted than today’s industrial society. Even today there are regions of the planet that are arguably better suited for hunting and gathering, for nomadic herding, and for village agriculture than they are for the kinds of settlement and economy that we’ve imposed on them. In the deep future, that’s likely to be even more true — as true, for example, as it was back at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when fossil fuels still provided a negligible share of the world’s energy. In human terms, the Earth will be a bigger planet than it is today, and far bigger and more diverse than the galactic monocultures so often portrayed by today’s science fiction authors.
The technic societies of the deep future, furthermore, will be no more eternal than our society is turning out to be. Some of them, for that matter, may manage to mess up the planetary biosphere the way we’ve done, and pay something like the same dire cost, though I suspect that our fate will be discussed in hushed tones for centuries to come, and that this may provide a certain degree of immunisation against a repeat. Other societies will rise and fall according to the normal life cycle of civilisations, and to judge by the evidence of history, each of those future societies will be as different from one another as they are from us, exploring realms of human possibility that, again, we can’t even imagine today.
Though we’re not going to the stars, in other words, our species will nonetheless be journeying to worlds stranger than any of our dreams. Instead of travelling through space, humanity has launched itself on a journey through time at the dizzying speed of sixty seconds every minute, and the destinations ahead will more than likely be entirely free of t-shirts, energy bars, iPhones, or the increasingly dreary and dysfunctional conventional wisdom of our age. To me, at least, that’s an enticing prospect; while none of us can expect to see the worlds of deep time that await our species, we are at least free to dream — and perhaps even to take steps to see that as many of the useful legacies of our time make it through the impending crises of our age to the waiting hands of the deep future.