“The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”
— William Gibson
I used to love that old science fiction where the future looked bright, with plenty of gadgets to take the edge off the daily grind. There would be lots of food and clothes and weird hairstyles. Technology would make human life better. Less hard labor. More android servants. Leisure time for exploration, for reading massive electronic books, or enjoying music, or immersing yourself in virtual realities. For walking in strange landscapes, eating on couches and making luxurious love.
Well, here we are. Where’s that future?
It isn’t shaping up to come any time soon. Let’s have a look, shall we?
Robotics has transformed manufacturing forever. Robotic arms and automated machines can do more work with greater accuracy and less supervision. Less man hours translates to more leisure, right? That’s what some golden age SF promised us. After all, the more the machines do, the less we have to. Why hasn’t it worked out? Here in the USA at least, people work more and harder than ever. Longer hours, more frenetic pace, less time or interest left for leisure pursuits, including reading, but also what one writer once termed “gourmet sex.” Surely if we could, we would make time for that!
For many of us — single-parent households, two-income households, folks working two or more low-wage jobs — housework is harder than ever to get done. Robots could (and for some lucky few do) take the edge off. But if you lack time because you’re working too much, you also probably still use hand-pushed vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, and other contraptions that increase the time and energy we all spend trying to maintain our lives. Why don’t we have these tasks automated yet? Why no robotic servants? The technology is there, and surely the will also. (My wife has salivated over these since I’ve known her.)
Robots aside, the technology exists to radically reorganize how we go about everyday tasks like ordering food and studying grammar. Some of the lag is due to inertia, but more yet to the fact that too many don’t have access to the resources, the tech, to plug into such a system. If you’re McDonald’s, you can’t dispense with the drive-thru by working up a smartphone model. Too many of your customers can’t do it. If you’re an educator, you can’t rely on virtual methods of instruction. The kids who struggle to learn tend also to lack the means. (Don’t believe me? Here’s just one example.)
Before you tune me out: I’m not blaming the poor for our lack of progress. If anything, it’s the other way around: some are hoarding the technology, or at least the means to procure it. But that’s not my point either. What I’m getting at is simply this: science fiction of a bygone age led us to believe that as technology and the capacity for leisure advanced, so would our lives. The genre imagined a future after scarcity. They didn’t foresee that old drives and old assumptions about work and the value of labor would not keep pace with technological progress.
They didn’t realize we humans did not want leisure, couldn’t live with the possibility of leisure. Our work ethic that had brought us to this point would not permit us to enjoy it, once attained.
We are, in a word, a culture that mimics the careers of hugely successful upstarts, who can’t shed the workaholic habits that gave them success. We are a species of nouveau riche. Only most of us don’t reap the benefits of this creation of wealth.
Science fiction, disillusioned with our failure to live up to a better ideal, has largely turned the genre onto a pessimistic vein. This we see especially in film, but not only there. Social stratification and radical injustice is imagined now far into the future (the trope goes back to Wells’ The Time Machine). Technology is now more often conceived as weaponry or, at best, the transformation of the human body in a desperate attempt to either survive or express some impotent rage at the corporate universe.
It doesn’t take much more imagination — just a bigger optimism — to conceive our present world forward into something much better. Yes, SF can be and often is rightly cautionary. And yet if SF as art does not dream of better futures, too, who will? Our CEOs? Minimum wage earners? I hope so, but don’t hold out much hope.
No. However soothing pessimism about the future may be, however much it cautions us about the road we’re taking, I doubt me that it will change much. People need a future to imagine, a better future that gives hope, and courage that making a change just might be possible.
I’m for that kind of science fiction. What about you?