July 19 2008 / by John Heylin / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Social Issues Year: General Rating: 16 Hot
In the field of futures studies, expectations on what the next century holds for us range anywhere from the fantastical to the downright depressing. Some would say having a negative outlook on the future hinders the science of actually progressing towards a better future. Others contend that expecting the incredible will lead to irreparable technological mistakes.
Utopians might argue that if you see the future as doomed, then every decision you make will be influenced by that negative outlook. A perfect example is the pleadings of many scientists and environmentalists for the media to stop portraying global warming as inevitable. Their fear is that if people feel that global warming can’t be stopped, then why care about pollution? Why try and bail out a sinking ship if it’s guaranteed to go down?
On the other side, having a positive outlook on the future also heavily impacts your choices. Utopianism is by far more uplifting (for obvious reasons), but there is harm in it as well. If you have the expectation that humans will invent a cold fusion reactor in the next decade, maybe you’re less likely to conserve energy. Or maybe you’re not concerned about the impact of smoking cigarettes because thirty years from now, you assume there will be a cure for cancer.
In the utopian corner of futures study we find a world where “biotech and nanotech advances eliminated disease and aging,” according to Dick Pelletier of www.positivefuturist.com. In his vision of the future, every human on Earth is not only free of illness, but also lives in an “ageless body powered by enhanced neurons.” This fantastical view he sees as not only entirely possible, but so easily attainable that he estimates all this will be achieved by the year 2030. Raymond Kurzweil, famous futurist and holder of 15 honorary doctorates, calculates that our rate of progress is doubling every decade. Pelletier, although holding seemingly fictional beliefs, might not be too far off the mark. (cont.)
On the other hand, we have movies like Soylent Green, depicting a world where overpopulation, global warming and severe pollution have decimated the United States. The movie stars Charlton Heston as a NY city police detective investigating the death of a rich businessman. In the end (cover your eyes if you haven’t seen the movie), immortalized by the famous line “Soylent Green is people!” Heston discovers that Soylent Green, a food-ration handed out by the government, is made from human corpses. This astounding story was set to take place in the year 2022. Although seemingly unrealistic, it hints at real fears people have about overpopulation and food scarcity.
In reality, a combined negative and positive view is what most futurists adhere to. Jamais Cascio, a popular futures blogger at www.openthefuture.com, believes having just one view is a faulty way of thinking about the future. “Dystopianism and utopianism are poor filters for understanding what’s coming down the road,” he explains. If you adhere to these extreme views, “good things get ignored by dystopians, [while] complexities get ignored by utopians.” So in other words, if one has an extremely negative or positive view of the future, chances are their view is flawed.
John Smart of the Acceleration Studies Foundation also believes that what you deem as progress also depends on what your vision of the future holds. “Whether expected change is dystopian or utopian depends on your foresight framework.” So even though a city maintained and run by robots is for many a utopian view, the lower class that makes up most of our physical workforce would see this as a final coup de grace.
The most likely possibility is that the future will be an average of everyone’s combined views. A perfect example of this would be the famous 1906 ox-guessing experiment done by Sir Francis Galton. Although none of the participants in this experiment could guess the correct weight of the ox, the average of all the guesses was only a pound off. In a way, we’re all individually wrong about the future, but together we’re all right.
In the end there is but one conclusion – in order to properly think about the future, one must have a balance of both the utopian view as well as a dystopian view to get the best picture. There will always be utopians like Dick Pelletier who hold hopes that by 2040 we will all be living in a perfect world, free of disease and even death. Similarly, there will always be people like Alan Moore of Watchmen fame who belong at the opposite end of the spectrum. Is this a bad thing? I think not. In the words of Alvis Brigis in his article titled Positive vs. Negative Futures, “Whether you find yourself on the dark or bright side of futurism, what matters most is that you bring your A-game.”
Note: Those interested in this topic might want to attend the NYC Future Salon concerning these same themes.