A few months after the turn of the millennium, in early 2000, comedian Bob Downe was doing a routine about the future, the crux of it being that just like the Y2K Bug, the future was already turning out to be a bit of a fizzer. After all, weren’t we all meant to be living in the contented lap of luxury by now, in a sort of hi-tech heaven, having all our meals lovingly prepared by gadgets and being flown to work in robot cars (only wasn’t work meant to be a thing of the past anyway, with our every need and whim attended to by machines?) Instead, the world of the 21st Century was much the same as it had always been... we drove cars along roads and sometimes still crashed and people got injured, and people still got sick and went hungry, and they pretty well all still hated their relatives, and everyone worked, in fact even longer hours than they had a few decades before. The future? Well, pretty much like the past. With gadgets.
Certainly the world of 2000 had not turned out to be quite the world envisioned by the Futurists, the artistic movement founded in Italy by Filippo Marinetti in the years before World War I. Similar to the Dadaists who would soon follow, they saw the old world of Europe as decadent, and wished to sweep it all away in a wave of the new. The Futurists were techophiles who welcomed the gleaming bright world of tomorrow with its huge cities, vehicles and aircraft, and were repelled by the stodgy world that still was. The movement spawned painting, sculpture, architectural plans, even music, but was largely bypassed by Modernism, while Marinetti and other members were absorbed into the Fascist Party of Benito Mussolini. Well, he liked big things too, largely statues of himself.
Artist's impression of future city
While much of what the Futurists might have dreamed of and wished for has come to pass, in our hi-tech world of today, they and the others who have traded in futures, the science fiction writers of the 20th century, might have been a tad disappointed by the world of now. Unless that is they see themed megamalltowns as the great leap forward.
While we have had no wars of the worlds or invented no time machines, and starship cruisers remain the stuff of gung-ho space operas, Arthur C. Clarke’s dream of communications satellites orbiting the earth did come true. But in the real 2001, there was no manned journey far into the solar system: indeed, we don't know when we might reach out with manned space flight even as far as Mars. Instead, the year 2001 was indelibly marked by an act of an Old Testament kind, of cunning and ruthless brutality.
And while members of the online community might be able to create entire “second lives” for themselves, these bear little resemblance to that envisioned by Philip K. Dick in his classic story The Days of Perky Pat, in which offworlders sought escape from their miserable existence as miners marooned far from earth through a combination of toys and drugs that made them believe they were living perfect lives in the perfect 50s America of Eisenhower. (Trivia question: What is the name of Perky Pat's boyfriend? Answer at the end of the magazine.)
Fritz Lang, in his classic film Metropolis (1927) also foresaw something old in the new, a class struggle over the fruits of automation, climaxing in revolution. That we are yet to see, as well.
Perhaps one of the most acute of sci-fi authors was Olaf Satapledon, whose Last And First Men of 1930 did accurately predict not just the world war to come, but the "Americanised Planet" of the 21stC, and the rivalry between the US and China. But even Stapledon failed to imagine the impact of computers on our everyday life eight decades after his. Instead, many visions for the future concentrated on innovations which no-one has really bothered with, such as the "automated lunch room".
So what really has changed, then? What has actually come to pass in the future dimly glimpsed by the Futurists and three generations of sci-fi writers?
The world wide web is definitively changing the way we communicate, organise and agitate, spend time with friends, conduct business and commerce, and a host of other things. It may even be changing our consciousness in ways we are not yet aware of, as we all engage in an ever more consuming and intimate relationship with our arrays of increasingly intelligent machines.
There may even be, too, a convergence we cannot quite glimpse yet, between the global linkage of computers that the web allows, and the so-called artificial intelligence of computers, growing by the hour. The question is, how artificial? After all, machine intelligence is modelled on our own. And if you discount, as many do, any supernatural “soul” aspect of our being, what are we but autonomic intelligent machines made from carbon and other compounds, doing our daily reptititive routine procedures, and in the knowledge that all will be voided when our capacity to repair and renew ourselves is overwhelmed by our own little quotient of entropy, in what we know as “death”.
Besides the possibilities glimpsed through newtworked computer communication, the other glittering horizon, but one we look upon with a roughly equal amount of fear as of hope, is genetic modification. Through various gene technologies, humanity now possesses the ability to change the fundamental “operating systems” of living organisms, from plants through the animal world, right up to and including ourselves. And while at present we teeter on the brink of re-making ourselves, there can be little doubt that sooner or later we will begin the process. What changes will we make? What attributes will we see as worthy? Will our daughters all end up looking like the women from Baywatch, and our sons like Roger Ramjet? Or will we opt for ways to increase our brain size, and work out how to use it more efficiently than we do now? Both, and far more, probably. Will we find a way to increase our useful lifespan beyond the current three score and ten, after which nearly all of us are either dying or as good as dead? Certainly. And lastly, in search of turning ourselves into supermen and women, will we expose some fatal flaw in our own reasoning or fuctioning, and end up with a world of monsters such as the one created by Frankenstein? Possibly.
While all of these questions confront us with our newly acquired godlike capabilities, there are others of an old brain kind, to do with greed and killing over scarce resources, which will confront us at the very same time. Fossil fuels, food, water, minerals, all are expected to become in rapidly increasingly scarce supply in the coming years and decades, and so just at the moment when humanity possesses the means to remake itself and its world in a better way, it could just as easily destroy itself by inaction over global warming and climate destablisation, and in conflicts over resources. And as of the mid last century, we happen to possess the gun we aim at our own racial temple, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and our finger sweats.
The future? We might not even have one. But we may, and it may just be far better than the past for the mass of humanity. Or, as with our history to date, it may be a lot better for a few, and a little better, by degrees, for the rest. That, or the void, seem the options in these times that one must say at the least are nothing less than interesting. Whatever the case, the getting up in the morning, and the belief to go in with life another day, in pursuit of whatever it is that motivates us to do so, be that money, prestige, sex, or a holiday in the Maldives, makes all of us Future-ists of one kind or another: people who believe in life strongly enough to go forth, even boldly.
-Larry Buttrose, Editor, GROUP 7
IN THIS ISSUE
Mandy Salomon contemplates second lives
Jack Feldstein treats us to another of his wonderful neon animations, this one a view of the last days, Ex Oblivione, by H.P. Lovecraft
John Birmingham peers into the cloudy glass ball of the mainstream media
James Bradley considers the Hugos and introduces us to "steampunk retro-futurism" and reads William Gibson's Zero History
Angela Sidoti on present and future meat
Martin Kovan invites us in to his "briefly Borgesian neo-eco thought bubble", The Theatre of Returns
Kavita Jindal visits the London of 2021
Brendan Doyle picks at tea and raisin toast packing heat with an SS99
Rob Walker masticates and expectorates GM food
J.R. McRae meditates upon Changelings
and lastly, the eternal dangers of social media
Answer to trivia question: Perky Pat's boyfriend is Walt.
Great variety! Meat and the other world meets at the interstate interchange.ReplyDelete
Thanks for your comment, and glad you enjoyed it.ReplyDelete