Daily Archives: February 5, 2010

The future isn’t what it used to be

My dad was kind of a handy, do-it-yourself kind of guy. I might add that the DIY bits of him somehow didn’t get into my DNA very effectively because I, even though I might have been crafty at weak moments, have never been terribly handy.

But, Dad had a workshop, and bits of estorica like a lathe, a bandsaw, even an electric planing machine and more screwdrivers and chisels than any sane human being should ever want.

In light of his interests, Dad also had a plethora of handy-guy literature in the form of magazines like Popular Mechanics, and Mechanics Illustrated. And, as unhandy as I was, I liked the mags, especially chapters devoted to predictions for the future with articles like: “You’ll live under the sea by 1974,” or “Fly to your home on Mars by the end of the century.” Great stuff, for me. I was in my science fiction mode at about the age of 12 (it left by the time I was around 14, hormones took charge and Mickey Spillane and other bitsd of smut began to serve my wants and needs a little better) and was enraptured by tales of what the future might bring.

It has been to my considerable disappointment that the future didn’t turn out in the way the magazine prophets envisaged. It didn’t resemble a society in which robots would tend to all our wants and needs (even ‘those’ ones, if you’re familiar with Blade Runner). We are not exploring inner, let alone outerspace. We made a manned trip to the moon – exciting enough in itself at the time – and sent a couple of sophisticated dune buggies to Mars, and that’s been about it. The early prophets never told us how expensive this stuff would be, and since we can’t even cough up enough to handle our mortgages on a grand scale, then sojourns to Jupiter are pretty much out-of-the-question.

I mean, we could live under the sea in light of today’s technology, I suppose, but why would we want to. A visit to the beach is one thing, and I personally love snorkeling, but I tend to hanker after dry land after a frolic with the fishes 

In context of future societies, we even got it wrong in terms of imagined societies. This sort of thing goes back to Thomas More with Utopia, but all that famous martyr (not smart to naysay Henry VIII) managed was an idealized society in which everybody behaved in a certain manner. Aldous Huxley considered the same with Brave New World, but that involved a devotion to genetic engineering, which is a little too Nazi for most decent folk. So, we continue to put up with the putzes and idiots that prevail rather than trying to create super-races that could dominate a stratified society.

I was, and am, a considerable fan of the writings of George Orwell, and his 1984 is considered the byword of doom-and-gloom prophesying. Albeit the book is a metaphor for Orwell’s own time, he still foretold of a society in which thuggish totalitarians had complete control over everybody’s life from meal to bowel movement, and everything in between.

The only problem I have with this is that Orwell gave humans too much credit for intelligence and efficiency. Quite frankly, I think we’re too stupid and flawed to bring this about, which is why no regime based on terror ultimately survives. Actually, I think it speaks well of us that we are rather incompetent and flawed.

But, think of the great dictatorships thus far. Hitler and Stalin were ultimately destroyed by their egos and shortsightedness. The Soviet Union couldn’t hold the centre together and ultimately had to fold. Saddam Hussein was a hubristic moron more in the context of Khaddafi than Hitler. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is a buffoon. A dangerous one to be sure, but there have been many before him, and many to follow.

In the more enlightened western world with all it’s much-hyped democracies (in name at least) we continue to suffer through inept, and often remarkably dumb leadership of the sort that can’t figure its way out of the current economic mess we’re in anymore than they noticed that we were heading into it in the first place.

The person who came closest to presenting a future world much in the way it will be was Terry Gilliam with his brilliant satire Brazil. You know, a society with all sorts of technical innovation, much as we have, but nothing works in quite the way it should. That happened because Gilliam was sharp enough to factor in the human element.

I don’t mean this to be a cynical screed at all. We’re doing what we can, often badly, often corruptly, sometimes in a terrifying manner, but that’s because of who we are, and that’s what will save us from future Utopias. Anyway, Utopias aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.